On the Job
Copyright ©1987 Arthur S. Lazere
Note: This article was published
in independent lesbian and gay newspapers across the United States in 1987.
Professors: Gays and Lesbians in Academia
One of a Series - Sally Gearhart, Speech/Women's
By Arthur Lazere
The first time Sally Gearhart
made love to another woman, she was 19 and the other woman was her college
roommate. "I thought I just happened to love a woman," she says.
Three years later, Gearhart remembers, her second affair occurred.
"She called me a Sapphic.
"I said, 'A what?'
"She said, 'A Sapphic.'
"Now, I had been through
Sweetbriar College with its classical education. They taught me all about
the lyric poets of the sixth century, B.C., and they taught me about Sappho.
But never had they mentioned that she was a woman-lover. So when this woman
called me a Sapphic, I said, 'What do you mean? You want me to be a lyric
"She said, 'No - you're
"I said, 'What's a
lesbian?' This was my second lover. I was 22 years old and I was just finding
out what to call myself. I had never heard the terms...I had no idea that
people who loved the same sex existed. Nuts!"
Gearhart, now 55, is
familiar to many from her appearance in the 1978 documentary film, Word
is Out. Her ability to articulate the lesbian/feminist experience
with warmth, humor, and conviction won her many admirers.
She also received wide
exposure as Harvey Milk's partner in debating state Senator John Briggs.
(Briggs' 1978 ballot initiative, Propostion 6, was a blatant attempt to
force lesbian and gay teachers out of California schools. It was soundly
Gearhart, openly lesbian
and a member of the faculty of San Francisco State University, has come
a long way from her naivete about the sexuality of Sappho. She was born
in rural Virginia during the Depression - to her, the era of "the ten cent
movie and the penny post card." The daughter and granddaughter of dentists,
she classifies the family as "water-treading middle class; which is to
say, we were always scared of falling back to being 'country.'"
She remembers shaking
hands with Eleanor Roosevelt. "I was eight years old and she came to the
Easter Egg Roll wearing jodphurs and riding boots. I'm sure that
had an influence on my life..."
Gearhart says that,
as a teenager, she operated on two different and contradictory levels.
"I went through high school dating a lot of boys and assuming that I was
going to get married, because I didn't know there was anything else to
do... But there was another undercurrent going on. That was my lesbianism.
From when I was ten years old, I knew I wasn't going to have
children and do the regular marriage and family thing."
From Parisburg High
School she went on to Sweetbriar College, in Lynchburg, Virginia - today's
"They tried very hard
to make a lady out of me and failed miserably," she says, "I majored in
drama and English. I knew I didn't want to get married. By then, the alternatives
that I could see were to be a prostitute or a nun - or go to graduate school."
She went on for a master's degree at Bowling Green University and completed
her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois in 1956.
the greatest single institutional influence on her life to have been the
Methodist and the Lutheran churches. "It's as if I had always been standing
there 'with my knees flexed,' ready for the leap of faith, with the Augsberg
Confession under one arm and the Bible under the other. But I was never
able to make the leap, to give myself over to the Christian faith."
By the time she was
in graduate school, Gearhart found a new focus. "Everything that I was
looking for in the church - and didn't find - I ultimately found in feminism.
The communion of saints that the church kept talking about, I never found
there. But I found it in the kind of community that women are able to have
together - and that gay men have started to find, too."
With occasional detours,
usually amorously motivated, Gearhart spent the next fourteen years in
Texas, teaching first at Stephen F. Austin State College and, later, at
Texas Lutheran College. She remained deeply closeted during those Texas
years. In Word is Out, she recalls attending faculty parties
accompanied by a gay male friend: "We would put on an incredibly good show...I
felt myself living a dual life and I put an awful lot of energy into seeing
to it that the world did not know what I was actually about."
Nonetheless, some of
her faculty colleagues knew or suspected that she was a lesbian. "They
bribed one of my students to seduce me," Gearhart says, "Because of a previous
blackmail threat, I was being celibate and very careful at the time. I
would not have touched her with a ten foot pole. Two years later, after
she graduated, the student came to me in a fit of guilt and remorse and
told me what had happened."
Playing along with
the system in order to maintain the secrecy of her closet, Gearhart found
herself in growing internal conflict over the values of the system she
was supporting and her developing feminist consciousness. "I was sponsoring
sororities," she said in Word is Out, "which
had a lot to do with the way in which you perpetuate those stereotypes
of what femininity is all about...I was judging Miss Texas contests!"
In 1970 Gearhart moved
to San Francisco where she found the women's and gay movements building
up steam and a political and social atmosphere conducive to coming out.
"I was so excited to be able to say that I was a lesbian," she recalls,
"that I would shake hands with strangers on the street and say, 'Hi! I'm
Sally Gearhart and I'm a lesbian.' Once, appearing on a panel program,
I began, 'I'm Sally Lesbian and I'm a gearhart!' I realized then that I
had put too much of my identity into being lesbian. What I really was was
a speech teacher, so I seriously began to build my professional life."
She worked part time
for three years and finally was hired by San Francisco State on a full
time basis. As she built her career anew, her academic emphasis shifted
- as had her political interests - to women's studies. "At State, in 1972,
we had the first course in the nation on sex roles and communications.
We were beginning to understand that the differences between men and women
were great. Those differences both influence and were influenced by communication
But, even at San Francisco
State, new thinking and emerging changes in established values met with
resistance. Gearhart says, "A lot of my publications were in women's studies
and were about lesbians. Most were published in movement journals, rather
than traditional academic journals. Some members of my department questioned
whether these writings were sufficiently scholarly and whether they should
be the basis for granting tenure."
The final vote was
in favor of granting her tenure, but one committee member filed a minority
report that talked about the "political atmosphere" that surrounded Gearhart
and questioned whether that was appropriate for academia. The dissenting
opinion shifted the decision to the provost and the president of the university.
After a good deal of politicking on the issue, the ruling came down in
a wide range of interests and activities, from training speakers for the
No on 64 campaign to writing science fiction to singing in a barbershop
quartet. Currently on sabbatical leave, she looks forward to returning
to the classroom next fall.
"I have been very fortunate,"
she says, "San Francisco State wants good teachers. Once I was tenured,
I have felt nothing but support from the department, the school, and the
university. I have felt an incredible amount of freedom and even a certain
kind of regard for being openly different."
to On the Job