‘Carrying The Torch’: How Sidetrack Owners Paved The Way For Chicago’s Gay Community

‘Art And Pep’ On Love And LGBTQ Equality In Chicago And Beyond
The poster of the documentary "Art and Pep," which is slated to be released in 2022. Courtesy of Kevin Hauswirth
‘Art And Pep’ On Love And LGBTQ Equality In Chicago And Beyond
The poster of the documentary "Art and Pep," which is slated to be released in 2022. Courtesy of Kevin Hauswirth

‘Carrying The Torch’: How Sidetrack Owners Paved The Way For Chicago’s Gay Community

When Art Johnston moved to Chicago to finish his graduate degree in the 1970s, he said he only planned on staying a year. Then he met the love of his life: José Pepe Peña.

Nearly 50 years later, the pair are the subjects of a new documentary. Set to be released in 2022, ‘Art and Pep’ explores their decadeslong romance and activism, including how their bar, Sidetrack, became a safe space for Chicago’s LGBTQ+ community.

“These stories are so important and are so linked to our history, especially of a community that, quite frankly, has been robbed of love stories,” said Kevin Hauswirth, the film’s executive producer.

Johnston and Peña recently joined Reset to talk more about their enduring relationship, Chicago’s gay rights movement and the continuing fight for equality. Here are a few highlights.

On falling in love

Art Johnston: I knew from the moment I met this man that I was head over heels in love — and I had to wait a while from when I first met him. I used to go to the bar where he was a bartender … to have a beer. And then one day he said to me, ‘By the way, I broke up with my partner today.’ And his partner was, oddly enough, same name as me: Art. So I waited for an appropriate amount of time to go by — about a minute and a half — when he told me this. And then I said, ‘So, what are you doing after work tonight?’ He came over that night and never left. We’ve had a first date that’s lasted nearly 49 years. When you fall in love, everything is easy.

José Pepe Peña: For me, it’s been the easiest thing I’ve ever done in my life.

On how bars helped connect Chicago’s LGBTQ+ community

Peña: Bars were always the center for people to meet. We didn’t have any other choices. There were no churches, there were no meeting halls, so the bars were significant. Sidetrack has been a blessing for us. It’s a business that is providing a safe space for gay people … and has been a center of organizing and advancing the gay community.

Jose ‘Pepe’ Peña and Art Johnston (right) co-founded Sidetrack (left) at 3349 North Halsted Street in 1982. Libby Berry, WBEZ/Courtesy Sidetrack Bar

Johnston: If you think about the origins of the modern gay rights movement in the United States, it starts with a bar raid in New York City, the famous Stonewall. Our history is deeply wrapped up in bar life because that was the only place where gay people could be themselves, where they could meet other folks like themselves.

On joining the push for gay rights

Johnston: Most of us at some point in our lives discover we have a talent that we didn’t know we had. I had no idea that I could talk to people, could lobby them. When I found that out, it was a great awakening for me, and so we started to work on stuff.

For me, the real moment started in 1977 when the famous Anita Bryant was going to bring her campaign against gay people to Chicago. And on that day, June 14, 1977, we had the largest rally of gay people in the history of Chicago. … It changed all of our lives, you know, that we all found out that we could stand up for ourselves, for each other, and we could make a difference. Up to that point, gay people were not viewed by city officials, by police, as being a desirable minority. To go from that to marriage in about 40 years has been kind of a remarkable thing to see.

On what the upcoming documentary means to them

Peña: What went on in Chicago through the ‘70s to today, I think that’s been overlooked because it didn’t happen on the East Coast or the West Coast. … So I like the fact that it’s like a spotlight on a movement that has been very successful.

Johnston: I am glad to see this documentary is a little more about the history of LGBTQ people, specifically in Chicago. And more and more, we’re seeing that history being written about, looked and talked about. And I think that’s a good thing.

Stephanie Kim is a producer for WBEZ’s ‘Reset.’ Follow her @StephaniehnKim. Libby Berry is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow her @libbyaberry.