Books

A Trans Activist’s Memoir Is a Monumental Contribution to Queer History

Lou Sullivan’s diaries, spanning 1961 to 1991, might be one of the most valuable affirmations one can read on the trans masculine experience to date.

We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan, 1961-1991 (image courtesy of Nightboat Books)

Trans memoirs have long been the main outlet for trans people to articulate their narratives and journeys of gender and self-discovery. Christine Jorgensen wrote and published her memoir prior to the Stonewall Uprising. Famous travel writer Jan Morris has written several memoirs with 1974’s Conundrum still believed to be the greatest trans memoir written. Trans scholar Susan Stryker noted in her book Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback that many of the most famous publishers of LGBTQ literature in post-World War II America — most of them producing pulp fiction dime-store paperbacks — did not stray from topics of gender reassignment operations and cross-dressing. Such books were nonfiction in a pulp package, which gradually led to more first-person accounts and memoirs by trans people in that format. Decades later, trans figures like Kate Bornstein and Janet Mock gained major media attention for their memoirs.

Relaying trans stories primarily through memoir comes with some risks, such as repeating familiar and well-trotted discussions of transition, as well as disclosures, coming out, and one’s past. Articulating something as deeply personal and individual as gender dysphoria can be difficult when a non-trans audience may be reading about it for the first time, and many memoirs rely on past-tense reflection. A recently published collection by the late trans male activist Lou Sullivan, We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan, 1961-1991, offers something different. Sullivan’s diaries cover his inner thoughts from age 10 until his death from AIDS-related illnesses at 40, revealing the early development, searching, and ultimate self-realization of a trans person. This might be one of the most valuable affirmations one can read on the trans masculine experience to date.

Sullivan’s diaries begin in the early 1960s, in his intensely Catholic family home in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. Young Lou writes about being obsessed with the Beatles and cultivating a Beatles look, including convincing his mother to let him get a “Beatles haircut.” Before he began to acknowledge his difference, that something deep within him was trying to come out — and after his mother put her foot down on his desire to wear masculine clothes — Lou concocted ways to present or, in his words, “be thought of as a boy.” Yet in his Midwest environs, that was untenable. “I wanna look like what I am but I don’t know what someone like me looks like.” While Lou realized himself through masculine presentation, he was also sexually attracted to men. He went west to San Francisco in the 1970s, then the mecca for gay men, to live during the era of gay liberation, first as a cross-dresser, but later, after initial apprehension at the risk of losing his male partner, he transitioned and fully lived as a man.

Sullivan and other gay trans men of the time often had to fight to assert themselves due to the medical community’s gatekeeping on transness and how it related to sexuality. In Sullivan’s time, sexual orientation was a criteria related to transness, based on the studies by sexologist Harry Benjamin and the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care that interlinked orientation and gender identity; essentially, a defining trait of being trans had to be that trans men were attracted to women and trans women had to be attracted to men. This resulted in Sullivan getting denied gender-affirming surgery and care at Stanford University because he never hid his sexuality. Sullivan was among the main players lobbying for recognition by the establishment in trans health and his work eventually led to the outdated criterion of sexuality being removed and it helped modernize Standards of Care under the World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH).

Sullivan’s work within the LGBTQ community was no less exceptional, writing a biography of pre-Stonewall trans figure Jack Bee Garland, and contributing to newsletters, historical societies, and educational organizations that extended locally from San Francisco to the international stage. Sullivan’s diary entries are personal and political. They are recollections of many sexual escapades, but they also demonstrate his activist sensibility, that he was aware of his body and lifestyle as political issues, and of being in the throes of one of the largest gay scenes in the United States. Sullivan’s queerness and love of gay masculine culture — from bars to films to literature — date to the start of the diaries. But he would soon become a part of the HIV/AIDS crisis, the defining tragedy of gay communities in the US in the 1980s. Sullivan was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. “I have AIDS. How in the hell could this have happened?” he wrote, initially resigned to being in his “Last Chapter” while at a hospital.

The diaries take a somber turn at this point, as Lou logs his weight loss, his interactions with people who are anticipating his death, his bouts with various illnesses due to his weakened immune system, and his trips to the hospital. Nevertheless, his humanity shines through these passages, along with his sense of humor and clarity about his situation. He often relays what he has read from AIDS narratives in books and newspapers, preparing his own endpoint. “I’m not afraid,” he writes. “I just feel I’ll be stepping into a new plane of existence … one that, in all likelihood, will be just as interesting, if not more so, than the one I’m in now.” Lou Sullivan could never be completely broken or hopeless. Forever a searcher, he maintained an optimism of something better out there, even in his darkest days.

Sullivan died in 1991. According to Susan Stryker in the preface, a film is supposedly on the way to tell the story of his extraordinary life. But reading Sullivan’s life through his own inner thoughts provides a deep insight into a trans activist who bucked stereotypes and forced many to reconsider their preconceptions of being trans. The publication of these diaries is monumental.

We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan, 1961-1991 (2019), edited by Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma, with an introduction by Susan Stryker, is published by Nightboat Books.

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