Forgotten No More: Lou Sullivan, Writer and Transgender Activist

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This posting is aspect of Forgotten, a sequence of obituaries about extraordinary persons whose fatalities, commencing in 1851, went unreported in The Instances.

“I walked down the center of Market place Street,” Lou Sullivan wrote in his journal in June 1981, about collaborating in San Francisco’s homosexual pleasure parade. “The to start with time I can say I basically felt I ‘marched in the parade.’ My opened shirt blew in the wind — the sun tanning my belly — experience lean and alive and wonderful — saying I am a male — declaring I enjoy males.”

Sullivan had prolonged sought a perception of belonging in homosexual spaces. Possessing been assigned female at beginning, he had also extended sought gender-affirming treatment — and experienced been denied due to the fact of his sexual orientation. This was his very first time celebrating Pleasure just after he experienced been through leading surgery, or upper body reconstruction, and the encounter was a person of affirmation.

At the time, the health care design of transsexuality assumed that the goal of gender changeover was to stay a heterosexual everyday living. As a homosexual transgender guy, Sullivan confounded this model and invested significantly of his existence actively demanding that imagining. His activism ultimately served make queer trans masculinity legible to the medical environment.

While Sullivan was many items — a secretary, typesetter, educator, activist, historian, group organizer and pleasure seeker — he is most effective remembered as a writer and activist. His primary purpose: giving means to those who identified as female-to-male, or F.T.M., then the dominant expression for transgender people who had been assigned feminine at delivery.

Data on trans working experience, especially F.T.M., was scant, and during his early adulthood Sullivan had encountered no precedents for his id.

In 24 diaries that he stuffed over three many years, he documented his individual journey, developing a traditionally substantial archive of trans knowledge that he hoped to one particular working day publish. He also made newsletters corresponded with researchers, clinical gurus and other transgender persons revealed a biography and wrote a extensively circulated pamphlet. Resounding across all of his writings is his adamance about the validity of motivation.

Louis Graydon Sullivan was born on June 16, 1951, in Wauwatosa, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee, one particular of 6 youngsters of John Eugene Sullivan, who owned a trucking business, and Nancy Louise Sullivan, a homemaker.

Getting developed up all through the countercultural actions of the 1960s and ’70s, he recognized the value of political activism early on, and participated in civil rights and antiwar protests as a teenager. In 1973 he joined Milwaukee’s Homosexual People’s Union, a legal rights business, serving as secretary. He also released his first short article, “A Transvestite Responses a Feminist,” in the group’s e-newsletter — a variety of coming out.

Sullivan moved to San Francisco in 1975 with his longtime spouse, a cisgender gentleman who encouraged Sullivan’s gay identity but did not see himself as gay. Sullivan’s to start with couple years in San Francisco had been hard: He uncovered the L.G.B.T.Q. local community considerably greater and far more diffuse than Milwaukee’s, and his marriage was collapsing amid tensions all over his need to medically transition.

In 1979, Sullivan finished his 11-calendar year connection and sought health-related guidance for transition — pursuits stymied by therapists and medical professionals who identified that his sexual orientation towards gentlemen manufactured him an “atypical prospect.” In a powerfully worded reaction to a denial letter he received from Stanford University’s Gender Dysphoria Clinic, Sullivan wrote, “The normal human populace is built up of many sexual persuasions — it is outstanding that your application calls for all transsexuals to be of one particular fabric.”

With support from the transgender activist and mentor Steve Dain, Sullivan lastly bought the healthcare care he required at the Institute for Highly developed Research of Human Sexuality in San Francisco, wherever he also turned a common speaker on F.T.M. worries.

Sullivan afterwards volunteered at the Janus Information and facts Facility, a counseling and training useful resource for transgender persons, exactly where he set up a friendship with the psychotherapist Paul Walker, who experienced helped draft the initially intercontinental treatment requirements for managing transgender patients. Walker arrived to count on Sullivan’s awareness and frequently despatched purchasers to him for peer counseling.

In an interview, Sullivan’s brother Flame Sullivan remembered Lou’s accounts of attending health care conferences. Absolutely everyone else experienced a number of levels after their names, Lou explained to him. “And it was just him: ‘Lou Sullivan.’ They commonly set him at the conclude of the convention, so he could blow all people absent,” Flame Sullivan claimed. “He knew what he was conversing about. Much more than some of these medical doctors did.”

Lots of in the F.T.M. group, together with the author and activist Jamison Inexperienced, came to know Sullivan by way of his booklet, “Information for the Woman-to-Male Crossdresser and Transsexual,” initial posted in 1980 and revised and up to date two times. Published and dispersed by Janus, the booklet was notable for its acknowledgment of sexual variety, and brought a more youthful, extra queer-centered perspective than that of other transgender activists at the time. Even though composed for other trans adult males, it also piqued the interest of scientists, a lot of of whom engaged Sullivan in correspondence.

“Lou was the one particular who pushed the envelope about sexuality and gender,” Environmentally friendly mentioned in an interview, adding that Sullivan’s most important desire was generating guaranteed that men and women experienced the data they needed. “That’s all he cared about.”

In 1986 Sullivan began internet hosting quarterly F.T.M. get-togethers, reporting on the conferences in a e-newsletter named FTM that achieved subscribers as considerably absent as New Zealand.

Sullivan discovered he had AIDS in 1987 and, according to his biographer, Brice D. Smith, was the initial transgender guy known to be living with the sickness. He took perverse delight in this position: “They advised me at the gender clinic that I could not stay as a homosexual man,” he wrote, “but it looks like I will die as one particular.”

Right before his demise, he planned to finish two key assignments: his biography of the cross-dressing journalist Jack Bee Garland (1869-1936), whom he noticed as a precedent for his personal queer trans masculinity, and an edited edition of the diaries he experienced stored since age 10.

“His work was much more vital to him than demise,” Flame Sullivan explained. Nevertheless he lived to see “From Woman to Male: The Life of Jack Bee Garland,” revealed in 1990, the realization that he may not total the diaries challenge weighed on him.

“He was so frightened that he was heading to die and the medical occupation was heading to deny the existence of gay trans adult males yet again at the time he did,” Smith, who wrote the biography “Lou Sullivan: Daring to Be a Gentleman Between Men” (2017), explained in an job interview. “He felt at the time that he was the only spokesman for gay trans guys and their existence.”

Sullivan died on March 2, 1991, in San Francisco. He was 39.

It wasn’t till 2019 that his private writings have been released in “We Equally Laughed in Pleasure: The Picked Diaries of Lou Sullivan, 1951-1991.” Edited by Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma, the guide provides an intimate and candid portrait of a tenderhearted seeker of expertise and enjoyment, and has released Sullivan’s lifestyle and work to youthful generations.

His tale motivated a dance suite (Sean Dorsey’s “Lou,” 2008) and a brief film (Rhys Ernst’s “Dear Lou Sullivan,” 2014). And due to the fact the diaries ended up printed, there has been an outpouring of Sullivan-similar written content via music, illustrations, memes and other media, which Ozma explained in an job interview as “the Lou Sullivan cultural production growth.”

“Lou would have gotten a serious kick out of how a great deal function men and women are creating about him,” he mentioned.

Megan Milks is the writer of “Margaret and the Secret of the Missing Body” and “Slug and Other Stories.”


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