Like many other queer writers and activists of his generation, Lou Sullivan lived a painfully short life: he died in 1991, at the age of thirty-nine, from complications related to AIDS. But he left behind a wealth of material, thirty years of diaries chronicling, in joyous detail, his emerging sense of self, his relationships, and his daily triumphs. As arguably the first publicly gay trans man to medically transition, Sullivan found himself walking a path few had previously trodden. Without models for how to live, he found his own way, refusing to compromise his identity, working tirelessly to help others, and all the while keeping careful note of his day-to-day. Sullivan never realized his dream of publishing his diaries, but We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan, 1961–1991, published last month by Nightboat Books, finally brings Sullivan’s writing to a wider audience. An excerpt appears below.
Image from the Louis Graydon Sullivan papers, courtesy of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.
Yesterday T + I rode our bikes through GG Park, he was leading me through hidden path + trails. Found a secluded spot + laid in the grass. Told me he wished he could introduce me to his family + be open with them about us, but he knew he never could, that he has always strived to be what they expected him to be, especially his ma. He said he felt that way even if I were a normal man + we were together, so I don’t feel too bad.
Then he asks me if I have any problems with our relationship + I said yes: I wish he’d turn off the iron by the switch instead of just pulling out the cord (telling him in that way how content I am). He pressed me further + then said I never tell him how I feel about him! I couldn’t believe it, and so tried my best to express to him how much he means to me.
He said he wanted to read my diary because it will tell him how I feel about him.
We ended up having loving sex there in the grass, each masturbating the other to orgasm.
He says he can see I’m holding back sometimes + I admitted it—of course I am, when he continues to tell me he wants a different relationship, one with a woman (because he feels he SHOULD, not that he wants it).
He gave me a transistor radio for my birthday so I could listen to it at night like I used to on Bluemound Rd. He also took a self-portrait for me + developed one of the photos he took of me on the roof of Seventeenth Street when we first knew each other.
J phoned me for my birthday, telling me he finally got a job in Japan, something he’s dreamed of for several years. He’s leaving the end of the month to teach English to Japanese businessmen + housewives. I am happy for him, but feel a little melancholic.
This gay woman at work told me this “terrible” thing some man said to her in a store: he mumbled that she “must be a boy.” She was shocked ! (I mentioned that someone had called me “her” the other day in a store + this gay woman just dismissed it, “Oh, YOU don’t look like a GIRL.”)
She continued, “Well, this is going in my book! All of these things!”
It amazes me how people think they have such unusual experiences, such exciting lives, when I can’t feel that same way about my life. And I remember Elizabeth Farley, who had lived as a woman for thirty-three years without ever seeking medical help, and I thought “What an exciting life!” yet she couldn’t understand why anyone would want to interview her because she hadn’t done anything special in her life.
He went to have a drink with the gay black man who lives upstairs, who said he’d sell his motorcycle for super cheap to T. T showers and puts on his thin cotton trousers—shirtless, a towel over his shoulder, his hand absently stroking his chest, he steps outside into the sunny backyard + beckons to him through the window, asking to see the motorcycle—
his chest and arms
smooth as marble
and as well shaped
He was complaining as we were having sex that my whiskers were “rubbing” him and he hates that. I asked, “What’s the big deal? Yours rub me, too.” He said “I don’t like having sex with men.”
I answered, “You’re not have sex with ‘MEN’, you’re having sex with me.”
He sank back into my arms with kisses.
I’m so angry at J because he forced me to so distort my image of love—
We all went to the Gay Pride Parade. T’s first time, because he’d always heard there was so much violence at them, so he stayed away (obviously getting the macho Mission District viewpoint before). This was my seventh parade, and I watched it thinking of all the others I’d been to, and how this was the first one I attended with my lover. T stood close to me and I stroked his fragrant hair. Remembering how I’d watched all the other parades alone, wondering where among them all I’d ever find someone to love me, feeling so alone and sorry for myself. And here he is, smiling at me, loving me.
J told me it had really pissed him off that I had such a great story (about myself) that would sell even if it weren’t well-written, but that he believes now, if I wait a while longer, I WILL have a worthwhile story to tell.
Monday we worked in the yard + got T’s graphic-arts camera into the garage. Slept by the fireplace so we could watch the total eclipse of the moon out the window. (T said, “Dress me up in drag.” So I did as good as I could—his idea of sexy drag isn’t the same as mine, so we did it his way—and he wasn’t even getting hard, but I was getting excited to be able to be the aggressive one + I worked my cock against his hole + did what I was able to, as a man.)
