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Sally Gearhart, Veteran Activist and Academic, Dead at 90

Sally Miller Gearhart
Photo from the upcoming documentary 'Sally'

Gearhart was the first out lesbian to have a tenure-track position at San Francisco State University and a campaigner against California's antigay Briggs Initiative.

Longtime activist, educator, and author Sally Miller Gearhart, known for her work against California's antigay Briggs Initiative and much more, has died at age 90.

Gearhart died Wednesday, according to The Bay Area Reporter, citing an email sent by her friend Jean Crosby. Gearhart had been in poor health for several years and had recently moved from her home in Willits, Calif., to a care facility in nearby Ukiah.

Gearhart, a Virginia native, taught for many years at San Francisco State University, where in 1973 she became the first out lesbian to be named to a tenure-track position (at the school and, apparently, in the nation). At SF State, she established one of the first women's and gender studies programs in the nation. She was an author of feminist science fiction as well.

In 1978 she campaigned against California's Proposition 6, a ballot measure that would have barred gays and lesbians from teaching in the state's public schools. It was dubbed the Briggs Initiative for its author, state Sen. John Briggs. She joined Harvey Milk in debating Briggs; a clip of the debate was included in the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. Voters ended up rejecting the initiative.

"Harvey Milk and I did wonderful things together. We looked like mom and pop," she said in the 2018 short documentary A Great Ride, from filmmakers Deborah Craig and Veronica Deliz. The film focused on the all-female community, Women's Land, that Gearhart created in Willits.

Gearhart appeared in another doc, 1993's Last Call at Maud's, about a famed San Francisco lesbian bar, and a feature-length documentary centering on her is in production. Craig is the director of Sally, which recently received a California Humanities grant.

"Hopefully we can make a great American story of transformation," Craig told the Reporter. "She was this small-town Southern girl and becomes a character and leader and icon. A lot of people, women especially, felt she hasn't gotten her due. She was written out of the Milk film [the 2008 narrative film starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk]. I try not to pass judgment, but that is what happened."

She was portrayed in another dramatized project, the 2017 TV miniseries When We Rise, in which she was played by Carrie Preston.

Among her other activities, in the 1970s Gearhart was cochair of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, which educated people about LGBTQ+ issues in Judeo-Christian faiths. In 2016 she was honored for her achievements with the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee's Heritage of Pride, Pride Freedom Award.

"Losing Sally is like a huge tree falling," her friend Ruth Mahaney said in a post on the GLBT Historical Society's Facebook page. "She was very tall, and she was so important in the world."

"Sally's contributions to LGBTQ history and culture were immeasurable," GLBT Historical Society Executive Director Terry Beswick said in the same post. "She was a courageous fighter for equality at a time when it made an indelible difference then and now. So many people do not know her story, and I'm so glad that there is a documentary in the works to honor this unsung hero."

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