Sally: The Interview
Sally Miller Gearhart was born in Pearisburg, Virginia, in 1931 and joked that she was brought up to be a “good southern girl.” She attended Sweet Briar College in Virginia, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English and drama in 1952. She then earned a master’s degree in theatre and public address at Bowling Green State University in Ohio in 1953 and a Ph.D. in theatre at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1956. Gearhart taught in Texas during the 1950s and 1960s, first at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches and later at Texas Lutheran College in Seguin. She left Texas in the late 1960s, fleeing conformity and the closet, and landed in 1970 in San Francisco, where she became an influential leader in the LGBT community.
Among other things, Sally helped co-found the Women Studies Department at San Francisco State University in the early 1970s (one of the first in the nation), appeared in the groundbreaking film Word Is Out (1977), and fought the anti-LGBT Briggs Initiative side-by-side with San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk (1978). (This initiative aimed to ban LGBT people from working in California public schools.) Besides being a charismatic activist and life-changing teacher, Sally was a powerful writer who explored topics ranging from religion and rhetoric to feminism and more. One of her most well-known works was a fantasy novel, The Wanderground, which imagined a female-centric utopia (1978).
Sally retired from San Francisco State University in the early 1990s and spent the last several decades of her life on a women’s land community in northern California. There she continued to write, fight for environmental and animal rights causes, and befriend animals, trees, and neighbors regardless of their gender identity, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. Sally Gearhart died in her beloved community in the summer of 2021.
Documentary filmmaker Deborah Craig is currently working on Sally, a film-in-progress about Sally Gearhart that is scheduled for completion in 2024. The following interview was conducted in 2023 via email with historian Julie R. Enszer.
Julie R. Enszer (JRE): Deborah, I am so excited about this documentary project you are doing on Sally Miller Gearhart. Her life was so rich and complex; it will be exciting to see you bring her and her stories to the screen. I understand that you met Sally while working on another film about lesbians and aging. What were your first impressions of Sally? What made her an interesting subject for you?
Deborah Craig (DC): I met Sally completely by happenstance—I guess you could call it a happy accident. I didn’t know that she was “the” Sally Gearhart. Instead, I was just told that she was an octogenarian living on women’s land and still cutting her own firewood with a chainsaw. So, of course, I rushed up to see this for myself! That visual seemed perfect for a film exploring some of the positive sides of aging as a lesbian.
My first impressions of Sally were that she was warm, welcoming, smart, funny, and very energetic. Initially, I just went to meet her; I didn’t film until the next visit. I was lucky enough to stay at the house just down the road from her—called Terpsichore (after the Greek muse of dance and poetry). Sally came over in the evening and we talked for hours. Frankly ‘til I was exhausted, but she was ready to keep going. She was so curious about the project and about me as well. Then on the next visit I came with a camerawoman and soundwoman. Again, we stayed right down the way from Sally and spent many hours with her each day for a few days. We were decades younger than her and still scrambled to keep up. She walked us to the pond, drove us around the land (not always necessarily on a road!), told stories about her youth and her glory days, and reflected on some of the joys and the challenges of aging. She was so generous with her time, her hospitality, and her insights.
Sally was a fantastic subject for so many reasons. She was charismatic—a performer really. She had a background in theatre and communication, and a beautiful deep rich smoker’s voice with a southern inflection. But she was also down to earth—very approachable, eager to help, and self-deprecating too. What’s more, she had been in the thick of things at some key periods of time, in particular the lesbian feminist movement in San Francisco in the 70s and 80s. For my earlier film on aging (A Great Ride) I was particularly interested in the types of communities women were creating for themselves. So I was looking at LGBTQ or LGBTQ-friendly retirement communities, at women’s RV’ing clubs, and also at women’s land communities. I wanted to see how these groups could support women in aging, especially women who might not have children or biological families of their own.
JRE: It is clear from the short clip about the movie that you shared with me that Sally was a serious storyteller—and that she shared her stories with everyone who would listen. I imagine Sally as a character who was in control of her own narrative arc. How does that influence your work as a filmmaker telling a story of her life?
DC: Sally certainly was a wonderful storyteller. And we feel very fortunate to have been able to record so many of her stories. In some senses, there’s a Sally mythology. Her southern upbringing in small town Virginia, where she lived primarily with her grandmother in a largely female-centric world. Her experience at Sweet Briar women’s college in Virginia, where she discovered theatre and met her first woman lover. Her highly closeted teaching career in Texas, where she was a wildly popular professor (“Dr. Sally”) yet was threatened with blackmail for being a lesbian. Her role fighting the anti-gay Briggs Initiative and co-founding the SF State Women Studies department in the 1970s. And more…..
