Art Johnston and Pepe Peña are civil rights leaders whose life and love is a force behind LGBTQ+ equality in the heart of the country. Their iconic gay bar, Sidetrack, has helped fuel movements and create community for decades in Chicago’s queer enclave. But, behind the business and their historic activism exists a love unlike any other. The documentary film ART AND PEP tells the inspiring story of the long struggle for equality and their fight to love freely.
A story at the heart of our history.
America’s popular telling of queer progress largely comes from the coasts - Stonewall, the Cooper Do-Nuts Riot and Harvey Milk’s legacy. ART AND PEP is a story of equality born in the heartland. The first state to decriminalize homosexuality, Illinois was on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic, anti-discrimination laws and marriage equality. But long before government officials would utter the words “HIV,” it was gay bars that transformed into community centers and became ground zero in the fight. While Art and Pep never set out to be activists, for them inaction was never an option.
The battles they faced. The camaraderie they formed. The generation they galvanized. And the clout they created. Their story is at the heart of LGBTQ+ history.
Together, we can tell it.
Art Johnston planned to spend the year of 1972 in Chicago finishing his graduate degree. Fate had other plans. When Art wandered into a gay bar in the city one night he had no idea the irresistible bartender he’d go home with would change his life forever. It didn’t take long for him to discover that Pepe Peña was more than just a popular barkeep in the gay community. A confidant to customers with nowhere else to turn, Pep was known as the ultimate cheerleader, always ready to fill someone’s pint and lift their spirits. Smitten by the fiery Cuban, Art packed up his life in Buffalo and planted roots in Chicago.
The rest is LGBTQ+ history.
into a bar.
Along came this Cuban guy and he turned my life completely upside down and made it remarkable."
– Art Johnston
A bar became
Sidetrack opened in 1982 and with Art and Pep at the helm, it went from a 900-square-foot windowless watering hole to a pillar of Chicago’s gay business district, spanning over eight storefronts and multiple levels. Art and Pep have watched as the politicians who once would have them jailed now court the community for votes. The space has become a source of political and financial support for LGBTQ+ rights. Proceeds from the bar have helped fund what is now the midwest’s largest LGBTQ+ organization, and created a place where patrons, young and old, can sing show tunes on a Sunday and help elect progressives on a Tuesday. Sidetrack’s success paved the way for many other businesses to thrive, turning the area into the first city-designated gay neighborhood in the country.
Channyn Lynne Parker,
Director of Strategic Partnerships,
Howard Brown Health
Sidetrack is our Cheers, even if I don’t know everyone’s name."
Their fate fueled
Chicago’s contribution to LGBTQ+ rights movement cannot be understated, but is too often overlooked. From being on the front lines of the AIDS crisis to co-founding Equality Illinois, Art and Pep have been leading the fight all along, helping Illinois become one of most progressive protectors of LGBTQ+ rights in the country. They have the battle wounds and arrest records to prove it, but more importantly, they have memories of their many years of activism, loss, progress and change.
One day, you will stand on my shoulders, as I stand on the shoulders of so many ...The shoulders of LGBTQ+ trailblazers ...like Art Johnston."
– Mayor Lori Lightfoot
A movement propelled by a
The work ignited by Art & Pep and their fellow trailblazers is being carried on by the next generation. From continuing the legacy of Sidetrack to fighting for trans rights across the state and country, we’ll get a glimpse inside their worlds and what it takes to push for progress in a complicated world.
History - and a film - in the making.
Despite the challenges of filming during a pandemic, our team has continued to capture and bring to life the story of Art and Pep.
We need your help to finish the film.