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Chicago Pride History Makers: Art Johnston And Pepe Peña, Founders Of Sidetrack Bar And Advocates For Justice

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Art Johnston and José "Pepe" Peña were just two guys who met at a bar and fell in love.

The problem was that society had a problem with them. They were gay, and it was shortly before gay men started dying of a strange disease.

They were two men who had the temerity to not only be gay, but out. Then they built a bar – a bar with a name you might know to this day – and they changed Chicago.

Johnston and Peña are among our Pride Month history makers. They talked with CBS 2's Brad Edwards.

Not long ago, Johnston almost died.

Johnston: "COVID hit me pretty hard."

Peña: "It almost killed you."

Johnston: "That's true. COVID did almost kill me. It tried hard, but we managed to make it through."

It wasn't his first fight-like-hell flanked by husband Peña. Together, 40 years back, they founded the now-famed Sidetrack bar, at 3349 N. Halsted St.

Johnston broke off a little history for us.

"Right out here in front of Sidetrack in 1984, I had a cop, who said to me, 'Are you the f***ing f** who owns this f***ing f** bar?'" Johnston said. "And he said, 'We got too many f*** in this part of town. I'm shutting you down.' And he threw me in jail."

What began as a bar with no sign evolved – expanding its space and also its offerings to showtunes, slushies, and Long Islands. And it was the backdrop for legislative agendas that have now largely been won.

Edwards: "Are you worried about youth apathy in the gay community?"

Peña: "I'm not. I know you (Johnston) are."

Edwards: "You're still fighting."

Johnston: "My fear is that we might lose the will to fight back, which we dare not do - because if we do not protect the gains we've made, we're going to be right back where we were."

And in the LGBT world, the T is transgender:

Peña: "They are in danger wherever they are."

Johnston: "The level of understanding and compassion for trans people is shockingly low, and we've got to change that."

Johnston's fight almost took him out of the fight. He's now a COVID-19 long-hauler, but alive - unlike so many they loved and lost, to AIDS.

Government apathy about AIDS in the 1980s inflamed their anger that fueled their advocacy, which likely helped save the world in 2021.

Edwards: "Losing so many young men to AIDS really never made any sense, until, some say, until now."

Johnston: "What the medical establishment learned, because we forced them to learn about AIDS, was incredibly beneficial in the work for the vaccines that were now so thrilled to have. We would not have them had there not been AIDS; had there not been gay people who fought back against a government who didn't give a damn about any of us dying."

That brings us back to the bar Boystown built around.

Edwards: "Does this exist if you two don't meet and fall in love?"

Johnston: "That's a hell of a question, and I think it maybe doesn't."

Edwards: "Does Sidetrack exist if you two don't?"

Peña: "Probably not."

It is a revelation from the two men to change the landscape, and realization, that one without the other is less than half.

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