How Lou Sullivan’s Journals Enrich the History of Trans Literature
Callum Angus on Sullivan's Recently Released Diaries, AIDS, Transitioning, and More
Writing constructs the self, but it’s not foolproof. When I was 21 and newly out to friends and family as a gay transgender man, I began the project of transcribing and annotating every single one of my journal entries written since I was 13. It seems obsessive now, but at the time I needed to edit—not to erase, but to provide commentary and make sure that all traces of self-delusion or wishful thinking were acknowledged as such. I was surprised by what I found: references to feeling different in my gender presentation far predated what I’d considered my ‘coming out’, and there were numerous instances of trying to talk myself back into being a girl. It was an extensive rewriting of the self, and I’ve rarely journaled with the same intensity and regularity since.
Lou Sullivan kept journals long after his own coming out—8.4 cubic feet of them now archived at San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society—in a rigorous practice of self-documentation and discovery that he pursued unflaggingly from his childhood in Milwaukee right up until his AIDS-related death in 1991. We Both Laughed In Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan, 1961-1991 presents a selection of these diaries. According to editors Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma in a preface, the entries they’ve chosen to include are not comprehensive, but a “touchstone” for presenting Sullivan’s archive to new readers.
Throughout this trove, Sullivan narrates his social and medical transition from female to openly-gay male in San Francisco, as well as his early life in Milwaukee, the deaths in his family, his lovers, and his triumphs and failures in writing and love. Among other things, these journals are a rare look at how identity can be unearthed internally and then built upon through writing, to arrive as close as possible to the person envisioned in the mind’s eye.
Even though I’d never heard of Sullivan, I wanted it all injected directly into my veins—all 24 journals and boxes of archival material described by Susan Stryker in her introduction like a promised land (she was the first archivist of Sullivan’s papers after he died). The timeline can be disorienting—a year will go by in 3 pages, 6 months will take 30. Being adrift among Sullivan’s life events is not dissimilar to the trans experience of being out of step with the normative timeline: puberty, sexual awakening, puberty again, commitment without marriage (until recently), not having children (though, in Sullivan’s case, “children” counted as a cat and a rotating menagerie of lovebirds).
Narrating and documenting a trans life requires a different set of archival rules, and thankfully, Martin and Ozma know this. At times, it’s hard to tell where entries begin and end, but the general chronology is marked clearly enough by chapters, each of which corresponds to the 10 different domiciles Sullivan occupied in the course of his life: West Bluemound, Albion, North Franklin, Warren, Leavenworth, Post, Hyde, 17th, Page, and Albion again. These are our only markers of time, and they fashion a loose domestic narrative around the homes he built with lovers, friends, and family.
About one third of the journals take place in Milwaukee, among a warm and loving family supportive of Sullivan’s unconventional gender presentation (his mother buys him a tailor-made suit as a going away present) and a lively drag and bar scene. He doesn’t just up and move to San Francisco for queer life, either; he continues to return to visit family and nurse sick relatives, attend funerals, etc., and his family visits him frequently through his AIDS diagnosis until his death.
This first publication from Sullivan’s diaries joins ranks with the collected writings of other men lost to the ravages of AIDS: David Wojnarowicz’s visceral, furious Close to the Knives and his recently published tape diaries; Gary Fisher’s Gary in my Pocket, which introduced the world to a young black man and unpublished writing talent only after he died; Derek Jarman’s lyrical journals of gardening and being a lone survivor (until he wasn’t). Before writing this review, I considered Lou’s journals to be primarily interesting by virtue of their presentation of one of the first gay trans men to have a presence in the public sphere, but it is equally valuable as the observations of an expert diarist dying of AIDS because we have so few. Thanks in large part to the editors’ focus on Sullivan’s “worldly pleasures and ephemeral expressions of identity formed alongside his queer community of family, friends, and lovers,” this volume already stands as a vital addition to the category.
Sullivan clearly writes for the archive. He has the double consciousness of the writer journaling with one eye on future editors and young trans men who will pore over his entries. Some might say that, as a gay trans man and a writer myself, I am the right person to review such a book — but I’ve never read about someone who grew up and found themselves like me. The specific familiarity after so long spent knowing only my own story is disorienting. Moments I’ve long considered ‘unique’ to my own private journals I saw laid out in Lou’s, such as seeing one’s masculinity come into clearer focus when it’s attached to loving other men. It’s a welcome loss of individuality to know that finding oneself in this particular way has precedent.
Lou also appears in microscopic and photographic detail through the inclusion of short passages in which physical traces of Sullivan have been preserved through the magic of the Xerox machine: handwritten letters to future imaginary boyfriends, his first facial hair clippings, nude drawings of his body post-surgery. These inject moments of playfulness into what can be a difficult read; there are numerous moments in Sullivan’s journals where we see him grieving over his own loneliness, wondering if he’s the only one who feels this way. No one’s around to share or retweet him, no hashtag for him to hop on and find others with similar histories of desire when he writes early on: “I don’t even know if there was anyone that’s ever felt as I do. . .how they coped, what they did. . .how do I find out what someone like me does?”
