Skip to main content
Spring 2024

The Art of Activism

Co-owner of the legendary gay bar Sidetrack, Art Johnston is a civil rights champion. By Diana Babineau

Image: ALL PHOTOGRAPHS BY ZOE RAIN

Art Johnston leans forward on his barstool and sets the scene. 

It was June 1977, and singer Anita Bryant was scheduled to perform at Chicago’s Medinah Temple. Leveraging her celebrity status, the TV commercial star and former Miss America runner-up was also promoting her national anti-gay political campaign. 

“She had enormous cultural influence,” says Johnston. That year, Dade County, Fla., where Bryant lived, had passed an ordinance that made discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal. “But because of her influence, the voters turned back the law,” he recalls.   

In response to Bryant’s Chicago tour stop, queer activists in Chicago planned a protest. Johnston joined the organizing team. On June 14, the day of the event, he saw something he’d never imagined possible: 5,000 queer people and allies, picketing in the streets in broad daylight. 

“The idea of marching — outside, in the daylight, in downtown Chicago — it was exhilarating in a way I had never felt in my life,” he says. “And I wasn’t the only one. You could see it in people’s eyes. It was like we were present at an awakening. Suddenly we’re marching with thousands of other people — more gay people than I’ve ever seen, more gay people than I knew existed. Suddenly, we all started thinking, ‘This has … power.’” 

“The idea of marching — outside, in the daylight, in downtown Chicago — it was exhilarating in a way I had never felt in my life. And I wasn’t the only one. You could see it in people’s eyes. It was like we were present at an awakening.”

A Seat at the Bar

Sitting down with Johnston — even for the first time — feels like reconnecting with an old friend. He is disarming, warm and kind. 

“I have to warn you,” he says with a grin. “I tend to ramble … so you may have to stop me.”   

It’s difficult, however, to interrupt someone with so many stories to tell about the origins of the queer liberation movement in Chicago. At 80, Arthur “Art” Johnston ’75 MFA has spent more than four decades working as a civil rights champion. He co-founded Equality Illinois, the state’s oldest and largest LGBTQIA+ rights organization. As part of the “Gang of Four,” he lobbied for the groundbreaking passage of Chicago’s 1988 Human Rights Ordinance, which banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. And he helped raise awareness and support when the AIDS crisis gripped Chicago in the 1980s. 

But Johnston and his husband, José “Pep” Peña, are perhaps most widely known as co-owners of the largest gay bar in the Midwest: Sidetrack. 

Today Sidetrack occupies nearly half a city block in Chicago’s Northalsted neighborhood, formerly known as Boystown, the queer capital of the city. Inside, the bar boasts eight separate rooms, each with its own vibe — some neon-lit and loud, others quieter. Rainbow-painted stairs lead to a rooftop patio. The walls are lined with dozens of TV screens, all perfectly synced, cycling through pop hits from Sidetrack’s 40-plus years of music video archives. 

On this Monday afternoon, Johnston sits at a high-top table, the video for Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” playing at a low volume behind him. As he speaks, it is easy to see the love he has for his bar, his staff (many of whom have worked here for decades), his patrons and, most of all, his business partner and husband. 

And it’s impossible to tell the story of how Sidetrack and this neighborhood — and Chicago itself — became a hub for LGBTQIA+ people without telling Johnston’s story.  

Art Johnston and Pep Peña sit next to each other on bar stools in Sidetrack. They are looking at each other and smiling. Behind them is a large projector screen showing a music video.
Art Johnston and Pep Peña, both members of Chicago’s LGBT Hall of Fame, co-founded Sidetrack in 1982 and have run it together ever since. Image: ZOE RAIN

Art’s Two Loves

The first in his family to attend college, Johnston grew up in the blue-collar town of North Tonawanda, N.Y., near Niagara Falls. “My parents worked very hard, but they were very poor,” he says. “They couldn’t afford to send me to college.” 

Fortunately, Johnston earned a full scholarship to study French at the State University of New York at Albany (now the University at Albany, SUNY). After graduating, he worked at a private boarding school in Virginia, where he taught French, coached soccer and ran the theater program. He loved directing but had no formal training in it. So he applied for a one-year master’s degree in theater at Northwestern — “the best school I could find,” he says. “I was shocked when they admitted me.” 

Arriving in Evanston in 1972, Johnston planned to get his degree and return to Virginia. But when the boarding school’s new headmaster eliminated Johnston’s job, “I felt completely lost,” he says. 

His theater department friends wouldn’t let him mope. They dragged him out for an evening on the town. 

Johnston had never before ventured into Chicago — or into a gay bar for that matter. He was stunned. “I didn’t know there were that many gay people in the world, let alone in a few bars in Chicago,” he says. That night, he met Pep Peña, a charismatic bartender, and “instantly fell head over heels in love.” The two started dating. 

