Art Johnston and Pepe Peña, LGBTQ+ rights leaders and owners of the iconic gay bar Sidetrack in Northalsted, are the subjects of a documentary now streaming on Peacock.
The film “Art and Pep” follows Johnston and Peña’s love story — spanning 50 years — and the history of the Sidetrack bar amid their fight for LGBTQ+ rights in Chicago.
“In those days, the only place gay people had to meet each other were bars,” Johnston said. “They were the only safe space for gay folks who were harassed at work, who were subjects of common arrests.”
Johnston said that even today, bars continue to play that role of being a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community, especially for trans people, whom he said are the most abused.
The film highlights parts of the city’s LGBTQ+ rights activism in the 1980s, such as the passage of the Human Rights Ordinance, education around HIV/AIDS and the fight for more resources and awareness during the epidemic.
“One of the main reasons that we really wanted to tell this story is because the story of LGBTQ history and activism and rights really is so often told on the coasts,” said the film’s director, Mercedes Kane. “I just felt like it was time Chicago got its due.”
Peña said that working to keep the memory alive of those who were lost to HIV/AIDS is a process that takes a long time.
“At first, you look at your Rolodex and you don’t want to take the names out of the friends you lost,” Peña said. “I have learned through the years that I’m to the point that I feel that we should remember them, we should never forget their names, we should never forget them.”