A still from "Art and Pep," directed by Mercedes Kane, shows Art Johnston (left) and his partner, Pepe Peña. Credit: Provided/Chicago International Film Festival
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

NORTHALSTED — “Art and Pep,” the documentary about the lives of the local LGBTQ+ rights pioneers who co-own Sidetrack, is now widely available for streaming.

The film, which chronicles the 40-year relationship of Art Johnston and José Pepe Peña, started streaming Thursday on Peacock. It can also be purchased for educational and community screenings through Green Planet Films.

“This story couldn’t come at a more important time for our country,” director Mercedes Kane said. “‘Art and Pep’ will allow families across the country to see this queer love story as a great American love story and the price a community had to pay simply to live and love freely.”

The documentary portrays Johnston and Peña’s journey as a couple against the backdrop of Sidetrack’s rise to prominence and the local movement for LGBTQ+ equality.

It uses rare archival footage of Sidetrack and Chicago’s LGBTQ+ community, as well as interviews with more than 30 people who were part of the couple’s lives.

“The story of Chicago politics is the story of an LGBTQ+ uprising,” executive producer Kevin Hauswirth previously 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.”

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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 previously 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 previously 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.”

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, Kane previously said.

“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.”

Art Johnston and Pepe Peña. Credit: Provided

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.”

Even today, the couple is trailblazing a new path in the legal weed industry, opening Sway, the first POC- and queer-owned dispensary in Chicago. It’s expected to open this year in the former Town Hall Pub space across the street from Sidetrack.

The film also highlights the work of several LGBTQ+ activists and community leaders who are continuing the advocacy started by Johnston and Peña. They include Brian Johnson, CEO of Equality Illinois, which Johnston helped co-found; Brad Balof, general manager of Sidetrack; Channyn Lynne Parker, CEO of Brave Space Alliance; Anna DeShawn, a board member for Affinity Community Services; and Sen. Mike Simmons, the state’s first openly gay 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 previously said. “And now there are so many people carrying the torch that Art and Pep started.”

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