“I knew I was the luckiest human being in the world,” Johnston says. “Pep came home with me one night to my Evanston apartment and never left.”   

So Johnston looked to extend his time in Chicago and at Northwestern. Dreaming of becoming a theater director, he successfully lobbied the head of the theater department to convert his one-year master’s program into a three-year master of fine arts in directing. Upon graduating, Johnston taught the “Cherubs” in the National High School Institute theater program. And in 1978 he co-founded the Dyad Theatre Company with Judith Rieser ’68, ’82 PhD. Dyad was “the culmination of six years of planning and hope,” Daniel Rubin ’78, ’80 MS wrote in The Daily Northwestern that year. 

Johnston had fulfilled his dream, he thought. But when the reviews came in for Dyad’s shows, they were … so-so.    

“I’ve never talked about this,” he says, furrowing his brow. “I had to confront the fact that I was not as good as I thought I was. Everything I’d directed had been successful in that the people in my shows had loved it. But the shows didn’t get the rave reviews I wanted. A professor once said to me, ‘The fact that your actors like you does not make it a good production.’ That was really hard to hear.” 

Until recently, Johnston viewed this part of his life as a failure. But looking back, he sees that experience as indicative of his talent for bringing people together and motivating them to act — in both the theatrical and political sense. 

“I was always successful in building the team,” he says. “It was always about the people for me.”   

Art Gets Sidetracked   

In 1982 Johnston and Peña co-founded Sidetrack, a gay bar with an innovative, musical twist. On opening night, they set up a single projector screen and began playing songs they loved, set to visuals from old films. 

“We rented VHS tapes,” recalls Peña. “This was before Blockbuster. … The first video we ever played was the 1953 film The War of the Worlds, which had great sci-fi visuals, set to music from Jeff Wayne’s 1978 album by the same name. It was an obvious pairing, but it worked really well.” 

The windowless, 800-square-foot room with no sign on the front door — so as not to draw unwanted attention — soon became a nightlife hotspot. “We ran out of beer on the first night,” Johnston says. After that, “we were jammed every night of the week … except for Mondays.” 

That gave Peña an idea: On Mondays, he suggested, they should host a show tunes singalong night. “And I said, ‘That’s a terrible idea,’” Johnston says, laughing at how wrong he turned out to be. In fact, Peña’s idea was so successful that bars across the country copied the format. (See “In the VJ Booth” below.)  

Sidetrack’s popularity, however, also made it a target. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Johnston and Peña faced a hostile, homophobic environment. No Illinois laws prevented discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people. 

“Being gay, or even being perceived as being gay, meant being excluded from jobs [and housing], and it also meant facing police harassment or arrests,” says Timothy Stewart- Winter, author of Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics. Up until the late ’70s, police often raided gay bars and arrested people for being there. Though the frequency of such raids dwindled in the ’80s, Johnston and Peña were both jailed at various times.   

“We just accepted our second-class citizenship, which was sad. But that was just the way it was,” Johnston says.   

Still the Sidetrack owners persevered. In the mid-1980s they bought the building that Sidetrack occupied and expanded the bar over time. In 1994 they finally put up a sign. 

Sidetrack became a refuge for those who had no other place to be themselves. It also provided a space for Johnston and like-minded activists to strategize and gather strength for the civil rights fights ahead.  

In Times of Crisis

Johnston’s talent for rallying his community and creating spaces of mutual care proved vital through the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s. 

The virus, which emerged in the U.S. in 1981, began claiming the lives of gay men and other minorities at a disproportionate rate. Fear and confusion reigned, with no clear public health guidance about how to avoid contracting or transmitting the virus. Meanwhile, widespread stigma left many people with HIV/AIDS feeling completely abandoned. 

Johnston’s tone is somber but resolute as he recalls this dark time. “We lost over half our staff,” he says grimly. “We had trouble even getting funeral homes to bury us.” 

The community they’d built felt as though it might crumble. But Johnston took action. After it became clear that sexual contact was a primary mode of HIV transmission, Johnston asked a Chicago public health clinic to disseminate safe sex information. The clinic refused.   

“One of the horrible things that AIDS taught us is that we can truly only rely on each other,” Johnston says of the queer community. “We had to save ourselves.” 

So Johnston called other cities’ health departments and received permission to reprint their safe sex materials. He and Sidetrack staff distributed the materials and handed out condoms to bar-goers. They also partnered with Open Hand Chicago, a program that delivered meals to those who were ill, as well as the Chicago chapter of ACT UP, an AIDS activist group that challenged institutions to respond to the crisis. For several years, Sidetrack held fundraising nights, where “every penny that came in went to the organizations,” says Peña. 

“We learned resilience,” Johnston says. “We learned how the government works. We learned to register voters and to run people from our community for office — that’s why we have marriage and other rights today. We learned how to have influence.” 

