We Both Laughed In Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan

We Both Laughed In Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan


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"Celebratory, even radical"—The New Yorker


We Both Laughed In Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan narrates the inner life of a gay man moving through the shifting social, political, and medical mores of the second half of the 20th century. Sullivan kept comprehensive journals from age 11 until his AIDS-related death at 39. Sensual, lascivious, challenging, quotidian and poetic, the diaries complicate and disrupt normative trans narratives. Entries from twenty-four diaries reveal Sullivan’s self-articulation and the complexity of a fascinating and courageous figure.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781643620176
Publisher: Nightboat Books
Publication date: 09/24/2019
Pages: 440
Sales rank: 147,359
Product dimensions: 7.80(w) x 5.50(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Louis G. Sullivan (b. Milwaukee, 1951; d. San Francisco, 1991) was a writer, activist, typesetter, trans historian and ground breaking queer activist. Sullivan began writing his life in diaries as an adolescent and continued until his death from AIDS complications. The first publicly gay trans man to medically transition, Lou meticulously journaled his experiences (romantic, lascivious, challenging, quotidian, poetic, political). Sullivan left 8.4 cubic feet of archival material from his life and studies to the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, of which he was a founding member.

Ellis Martin works with digital derivatives in the interstice of art and archive. He holds a BA in Visual and Critical Studies from Mills College. His short films have screened at San Francisco Transgender Film Festival and Trans Stellar Film Festival.

Zach Ozma is a poet, potter, and social practice artist. In 2015, Ozma received a BFA in Community Arts from California College of the Arts in Oakland. He lives and works in Philadelphia and is the author of BLACK DOG DRINKING FROM AN OUTDOOR POOL (forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019).


‘My Own Interpretation of Happiness’: An Introduction to the Journals of Lou Sullivan

Susan Stryker

Words cannot adequately express how excited (excited!) I am that Lou Sullivan’s journals are finally being published.

I never met Lou in the flesh, but for nearly 30 years he’s occupied a huge place in my life, both as a fellow trans person as well as an historian of LGBTQ+ experience and a theorist of gender, and I have been gratified to see how many other people similarly have been inspired by the life Lou led and the legacy he left. I’m over the moon that Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma have finally brought his words—in all their vitality, humor, earnestness, heartache, sexiness, fierceness and unflinching honesty—to an audience that is sure to appreciate them as much as I (and they) clearly do.

I’d seen Lou’s book, Information for the Female to Male Cross-Dresser and Transsexual, back in the day, circa 1990, on the same bookstore shelves in San Francisco’s Castro and Mission neighborhoods where I was cruising for less-medical, more-community-based 411 on what was then called male-to-female transsexualism. Lou’s book wasn’t the one I was personally looking for as I plotted my own social gender transition, but I was glad it was out there for all the former-butches-becoming-guys I had met through the Bay Area’s leather community. There was a groundswell of attention to “FTM” and transmasculine issues in the circles I was moving in around that time—some of it gorgeously documented in the photographer Catherine Opie’s still-magnificent “Being and Having” portrait series—but a real dearth of information about how the trans experience was “different for guys” at the dawn of the contemporary transgender scene. Lou was ahead of that curve, by more than a decade, in pulling together informational resources for what was then a tiny community of self-identified trans men.

I remember chatting with a guy named Shane at a play-party in a dungeon on 14th Street who told me how a bunch of trans men were taking care of Lou, who was “pretty sick”—common code words for being in the terminal stages if AIDS—and me saying that I’d like to meet him if there was a chance. Shane said Lou wasn’t meeting new people anymore, that it was just too much for him to deal with. I shrugged. Oh, well. So it goes.

It’s hard to convey to those who have come of age since the retroviral cocktails appeared in the mid-90s just how devastating the AIDS epidemic was before that, how shell-shocked we were, how inured we had become to the steady drumbeat of premature death as people dropped, seemingly daily, around those of us who would survive. To get some sense of scale, read the obituaries for these years in the Bay Area Reporter, which are available online. Back then, if you wanted to mourn somebody you needed to take a number and get in line. Losing Lou so early was a tragedy, but a routine one. It’s appalling what one can get used to and come to consider normal.

Not too long after that dungeon conversation, sometime in 1991, I showed up at what was then still called the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society—the B and T wouldn’t be appended for another half-decade. I announced to the regulars at the then-five-year-old organization that I was in the process of both gender-transition and finishing my Ph.D. in U.S. History at UC Berkeley, and that as a soon-to-be-public trans woman I had somewhat less than a snowball’s chance in hell of getting an academic job, and wanted to immerse myself in community-based history, focusing on transgender history. The first words out of the mouth of archivist Willie Walker, the organization’s principal co-founder, were “Great! One of our founding members, Lou Sullivan, died recently, and you can learn to be an archivist by processing his personal papers and preparing them for public use.” And so I did.

Lou’s papers are a really historically significant body of materials that documents the emergence of a national transmasculine community, and I’m forever honored to have been the one to put them in order and to write the finding aid that still provides guidance for researchers seeking to access their content. His journals are the crown jewels of that treasure trove—they intimately chronicle his 30-year evolution from ten-year-old Catholic school-girl in Milwaukee’s suburbs to gay man dying of AIDS in San Francisco, and offer one of the most complete, and most compelling, records of a trans life ever to have been produced.