These days, platforms like YouTube play a large role in supplying information and resources to young trans people. When I started taking hormones in my twenties, any uncertainty could be fed by watching the video ‘journals’ of others combating injection anxiety, unfriendly doctors, and a complex, sometimes dangerous dating scene. Lou did eventually meet many trans men and women in San Francisco, and while he was outgoing and proud, he wasn’t always unapologetic: he often made excuses for long-term male partners when they only wanted to have sex with him missionary style, or when they swore they’d never be attracted to him after he got surgery or started taking hormones.
In addition to his journals, Sullivan left behind a legacy of informational pamphlets for trans people, including From Female to Male: The Life of Jack Bee Garland (a biography of a San Francisco trans man at the turn of the 20th century) and a voluminous cache of correspondence with trans people around the globe. But it’s the private Sullivan that grabs my attention over and over with his vulnerable self-consciousness that is, I think, a hallmark of the trans writer always seeking truth in the self. “Sometimes I feel as though I am turning inward so much that I am going to turn inside out,” he writes. “And become totally submerged in my own delusions.” It’s cathartic to read Lou’s frank acknowledgement of the terror inherent in making one’s own reality, while hoping against hope that the envisioned self might exist independently of one’s efforts to manifest it.
Another hallmark of the collected diaries is the chronicling of a changing body. Sullivan marvels at how quickly his muscles develop on testosterone, how strong and lean he becomes with little effort. He admires the flatness of his chest, his deep voice and masculine silhouette that allow him to pass in any leather bar or movie theater. He sketches his own body after surgery, weighing how his “completed” body actually feels complete as well as the ways in which it still fails him. Then, just after moving to Albion Street for the second time in 1986, he writes “Well diary. . .I have AIDS,” and the steady stream of self-scrutiny continues, unrelenting. His breath comes shorter, he gets tired more easily, he feels the bones of his ass when he sits in a hard chair. Once again, he looks at himself in the mirror and doesn’t recognize himself. Like the faithful diarist and vigilant observer he is, nothing is left off the record—the waxing and the waning is here for all to read.
Neither does Sullivan shy away from his anger at having attained a body he thinks will be attractive to other gay men, only to have his tenancy in that body cut cruelly short by a fatal disease. It is not easy to read this book, as one has the sense of Sullivan writing right up until he was too weak to hold the pen any longer. However, joy is represented in equal measure to pain, chiefly in the form of sex. Sullivan is master of the remembered sex scene:
I petted him as he masturbated + played with his nipples until the little tip hardened + I played with it. I lay back, stuck my hand down my pants + beat off next to him, coming twice. I knew he was amazed watching me work out like that—I really do work up a sweat + have violent trembling throughout my sessions. I touched him a few times as I masturbated, and I ran my hand over his, I felt his finger stroke my palm—his first reaching out to me that night, his first return of affection. I want him to desire me, too.
After he’s diagnosed, these make for some incredibly sexy and touching moments. The closer he comes to death, the more meaning a hookup contains, or the weekly massage, and recounting of the theater employee who fucks him brazenly in the aisle blooms with more tender arousal.
Sullivan writes that “the medical community may not have wanted me to live as a gay man, but it appears as though I will die as one,” referring to the reluctance and flat-out refusal he encountered when trying to access hormones that doctors would only prescribe to straight trans men, those who displayed the culturally acceptable desire to be a man loving a woman, instead of a woman wanting to be a man who loves men. Still, he embodies his sexuality in his own action. Sullivan is always forthright about this desire, even in doctor’s offices when it would be easier to lie to get what he needs, saying “[i]f that psychiatric profession has decided that being homosexual is no longer a sign of mental disorder, then how come wanting to be homosexual is so mental?”Lou’s writing frequently invokes future generations of trans people who he hopes might find comfort and guidance reading his journals, and there’s something comforting in accompanying Lou 30 years later.
Without his desire he doesn’t make sense to himself; he paints a self-portrait, one of a young man chasing down his own homosexuality and holding onto it tightly as a marker of his embodied self. “It happened so different than I felt it would,” he writes of an early foray into New York City’s gay bars. “Me, ready to go crashing in. But the world welcomed me without the fear I had of it.”
Time collapses while reading We Both Laughed in Pleasure. The historical markers are there, but Lou’s life is so startlingly modern and self-constructed, and his voice so immediate, that I felt often as if I were talking with a friend on my couch. Lou’s writing frequently invokes future generations of trans people who he hopes might find comfort and guidance reading his journals, and there’s something comforting in accompanying Lou 30 years later, as if me and his other readers could give his vivid presence the encouragement and succor we undoubtedly wish to give him.