June 16, 1951 – Lou Sullivan:
“I took a certain pleasure in informing the gender clinic that even though their program told me I could not live as a gay man, it looks like I’m going to die like one.”
My second cousin (my cousin’s child) is a trans woman, and because I am a boomer, she has helped me with pronouns and terminology when writing about her people. She is pretty, smart, and funny, plus she has a strong, supportive family. So did Lou Sullivan, a trans writer and activist. He was one of the very first transgender men to publicly identify as gay, and one of the first female to male trans figures to medically transition. He left the world with a modern understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity as distinct, unrelated concepts.
Sullivan was born in Wisconsin, part of a large Catholic family with five siblings who all attended Catholic schools. He was given a diary as a birthday gift for his 10th birthday, where he wrote about childhood thoughts of being a boy, and of his confusing adolescence, fantasies of being a gay man, and of his involvement in the Milwaukee music scene. As a teenager, he complained about his continued confusion about his identity, writing in 1966, at 15 years old:
“I want to 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.”
When he was 11 years old, Sullivan wrote:
“When we got home, we played boys.”
At 13, he wrote: “I wish I were a boy“.
As soon as he began writing in the diary, Sullivan understood who he was and what he wanted. In 1975, he left home and moved to San Francisco, like so many gay guys of the era. He felt it was where he would finally be accepted as a gay trans man in the city. His mother had a suit made for him and told the tailor it was for her son. His siblings were supporting of him. Even his father and grandmother used his new name and pronouns. His family sent him off with his new suit and his grandfather’s watch.
In San Francisco, Sullivan lived as a gay man. He was out in his personal life and became involved in the gay and trans communities. However, being straight was still a requirement for transitioning in this era. Even the most enlightened Gender specialists didn’t get the idea of female to gay male individuals; there were gay men and trans men, and they were two distinct identities.
Sullivan centered his activism on helping other trans men, especially gay trans men. He pressed the American Psychiatric Association and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health to recognize gay trans men. He worked to have gay trans men recognized and to change the requirements for gender identity disorder to no longer include sexuality as a requirement. He fought for gay trans men to have access to medical transitions.
He was one of the first trans men to be a peer counselor at the Janus Information Facility, a center for trans issues directed by Paul Allen Walker (1946 – 1991), a psychologist and founding president of HBIGDA (the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association now known as WPATH), the World Professional Association for Transgender Health in 1979. Walker also played a key role in helping trans men access to peer-led support and counselling, trans-friendly endocrinological services, hormone therapy outside of gender dysphoria clinics.
Sullivan wrote the first guidebook for trans men, Information For The Female To Male Cross-Dresser And Transsexual (1989) and the biography of Jack Bee Garland, From Female to Male: The Life Of Jack Bee Garland (1990). Garland (1869 –1936) was a writer, nurse, and adventurer who was assigned female at birth but lived as a male in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District and had relationships with young men he met there, making him an especially notable early example a Female to Male transgender individual and an FTM individual who was a gay man.
Sullivan also edited The Gateway, a newsletter for trans folks, particularly focusing on “transvestism and transsexualism”, the preferred terms at the time.
He found doctor’s and therapist’s that supported his transition. Whether or not they felt gay trans men could actually exist, they were at the very least sympathetic, and allowed Sullivan to start testosterone and then undergo top surgery. He had been living as an out gay man for six years, and still, no gender clinic would allow him to undergo bottom surgery. No clinic wanted to be the first. After his many rejections, Sullivan wrote a letter to the Stanford Clinic:
“It is unfortunate that your program cannot see the merit of each individual, regardless of their sexual orientation. The general human populace is made up of many sexual persuasions. It is incredible that your program requires all transsexuals to be of one fabric. I had even considered lying to you about my sexual preference of men, as I knew this would surely keep me out of your Program, but I felt it important to be straightforward, possibly paving the way for other female-to-males with homosexual orientations—and we do exist. I find it pretty amazing that I have been accepted by everyone I have come in contact with regarding my plans to become a man, except your Program, which is reputed to be expert.”
Sullivan finally fully transitioned in 1986. That same year, he found out he was HIV+. He worked even harder. He was one of the founders of the GLBT Historical Society, where he archived resources and references for trans people. He wanted gay trans men to have hope. He started hosting a support group for trans men. This group eventually became FTM International, the largest organization of its kind. It is still running today.
Sullivan was a founding member and on the board of the GLBT Historical Society (formerly the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society) in San Francisco. His personal papers and activist materials now live in that institution’s archives.
In 2019, Sullivan was one of the original 50 American “pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes” inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument at New York City’s Stonewall Inn. The monument is the first U.S. national monument dedicated to LGBTQ rights and history, and the wall’s unveiling took place during the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Sullivan was one of the first honorees inducted in the Rainbow Honor Walk in the Castro noting LGBTQ people who made significant contributions to the cause.
As an activist, Sullivan accomplished a lot for the LGBTQ community with education and counseling. Living his life as an out and proud gay trans man, he inspired others like him. He lived five years after his HIV diagnosis. Sullivan was taken by AIDS in March 1991.
When he was close to the end, Sullivan told an interviewer:
“In a way, I don’t even feel bad about having AIDS. In a way, I feel it’s almost a poetic justice. Because AIDS is still seen at this point as a gay man’s disease, it kind of proves that I did do it and I was successful.”
You can purchase his meticulously kept diaries We Both Laughed In Pleasure: The Selected Diaries Of Lou Sullivan (2019) from Night Boat Books here.