In 1991, as I was winding down my public life as a young man and starting a more authentic one as a woman, Lou was my posthumous boon companion. Reading his journals was an on-going compare-and-contrast exercise as I measured my self-perceptions and experiences as a trans lesbian against his as a gay trans man. Reading Lou’s words again now, for the first time in many years, takes me back to when I first fell in love with him, watching him grow up and discover himself —his childhood Beatlemania, his boy-craziness, his sex-fantasies and teen-age guilt, his countercultural tendencies and political awakening, his passion for drag queens and rock-and-roll, his growing sense of being kinky and trans and having no language for it. Lou, writing in isolation but reaching boldly for the deep truth of his own self-knowledge, forged a unique language for his transness that still speaks profoundly to me today.

At age 13, Lou wrote “I wanna look like what I am but don’t know what someone like me looks like. I mean, when people look at me I want them to think— there’s one of those people…that has their own interpretation of happiness. That’s what I am." Those words have stayed with me for decades, and in the intervening years I have still found no better way of expressing what it means to be trans. I see in them the suggestion that we are primarily our own “interpretation of happiness” and only secondarily the “men” or “women” we were either assigned to be, or became.

Sullivan, I would go so far as to say, offers essentially the same insight into being trans as that offered by the psychoanalytic theorist Jacque Lacan. Lacan considered transsexuality to represent what he called a sinthome: a uniquely personal, idiosyncratic manner of braiding together the psychical registers of the Imaginary (the inner realm of images and the identifications we attach to them), the Symbolic (the social realm of language and representation), and the Real (that which is, whether one wishes it to be or not). For Lacan, every “I” is the symptom—or in Old French, the sinthome, which Lacan turns into a pun to suggest that our symptomatic subjectivities are a “synthesis” that becomes our “home”—of a successful attempt to weave those three rings of reality together into a stable pattern and thereby to become a non-psychotic subject. This, for Lacan, is what it means to be a person. The transgender subject is a kind of person who, for Lacan (and, I would argue, for Lou Sullivan) similarly succeeds at the task of becoming a viable, non-psychotic subject by entwining the Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real—but with a twist. Because our Imaginary identifications are different from what the Symbolic says our bodies are supposed to mean, we trans folks bring our identities into alignment with the Real by (re)writing them into our flesh; in doing so we come to appear to others as what might be called an “interpretation of our own happiness” that makes our living feel worthwhile. Lou intuited all that without ever having a read a lick of Lacan or of poststructuralist gender theory; he died, in fact, just as Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble was shifting the paradigm to conceptualize gender something we do, rather something we are.

Lou had an amazing career. He never went to college, and worked most of his adult life as an administrative assistant, though toward the end he’d gone into business for himself as a freelance digital editor and publisher. The amazing part was not what he did for money, but what he did with the rest of his time. He networked ceaselessly among trans folks, corresponded with hundreds of people around the world, and played a significant role in forging a broader trans community. He founded organizations. He researched and wrote about trans history, including the book-length biography From Female to Male: The Life of Jack B. Garland. He advocated on behalf of trans people with health-care providers, and, after having been denied medical services because he was open about identifying as a gay rather than heterosexual man, persuaded the doctors and psychiatrists that one could in fact be both gay and trans, as he was. He volunteered for clinical trials for AIDS drugs, and took a perverse pride in saying that he was proud to die as a gay man, even though authorities had said he couldn’t live as one. And he journaled, beautifully and purposefully, with a growing sense that he wanted his journals to be published.

I first tried to posthumously publish Lou’s journals in the early 1990s, but that was sadly not to be. A small press was indeed interested back then, but wanted to publish only excerpts, and the advance they offered me simply wasn’t enough to cover my costs for transcribing and editing hundreds of pages of handwritten script down into something publishable. I was perpetually un- or under-employed in those days—job discrimination rooted in transphobia is no joke—so I settled for writing a quick little article about Lou, “Portrait of a Trans Fag Drag Hag as a Young Man,” and moved on to find other ways of making a living.

Publishing Lou’s journals was still a back-burner project for me years later, when a young trans history grad student name Brice Smith came along, eager to work on Sullivan, and I was only too eager to pass the torch I’d long been carrying. It felt good and right to step back and let go so that others could carry Lou’s legacy forward. It’s warmed my heart to see Lou’s story find its way to audiences hungry to hear it. Brice’s dissertation became a biography, Lou Sullivan: Daring To Be A Man Among Men, and soon, perhaps, will become a feature film. Sean Dorsey Dance Company produced a beautiful original work called Uncovered: The Diary Project, based on Lou’s journals. The filmmaker Rhys Ernst has made an experimental short about Lou, as well as a mini-documentary about him for the web-series We’ve Been Around. And now, at last, a significant portion of the journals are finally seeing print.

Those who knew Lou or knew of his public career will undoubtedly appreciate the intimate portrait that emerges here, painted in his own words, that shows sides of him most people never had a chance to see. And those who are new to Lou? Get ready to meet a great soul.

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