The history of transgender people and transgender rights in this country can be seen from many different angles. Sometimes individual transgender people make an impact simply by asking for what they want. Lou Sullivan was one such individual. He changed the diagnostic categories and criteria for transgender men by asserting his gayness while medically transitioning. He didn’t stop there—he advocated for trans men through community organizing, writing, and speaking. His asserted identities as well as his activism forced people to question the relationship between gender and sexuality on a large scale.
Lou was born in 1951 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin but he ended up moving around a lot. Lou’s nearly 30 years of diaries in We Both Laughed in Pleasure detail his move from the Midwest to San Francisco in 1975. Lou wanted these words to be put on record, and he saw his own voice as vital and important. Writing as a teenager in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, Lou says, “I wanna look like what I am but don’t know what someone like me looks like.” Lou actively rebelled against the gender roles taught to him as a child. He moved back to Milwaukee after high school and started presenting as a man in 1973 after joining a The Gay People’s Union, a gay liberation organization. Many of the letters from later in his life back to gay friends in Milwaukee can be found in the Digital Transgender Archive.
In 1973, there was little opportunity for transition, and at the time there were no out gay transgender men in Milwaukee that Lou ever met. He didn’t have much of a community there. Most of the other trans people he knew were trans women, and it was unclear how he fit into the gay male community. He didn’t feel connected to lesbians because he liked men; it seemed as though he had no place anywhere. So in 1975, Lou decided to leave with his then-boyfriend J to San Francisco. First though, Lou came out to his mother, and after this she sent Lou to San Francisco with a suit as a going away present. Even in 1975, families were able to show tenderness to their transgender children.
Despite the larger population of transgender people and resources in San Francisco, Lou was still an anomaly. Doctors in the 1970s had strict criteria for what qualified people as transgender. For instance, Lou was once asked to classify his activities as masculine and feminine. Lou wrote that he was baffled by this in his diary, “How the hell am I supposed to answer that??”
Lou also found he had issues with the partner he came to San Francisco with, J. In a letter written to Bet Power in 1987, Lou says of J, “…he only wanted to pretend and said he’d leave me if I ever did hormones/surgery. I delayed my transformation a long time because I didn’t think I could live without him.”
Eventually Lou did leave J, and did pursue hormones and surgery. It took over a decade for Lou to convince medical professionals that he was deserving of this surgery, and that one could in fact be both gay and transgender. His sexuality may have been why the Stanford University Gender Dysphoria Program rejected Lou’s application. However, there were private practice doctors willing to help Sullivan, and he was able to access hormones through them. By April of 1986, Lou had all of the gender confirmation surgeries he had hoped for. However in 1987, Lou was diagnosed with AIDS.
From his letters and his diaries, it appears that he tried to keep himself in good spirits about his diagnosis, and that it did not slow down his activism. He started a community newsletter entitled “F.T.M.” and had many correspondences with questioning people and other trans men. He even did an interview with one of the most well-known doctors for transgender men, Dr. Ira Pauly, on his experience as a gay transgender man. He said he felt a certain urgency to do this, because he knew his AIDS diagnosis was likely a death sentence. He also used his status as a historian to publish a biography of Jack Bee Garland, a gay trans man who lived in San Francisco until he passed away in 1939. Lou was often concerned with being remembered, not necessarily for himself, but so that others would know that gay trans men existed.
Upon receiving his diagnosis, Lou famously said: “[They] said I couldn’t live as a gay man, but it looks like I’m going to die like one.” Lou also felt a loss since his diagnosis seemed to come so soon after receiving the surgeries he needed to live freely as a gay man. Despite this, he found so many ways to make his mark on LGBTQ+ history before he ultimately died in 1991 due to AIDs complications.
There shouldn’t be a minimizing of the impact that Lou Sullivan had as a gay trans man. However, his whiteness and palatable masculine presentation no doubt helped him to push gender norms and the norms of transness. Lou pushed the boundaries where he could partially because his presentation was seen as “non-threatening”. These tropes and ideas of a singular transness, a singular story still come up today.
On a personal note, for me, reading Lou Sullivan’s writing was profound. As a queer trans man, it’s rare to ever hear or see historical figures that remind me of myself, but Lou gave us his whole self. He wanted everyone to see who he was. And he did that for trans men like me, so that no one could deny our existence again. The vulnerability of that sacrifice is enduring.
I want to thank Kara Morrison, ‘20 a Kenyon College graduate with a degree in history for letting me know about this historical figure and providing me with resources.