Art Johnston and Pepe Peña, filmed for the upcoming documentary about their relationship and activism, "Art and Pep." Credit: Provided

LAKEVIEW — When Art Johnston and Pepe Peña opened Sidetrack in 1982, it was a tiny, hole-in-the-wall bar that would be unrecognizable compared to the sprawling gay nightclub it is today.

But behind the bar’s trajectory to becoming one of Chicago’s most well-known gay bars is a love story between two civil rights leaders who helped define the political power of LGBTQ people in Chicago and across the Midwest.

That relationship between Johnston and Peña, who have been partners for more than 40 years, is the subject of “Art and Pep,” a documentary that chronicles their journey as a couple against the backdrop of Sidetrack’s rise to prominence and the local movement for LGBTQ equality.

The film features rare archival footage of Sidetrack and Chicago’s LGBTQ community, as well as interviews with more than 30 people who were part of Johnston and Peña’s lives. It’s planned to be released in 2022.

“The story of Chicago politics is the story of an LGBTQ uprising,” executive producer Kevin Hauswirth said. “You can point to any big moment in the past 40 years — whether it’s the City Council wars, Harold Washington or the first passages of LGBTQ-inclusive legislation — and Art and Pep were there for all of it.”

Johnston was visiting Chicago in 1973 to complete a short teaching program at Northwestern University when he met Peña. Some buddies from the school’s theater department recommended Johnston visit a bar “for people like us to be able to go.”

“It was this little bar with no sign on it, and Art struck up a conversation with the bartender,” Hauswirth said. “That bartender happened to be Pepe, and they’ve been together ever since.”

Peña made his way to Chicago from Cuba, and often says the city is the “first place where he felt like he could be free,” Hauswirth said. When they opened Sidetrack together, “it was this tiny little bar where you sat on the cases of beer, but it was a place where you’d step inside and be free.”

Mercedes Kane, director of the documentary, said the couple’s love for the LGBTQ community is what motivated them to open Sidetrack and act as civil rights leaders throughout the HIV/AIDS crisis and gay liberation movement.

“They are this pillar of love in the community,” Kane said. “Art and Pep fell in love, then built Sidetrack, which is where they express their love for the community, and then they had this fight to love freely and are still together after 45 years.”

That fight had Johnston and Peña on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic and battles for anti-discrimination laws and marriage equality. Sidetrack has always served as a meeting space for people organizing to advance those causes.

“During that time, our community was discovering that we could have political power,” Johnston says in a teaser for the documentary. “There was joy in fighting back, and it infected all of us and we have learned how to be politically effective and change the world.”

The film also highlights the work of several LGBTQ activists and community leaders who are continuing the advocacy many credit Johnston and Peña for having started. They include Brian Johnson, CEO of Equality Illinois, which Johnston helped co-found; Brad Balof, general manager of Sidetrack; Channyn Lynne Parker, a transgender community advocate at Howard Brown Health Centers; Anna DeShawn, a board member for Affinity Community Services; and Sen. Mike Simmons, who is the first openly gay Illinois state senator.

“To think that Art was only planning to be in Chicago for a year, but he ended up staying because he fell in love and ended up transforming the city in a lot of ways,” Kane said. “And now there are so many people carrying the torch that Art and Pep started.”

The film is partially funded through a media sponsorship from Canon, but the film’s creators are fundraising to cover the rest of production’s expenses. Donations can be made at

Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.

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