At the same time, our job as filmmakers is to peer beneath the surface of these narratives. Sally was a gifted performer, but sometimes we had to wait for her to stop performing so we could explore different facets of her story. What’s more, she told her stories and they’ve been retold and repeated, so we sometimes hear different versions from different people. So there’s the challenge: which version is on the money? More importantly, we hear very different stories about Sally from the various people in her life and they don’t always converge. Was she written out of the “Milk” film or did she withdraw from public life of her own choosing? Was she contented in her final years on the land or was her women’s land community gradually crumbling to her dismay? Was she a devoted, supportive teacher and a good listener, or a heartbreaker and a narcissist? There are many questions about Sally that don’t have easy answers, so we try to listen to everyone carefully and navigate the landscape with caution, open-mindedness, and respect.
JRE: In the journal I edit, Sinister Wisdom, Lani Ka’ahumanu wrote a moving remembrance of Sally who was a mentor to her. The piece uncovers many delightful moments in Sally’s life, including her sexy humor, which seems to have endured throughout her life, and it also captures her continuing commitment to vision and re-vision. In the 1990s, Lani and Sally shared an email exchange about being stuck in their work. Sally wrote, “I know the new way is just a whisper away.” That belief in a “new way” feels emblematic to me of many of the lesbian-feminists like Sally working during the women’s liberation movement, and it gestures to Sally’s marvelous novel The Wanderground. (I certainly hope the occasion of your film might prompt a re-issue and re-appraisal of her wonderful book.) What in your assessment are the lasting contributions of Sally’s work?
DC: This is a big question! And such a critical one, too. Cynthia Secor, a good friend of Sally’s and a brilliant woman in her own right, said she hoped our film was not simply “corrective,” and it’s not. In other words, it’s not just about Sally’s accomplishments back in the day—although there were many of them, which we’ll cover in the first act of the film. We’re also aiming to tell a “collective” story. In the second act, we’ll show that Sally’s successes wouldn’t have been possible without the other brilliant women in her life—including Cynthia, Adrian Tinsley, Dorothy Haecker, Jane Gurko (Terpsichore was her home), Jean Crosby, and more. But ultimately, we hope in the third act of the film to bring everything around to the present—to show how Sally’s work is profoundly relevant right at this moment.
In The Wanderground and several of her other works, Sally was a visionary, imagining a better world. And we can’t move forward without having someone playing that role. As an example, somebody had to envision that women would be allowed to vote before people could fight for the vote for women. Someone had to imagine that queer people could live openly before we could begin that struggle. Sally both homed in on some of the existential challenges we face—violence against women and environmental devastation—and imagined a better world where we’re breaking free of those scourges. She was writing about environmental devastation even before the phrase “climate change” was in common use, and was so deeply concerned about violence that she explored not just physical violence but also the potential violence from rhetoric. So in these times—with the planet simultaneously flooding and on fire, and with violence against women, trans folks, and other vulnerable groups somehow back to being socially acceptable in many circles—we urgently need to learn from Sally. Her example can guide us in battling for our rights with courage, ferocity, intelligence, fearlessness, but also with humor and love. Her example can show us that it’s OK to change your mind, to try to understand rather than to vilify those you disagree with, and to delight in our own contradictions and human frailties.
JRE: One of the challenges that I imagine you are thinking about is how to make real on the screen the palpable risks that gay men, lesbians, bisexual, and trans people faced coming out and living out during Sally’s life, particularly the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Those realities can feel so remote from our lives today. How will the film share those emotional and political experiences?
DC: Well, when we started the film in 2018, those realities did indeed feel remote. But with anti-trans bills and book bans currently sweeping the country, it’s frightening how much we seem to be backsliding. Still, I do think it’s shocking to many young queer folks that there was a time when you could not live openly as your true self, and risked your job and even your life if you were discovered. My previous film just looked at the end of Sally’s life, but in this film we’ll cover her whole life’s trajectory. We actually traveled to Texas and Virginia to get a sense of her past and really show where she came from and what a transformation she underwent. Sally grew up in a very conservative small town in Virginia called Pearisburg, went to church regularly, knew the bible through and through, and taught in Christian colleges in Texas for many years. Although she had discovered her lesbianism in college at Sweet Briar, she hid deep in the closet—wearing high heels, skirts, lipstick and pearls and really playing the part. Then while teaching in Texas Sally was threatened with blackmail for being a lesbian. She eventually decided to leave her tenured position, where she was an extremely popular teacher, and essentially leap into the unknown, leaving for San Francisco with only a few acquaintances there and no job lined up. Sally was born in 1931 but didn’t come out publicly until she came to San Francisco in the very early 70s, when she was 40 years old. It wasn’t safe before then. We hope not just to recount those details but to give a visceral feeling for the fear and real danger in those times.
