1931-04-15

SALLY MILLER GEARHART was an American teacher, feminist, science-fiction writer, and political activist born on this dat (d: 2021). In 1973, she became the first open lesbian to obtain a tenure-track faculty position when she was hired by San Francisco State University, where she helped establish one of the first women and gender study programs in the country. She later became a nationally known gay rights activist. Sally Miller Gearhart was born in Pearisburg, Virginia, to Sarah Miller Gearhart and Kyle Montague Gearhart. Her mother was a secretary, and her father was a dentist. 

Gearhart began teaching speech and theater at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and later moved to Texas Lutheran College (now University) in Seguin, Texas. In both positions, Gearhart lived in the closet and hid her true sexual identity to fit with the culture of the schools. As a professor, she was incredibly popular and sought-after, but her personal life was full of the struggles of living in the closet. She found herself subject to blackmail attempts, and as a result, she publicly denied her sexuality.

In 1969, Gearhart followed a lover to Kansas. The following year, she moved to San Francisco with no plan aside from her determination to live openly as a lesbian.

By 1973, Gearhart was employed at San Francisco State University, where she went from teaching speech to teaching women’s studies. There, she was able to develop one of the first women and gender studies programs in the United States. With her help, the university was the first to develop a course dealing with sex roles and communications. She continued at San Francisco State University until her retirement in 1992.

After Gearhart received tenure from San Francisco State, she became politically active, fighting in particular for radical feminist causes.[3]

In 1978, Gearhart fought alongside Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay politicians in the U.S., to defeat California Proposition 6, known as the “Briggs Initiative“.[6] Gearhart famously debated John Briggs, attacking the initiative to ban homosexuals from academic positions in public schools.[3][7] A clip of the debate appeared in the documentary film The Times of Harvey Milk, which also included Gearhart talking about working with Milk against Proposition 6, and reactions in San Francisco in the aftermath of Milk’s assassination.[8]

In the mid-1970s, Gearhart was co-chair of The Council On Religion And The Homosexual. This organization offered a variety of speaking events and literature to educate followers on the Judeo-Christian tradition. It also educated legislators about the lifestyles of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

While living in San Francisco, Gearhart began writing feminist science-fiction novels and short stories that highlighted her utopian ideals for a wider lesbian audience. In 1978, her most famous novel, The Wanderground, was published, exploring themes of ecofeminism and lesbian separatism. She wrote two books as part of the Earthkeep trilogy, The Kanshou, published in 2002, and The Magister, published in 2003. Both stories explore a dystopian world where women outnumber men, and humans are the only beings on the planet.

In 1976, Gearhart co-wrote A Feminist Tarot with Susan Rennie. It was published by Persephone Press and used conventional Rider Waite Smith imagery. This book was one of several tarot divination books on the market attempting to find alternative meanings within the symbology, the most famous of which is probably Motherpeace. Unusual for a work of feminist spirituality at a time of goddess worship, this book reinterpreted and subverted the stated meanings of the Rider Waite Smith deck.

She also co-wrote a book entitled Loving Women/Loving Men: Gay Liberation and the Church, which was aimed at the conservative Christian churches and communities that barred homosexuals from fellowship. While never fully embracing the Christian faith, Gearhart did acknowledge the parts of it that were meaningful for her own ideals. She once stated that “love is the universal truth lying at the heart of all creation.”

In her early career, Gearhart took part in a series of seminars at San Francisco State University, where feminist scholars were critically discussing issues of rape, slavery, and the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Gearhart outlines a three-step proposal for female-led social change from her essay, “The Future–-If There Is One–-is Female”:

I) Every culture must begin to affirm a female future.

II) Species responsibility must be returned to women in every culture.
III) The proportion of men must be reduced to and maintained at approximately 10% of the human race.

Gearhart did not base this radical proposal on the idea that men are innately violent or oppressive, but rather on the “real danger is in the phenomenon of male-bonding, that commitment of groups of men to each other whether in an army, a gang, a service club, a lodge, a monastic order, a corporation, or a competitive sport.” Gearhart identified the self-perpetuating, male-exclusive reinforcement of power within these groups as corrosive to female-led social change. Thus, if “men were reduced in number, the threat would not be so great and the placement of species responsibility with the female would be assured.” Gearhart, a dedicated pacifist, recognized that this kind of change could not be achieved through mass violence. On the critical question of how women could achieve this, Gearhart argued that it is by women’s own capacity for reproduction that the ratio of men to women can be changed though the technologies of cloning or ovular merging, both of which would only produce female births. She argued that as women take advantage of these reproductive technologies, the sex ratio would change over generations.

Gearhart knew from the age of ten that she would have no children, and in college, discovered that she was a lesbian. She read lesbian novels but destroyed them early in her career as she did not want her sexual identity revealed. Her partner was Jane Gurko, a fellow professor at San Francisco State University, until the latter’s death in 2010.

Gearhart spent her later years in Willits, California, before moving to a care home in nearby Ukiah, California. After a long illness, she died in Ukiah on July 14, 2021, at the age of 90.