HIV Aids

Diaries of Lou Sullivan, a Racy and Determined Gay Transgender Ancestor


“Why does that book have a butt on it?” my daughter asked, somewhat scandalized by the rear-view sketch that dominates the cover of We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan 1961-1991. She feels strongly that kids should be able to learn about bodies and their parts and functions—but she hadn’t really seen images like this lying out on my nightstand.

“Lou Sullivan was a gay man who was transgender, and he was one of the first people to transition publicly in a time when many thought it was impossible to be both gay and transgender. And sexuality was a really important part of his life,” I explained, to say the least.

Reading these diary excerpts was like sitting down for coffee with a good slutty friend, with whom I’d gone too long without hearing details of their sexual exploits. But it was also much more than that. It was a detailed and intimate look inside the journey of a trans ancestor (which he was eager to have made public), an invitation into the life story of a powerhouse of queer and trans history told through his own deeply personal, achingly honest writing that was surprisingly resonant across generations.

Sullivan’s work and commitment to sharing queer and trans information and support has been fairly well documented. He published the 50-page handbook, “Information for the Female-to-Male Crossdresser and Transsexual” in 1980, thought to be the first guidebook of its type, started an “FTM” organization, and was a founding member and board member of the GLBT Historical Society (then known as the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society) in San Francisco, where his papers are now archived.

With such a wealth of personal writing from which to choose, the editors of We Both Laughed in Pleasure explain in an opening note that they intentionally prioritized his “worldly pleasures and ephemeral expressions of identity formed alongside his queer community … to illuminate the personal, lascivious, quotidian, poetic, and romantic aspects of his archive.”

I was hooked; I read until late at night. I drank down the immediacy and intimacy of Sullivan’s adventures. I felt the familiarity of his internal questioning and confidence in his core self from adolescence to adulthood, along with the fluctuating challenges of self-acceptance and attempts at developing his own language for his gender, body, and desires. And I ached with his search for a deeper, comprehensive acceptance from his three most significant partners.

Sullivan was prolific in his writing, passionate in his actions, and prescient in his collection of vital materials illustrating queer and trans history and lives in his times. And he was saucy, ready to look men in the eye at the bar and take them home or follow them to their place in a blink when he could, honoring his own desires even as he fought gatekeepers who sought to devalue his self-knowledge and put up roadblocks in his transition.

He would have mopped up on hookup apps.

Laughing in Pleasure

The title of the volume is taken from Sullivan’s diaries themselves, but also speaks to the intimate connection I felt in the entries as a reader. Indeed, I did laugh in pleasure as Sullivan tells of succeeding in a wished-for encounter with a fully naked cis man in a porn theater … and then finds out that his anonymous partner was the ticket-seller who had locked the front door to partake in his pleasures (and you can laugh along too, as you listen to the excerpt read aloud toward the end of this podcast interview with one of the book’s editors).

I ached with the longing that he felt when his primary partners couldn’t fully return his detailed desires or accept him as the man he was. And I rejoiced in reading of the steadfast support of his Catholic family and dearest friends, and for the excitement he felt as he prepared to meet another “female-to-male transsexual” for the first time.

Lou is very young when he starts his diaries, as an ostensibly pre-teen girl and irrepressible Beatlemaniac. He goes on to develop a lifelong crush on avant-garde rocker Lou Reed, from whom he takes his new first name. And drawn in as I was to this book, it wasn’t till I had nearly finished it that I remembered my own teenage fascination with Lou Reed.

In the very-pre-internet era, as Sullivan was starting to flourish as a more fully realized gay man living in San Francisco, I spent lunch breaks looking up old press articles on Reed before, during, and after his influential band, the Velvet Underground, on a mostly ignored microfiche machine in the school library.

Even though over 30 years have passed since I got through that gauntlet of an alien, despondent teenage life, I can still picture and feel that machine today, turning the clunky wheel that focused the screen to reveal the negative image of the original newsprint, white text as white on black background, and the flicker of excitement upon finding a treasure that verified the promise of a life outside of that which I’d known.

Reed had moved through his post–Velvet Underground swishy-bitchy leather Daddy phase long before I found him. But that persona captured my imagination as a young person longing for freedom of presentation, and yearning for a heavier sophistication that could set me apart from my seemingly shallow and unencumbered peers in the 1980s suburbs.

I was longing for more than I was even able to name at the time. It would take another half-dozen years, a drunken car crash, an elopement, a year or so in ACT UP, and getting gay bashed in a police riot at a protest before I fully acknowledged and committed to my own queerness, suddenly able to reflect on my gender in that new, dazzling light of a life falling into place and making a new kind of sense.

Sullivan died of AIDS-related causes as I was just starting to act on the no-longer-deniable glimmers of my own queer sexuality and finding my way back to the gender I’d known as myself at the age of 4. He continued to write in his diary as he was diagnosed and fell ill, right up to the brink of losing his life in 1991 when he was 39.

It evoked memories of several of my ACT UP Philadelphia comrades, who faced the inevitable process of their final months with the kind of honesty, openness, and queer humor I read in Sullivan’s diary entries as he approached his death—particularly Dominic Bash, a former Franciscan monk, beautiful queen, and hairdresser living in recovery who died a year and a half later. I remember feeling scandalized when Dominic slapped my very serious AIDS activist ass as he flew by me in roller skates, clad in a bikini and a high blonde ponytail (his homage to Madonna known as MoDominic), while we waited for the bus to take us to New York City Pride in 1991. And later that the day, I finally managed to kiss a girl.

We Both Laughed in Pleasure is vital not just as a historical documentation of a bygone age, but as affirmation of the ongoing complexities of transmasculinity that persist today, and perhaps always will. Sullivan’s words, like the stories of many trans ancestors, glow and crackle with life, resonating across generations in which each of us must learn that that which we know of ourselves to be real is absolutely true, is absolutely sacred and powerful, and absolutely perfect.

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