In addition, we want to show that Sally really came out twice: once as a lesbian and a second time as a feminist. Before leaving Texas Sally was a Christian and was either conservative or not particularly political. But when she arrived in San Francisco she came out with a bang. (She loved to say “I’d walk up and down the streets of San Francisco and say ‘Hi my name is Sally Gearhart and I’m a lesbian.’”) So being able to be an open lesbian, and to come into her own as an activist too, was an exhilarating and liberating experience. Many of the women we interviewed talked about the 70s as a time when “the world broke open.” We want to show it as a time of great fear but also of immense transformation and excitement.
JRE: Sally Gearhart is a protean character. From her wildly successful novel The Wanderground to her beloved teaching at San Francisco State University, from her partnership with Harvey Milk to oppose Proposition 6, popularly known as the Briggs Amendment, to her lesbian separatism in the land community, Sally was, like many revolutionary visionaries, filled with complexities and contradictions. How are you navigating the challenges of presenting this richness in the film?
DC: I’m so glad you asked this question. I met Sally in 2014 and feel as though I’m still trying to get to know her. She was a teacher, an activist, a preacher, a musician, a fantasy author, and more. She wrote about religion, about communications, feminism, tarot, animal rights, activism, and so on. She truly was a Renaissance woman with endless curiosity that didn’t appear to subside. Even though she’s gone (she died in the summer of 2021), it seems as though there’s always something new around the corner to discover about Sally. That’s why she’s such a fascinating subject: Because nothing is ever simple and sometimes things don’t even appear to make sense. For instance, she was a lesbian separatist who said we should reduce men to 10% of the population—but then always had many men friends in her life! And Sally knew about her own complexities and contradictions and was OK with them and even tongue in cheek about them. In one of her later fantasy novels, The Kanshou, the blurb about Sally reads “[she] lives on a mountain of contradictions with many cats and a blue-tick coon hound in a Mendocino county women’s community.” This complexity is a filmmaking challenge but also such a golden opportunity to make a piece that doesn’t oversimplify and doesn’t offer up easy answers. My team and I often describe our approach as “peeling away the layers of the onion,” because there’s always another layer and it might turn up something tantalizingly different.
JRE: When can we expect the completed film? What milestones are next?
DC: Film can be overwhelming and is time consuming, too. So our deadline has been pushed back repeatedly and, like virtually all other filmmakers, our schedule got thoroughly scrambled and set back by COVID. (Most of our interviewees are older and vulnerable.) But we’re in post-production now and have almost a full rough cut of the film. With fingers and toes crossed, we hope to apply to festivals in the fall and to complete the film sometime in 2024.
Still, there are many milestones ahead. We need to finish and get feedback on our rough cut. (We have some amazing and talented filmmakers and academic advisors on board.) We may need to do a few pick-up interviews to fill in missing “puzzle pieces” in the story. We’re working with a composer and will need to complete the music and get rights to some other music we really hope to use—such as the wonderful and hilarious “Leaping Lesbians” by Sue Fink. We’re using massive amounts of archival photos and footage and need to secure the rights to all of those works. We just brought on board a young and very talented animator because we hope to animate a few select passages from The Wanderground as transition elements. And of course we’re always fundraising because film is expensive and for some unfathomable reason Hollywood producers aren’t banging down my door to give us pots of cash for a film about a radical lesbian feminist. I try to channel Sally: to see it all as a big adventure, not a chore, and to assume we’ll find our way even though we may be driving a bumpy path in the woods and not a designated road.
Deborah Craig is an award-winning documentary director and producer whose films use compelling personal stories to raise awareness about the challenges and strengths of underrepresented communities. Her work has played at LGBTQ+, women’s, and documentary film festivals in the United States and internationally. Deborah’s most recent short, A Great Ride, a 33-minute documentary about lesbians and aging, premiered at the Frameline LGBTQ+ Film Festival in San Francisco in 2018, was picked up for distribution by Frameline, has screened at over 50 film festivals around the globe, and has won multiple awards. Sally will be her first feature-length documentary. Deborah has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, did undergraduate work in photography at California College of the Arts, and has a Master of Public Health from San Francisco State University, where she currently teaches in the Public Health Department. To learn more about the Sally film, see https://www.documentaries.org/films/sally/
Julie R. Enszer is an Instructional Assistant Professor at the University of Mississippi. She is the editor and publisher of Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and arts journal, and is completing her book manuscript A Fine Bind: Lesbian-Feminist Publishers from 1969 through 2009.