I’m beginning to think my scars aren’t going to fade. They’re still pretty wide + red. Two years later. Shit.
We laid on the couch kissing + he asked if I were being male or female at that moment. I thought a second + said, “Neither—I’m just being me,” but thinking “mostly female” because I was melting in his arms.
He answered, “Because if you think you’re being female right now, then you have something to work out with yourself.”
He challenged me to an arm wrestling match + I took him on. Our arms weren’t balanced squarely on the table and the table tipped and stuff slid off as I allowed him to bring my arms down to stop the sliding. I protested angrily that he was using the table + rearranged it so we were balanced, and while I couldn’t down him, he couldn’t down me either. I said, “I know I can’t beat you, but I’ll give you one helluva struggle.”
Just told this gossipy old woman, a secretary at ARCO (with whom I go to lunch sometimes) that I’m gay. She asked me (because she’d read somewhere) if gay men wanted to be sex changes, and if I wished I were a women!!! I laughed + said, “Not at all!” and told her that sexual preferences + gender identity were two different phenomena, + that if a man was attracted to other men + wanted a sex change to be a woman, he would be defined as a heterosexual person (someone who wants a body of the opposite sex from their lover’s), not as a gay person.
I also told her if she ever had questions about gays, I wasn’t shy to discuss anything. She asked me very seriously, “How is everything going for you?” I answered, “At this point in my life, I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”
She said it really brought tears to her eyes when she read about these people who are men but have the feelings inside of a woman, and “Don’t you think that must be a horrible thing?” I said “Yes!” I told her how I’d met Elizabeth Farley + her story as a man living as a woman + how that really opened my eyes to that sort of thing. I tried to educate as much as possible without identifying too strongly with the sentiments. What a predicament! How well I handled it!!!
T took a spectacular picture of me. My face has gone through such a change. When I first started the hormones, my face looked like it got squarer, my cheeks puffed out some. Now my face is more angular—so much more handsome. I’m an incredibly good-looking guy, I think, sometimes (but not always). Mostly I need to lift weights + muscularize my chest—it’s still so sunken in.
Late last night I got a call from a F→M in So Calif + we talked a while. T overheard the conversation while in my bed + when I returned, suddenly out of nowhere he started this crap again about it’s too weird for him to be with me + he thinks he should see a psychiatrist because he’s having dreams of being naked + freaking out. I don’t know where this all came from! I said I thought that was an insult to me, and if he thinks he needs to see a psychiatrist, then maybe he should, because there’s no shame in that.
Just pissed me off. He hasn’t come up with that rap in a long time. So this morn I resolved not to let it bother me all day like before. I know he’s probably already forgotten about it—it’s not ruining HIS day. I resolved to change my thinking: every time I thought of what he said, I’d change my thoughts to contemplating how much better I feel in comparison to before—with my job, my coworkers, my neighbors, my friends, my family. THAT was why I changed…not to please a lover. I must remember that he’d be giving me this same rap were I a normal gay man, because even THAT is “too weird” for him.
I said I’m tired of being different than anyone else in the world, of knowing that no one is like me, and I’m going to relish these moments of living easy, of responding to everyday occurrences in a correct manner, without thought, without reflection (as simple as not knowing what to do with my hands when I stood there, as complicated as not feeling I was inside my body when having sex with someone) and the constant realization that my thoughts are of my responses as a young man.
I said I was thinking all day how my relationships with all these people in my life would be so different were I still female, of my boss, of the people I work with everyday, of Dan + Cuca…I would never have made friends with them (“Why?” T asks, “Because I’d have to be ‘girlfriends’ with Cuca + Dan wouldn’t talk to me the same way he does. I wouldn’t value their friendship under those conditions; I wouldn’t be comfortable”), and that for the first time in my life I feel a part of the brotherhood of man.
“Why,” he asks me (I couldn’t understand why) “do you want to continue giving yourself those SHOTS?” “Because they are what brought me into humankind.”
He told me he loves me just the way I am, that he wouldn’t want me to change. I said, “Think of us going into a bar with all men in it, and how that would feel. Then think of us going down the street into a bar with all women in it. How would that be different in there? That’s how I feel different.” I wished I could have put on a tape recorder. Our conversation was so beautiful. I tried so hard to remember each important word.
Louis Graydon Sullivan (1951–1991) was a writer, activist, typesetter, trans historian, and queer revolutionary.
From We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan, 1961–1991, published by Nightboat Books. Lou Sullivan’s diaries, Louis Graydon Sullivan papers (1991-07). Courtesy of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.