Art Johnston chats with customers from behind the bar in Sidetrack. He leans onto the bar with one hand, smiling in mid-laughter, while his customers hold drinks in their hands and smile and laugh as well. In the background is a neon sign displaying the name Sidetrack.
Johnston chats with customers from behind the bar. He is committed to keeping Sidetrack accessible, he says, because this space is about building community. “Sidetrack does not charge cover. We don’t do it and will never do it.” Image: ZOE RAIN

Art Joins the Gang

Johnston says his proudest achievement was lobbying for passage of the 1988 Chicago Ordinance for Human Rights, which prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation, disability, marital status, race, age, religion and more. First introduced in 1973, the legislation stalled for a decade. To revive it, activists formed the Gay and Lesbian Town Hall, which Johnston joined. He and his three main organizing allies, Laurie Dittman, Rick Garcia and Jon-Henri Damski, the powerhouses of the group, were dubbed the “Gang of Four” by local newspapers. 

Chicago Mayor Harold Washington ’52 JD voiced his support for the ordinance, and a vote was set for July 29, 1986. The Gay and Lesbian Town Hall planned a rally at Chicago’s Daley Plaza a few days before the vote and suggested closing all gay bars that day to encourage people to attend.  

Johnston opposed the idea; instead, he said, keep the bars open and provide transportation to the rally. “The response was, ‘OK. You’re in charge!’” says Johnston. “And I thought, ‘What has my big mouth gotten me into?’”   

After fundraising money from other gay-bar owners, Johnston rented buses from the Chicago Transit Authority. The rally on July 27, 1986, was a success. But the vote failed. 

Johnston didn’t give up. His knack for persuasion (and his “stubbornness,” he says) came in handy as he lobbied for politicians’ support. 

“Art’s work to pass the ordinance was transformational,” says Laura Washington ’78, ’80 MS, a longtime investigative reporter who served as Washington’s deputy press secretary. “This was at a time when many white Chicagoans would not work with a Black mayor. But Art and his allies eagerly reached out to Washington and his administration. Art realized that they shared a common goal: to ensure justice for everyone in the city [and] to leave no one out. He was building bridges [with] communities of color and others on the fringes, long before it became fashionable.”  

The ordinance passed in 1988. And in 1991, Johnston co-founded Equality Illinois (formerly the Illinois Federation for Human Rights), now the Midwest’s largest statewide LGBTQIA+ advocacy organization. Equality Illinois led the effort to pass an amendment to the Illinois Human Rights Act that added sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s list of protected classes in 2006. “We decided early on that we were not going to give up on any vote, whatever their political affiliation,” says Johnston. “I became the person who worked most with the Republicans. If you go deep enough, you’ll usually find something to communicate about with someone.” 

Notably, Johnston “insisted that the Illinois bill include gender identity,” says Stewart-Winter. “That was a really big deal at the time, to care about trans people.”   

Johnston has continued that commitment to inclusion. In 2014 he and a friend created OUTspoken, a monthly storytelling show at Sidetrack that received Chicago’s LGBT Hall of Fame recognition in 2022. In April, Johnston, Peña and their friends Edie Moore (co-founder of Chicago NORML) and Kevin Hauswirth (executive producer of the 2022 documentary Art and Pep) opened the city’s first queer- and person of color–owned dispensary, called Sway, right across the street from Sidetrack. During the AIDS crisis, Johnston notes, queer people who were sick used cannabis to ease their pain.

“It used to be a cop bar,” he says of the Sway space. “You can’t have a better origin story than this. The gays are buying the cop bar to sell marijuana.” Inside the dispensary, Johnston and Peña’s arrest warrants will be proudly displayed. 

At Sidetrack on this Monday evening, Johnston has more stories he could share. But the show tunes crowd has started to trickle in, and the bartenders inch the volume up on the TVs, now playing Ariana Grande’s “God is a woman.” It is striking how full of joy Johnston is, despite the injustices he’s faced and the personal travails he’s overcome — including beating throat cancer in his 70s and surviving a COVID-19 hospitalization. 

What gives him the strength, the courage, the resolve to keep fighting?  

Johnston chuckles and leans back, thinking. After a moment, he nods.    

“Because I know we are on the right side of history,” he says. “I’ve watched my community overcome so many obstacles. And I’m ready for whatever the next fight is.”  

Through it all, it is love that has sustained him. “Pep makes me laugh every day. And to know that, no matter how much crap I fall into, no matter what happens — to know that there’s somebody at home who loves you? Oh, my God,” Johnston says, looking over at his partner of 50 years. “What a remarkable thing.”  

Diana Babineau is senior editor and writer in the Office of Global Marketing and Communications.  

Share this Northwestern story with your friends via...

Reader Responses

  • Beautiful story all around. Thank you.

    Katie Brick ’89 MBA, Evanston

Submit a Response