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Overlooked No More: Lou Sullivan, Author and Transgender Activist

by Editorial
Overlooked No More: Lou Sullivan, Author and Transgender Activist


This text is a part of Neglected, a collection of obituaries about outstanding individuals whose deaths, starting in 1851, went unreported in The Instances.

“I walked down the center of Market Road,” Lou Sullivan wrote in his journal in June 1981, about taking part in San Francisco’s homosexual delight parade. “The primary time I can say I really felt I ‘marched within the parade.’ My opened shirt blew within the wind — the solar tanning my abdomen — feeling lean and alive and delightful — saying I’m a person — saying I like males.”

Sullivan had lengthy sought a way of belonging in homosexual areas. Having been assigned feminine at start, he had additionally lengthy sought gender-affirming care — and had been denied due to his sexual orientation. This was his first time celebrating Pleasure after he had undergone prime surgical procedure, or chest reconstruction, and the expertise was certainly one of affirmation.

On the time, the medical mannequin of transsexuality assumed that the objective of gender transition was to reside a heterosexual life. As a homosexual transgender man, Sullivan confounded this mannequin and spent a lot of his life actively difficult that considering. His activism in the end helped make queer trans masculinity legible to the medical world.

Whereas Sullivan was many issues — a secretary, typesetter, educator, activist, historian, neighborhood organizer and pleasure seeker — he’s finest remembered as a author and activist. His fundamental objective: offering sources to those that recognized as female-to-male, or F.T.M., then the dominant time period for transgender individuals who have been assigned feminine at start.

Data on trans expertise, particularly F.T.M., was scant, and through his early maturity Sullivan had encountered no precedents for his identification.

In 24 diaries that he crammed over three a long time, he documented his personal journey, making a traditionally important archive of trans expertise that he hoped to at some point publish. He additionally produced newsletters; corresponded with researchers, medical professionals and different transgender individuals; printed a biography; and wrote a extensively circulated pamphlet. Resounding throughout all of his writings is his adamance in regards to the validity of need.

Louis Graydon Sullivan was born on June 16, 1951, in Wauwatosa, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee, certainly one of six kids of John Eugene Sullivan, who owned a trucking firm, and Nancy Louise Sullivan, a homemaker.

Having grown up through the countercultural actions of the Nineteen Sixties and ’70s, he understood the worth of political activism early on, and took part in civil rights and antiwar protests as a youngster. In 1973 he joined Milwaukee’s Homosexual Individuals’s Union, a rights group, serving as secretary. He additionally printed his first article, “A Transvestite Solutions a Feminist,” within the group’s e-newsletter — a type of popping out.

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Sullivan moved to San Francisco in 1975 together with his longtime accomplice, a cisgender man who inspired Sullivan’s homosexual identification however didn’t see himself as homosexual. Sullivan’s first few years in San Francisco have been troublesome: He discovered the L.G.B.T.Q. neighborhood a lot bigger and extra diffuse than Milwaukee’s, and his relationship was collapsing amid tensions round his need to medically transition.

In 1979, Sullivan ended his 11-year relationship and sought medical help for transition — pursuits stymied by therapists and medical doctors who decided that his sexual orientation towards males made him an “atypical candidate.” In a powerfully worded response to a denial letter he obtained from Stanford College’s Gender Dysphoria Clinic, Sullivan wrote, “The final human populace is made up of many sexual persuasions — it’s unimaginable that your program requires all transsexuals to be of 1 cloth.”

With assist from the transgender activist and mentor Steve Dain, Sullivan lastly bought the medical care he wanted on the Institute for Superior Research of Human Sexuality in San Francisco, the place he additionally grew to become an everyday speaker on F.T.M. issues.

Sullivan later volunteered on the Janus Data Facility, a counseling and training useful resource for transgender individuals, the place he established a friendship with the psychotherapist Paul Walker, who had helped draft the primary worldwide care requirements for treating transgender sufferers. Walker got here to depend on Sullivan’s information and infrequently despatched purchasers to him for peer counseling.

In an interview, Sullivan’s brother Flame Sullivan remembered Lou’s accounts of attending medical conferences. Everybody else had a number of levels after their names, Lou informed him. “And it was simply him: ‘Lou Sullivan.’ They normally put him on the finish of the convention, so he might blow everyone away,” Flame Sullivan stated. “He knew what he was speaking about. Greater than a few of these medical doctors did.”

Many within the F.T.M. neighborhood, together with the writer and activist Jamison Inexperienced, got here to know Sullivan by means of his booklet, “Data for the Feminine-to-Male Crossdresser and Transsexual,” first printed in 1980 and revised and up to date twice. Revealed and distributed by Janus, the booklet was notable for its acknowledgment of sexual range, and introduced a youthful, extra queer-centered perspective than that of different transgender activists on the time. Although written for different trans males, it additionally piqued the curiosity of researchers, a lot of whom engaged Sullivan in correspondence.

“Lou was the one who pushed the envelope round sexuality and gender,” Inexperienced stated in an interview, including that Sullivan’s fundamental curiosity was ensuring that folks had the knowledge they wanted. “That’s all he cared about.”

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In 1986 Sullivan started internet hosting quarterly F.T.M. get-togethers, reporting on the conferences in a e-newsletter known as FTM that reached subscribers as far-off as New Zealand.

Sullivan realized he had AIDS in 1987 and, in response to his biographer, Brice D. Smith, was the primary transgender man recognized to be residing with the illness. He took perverse delight on this standing: “They informed me on the gender clinic that I couldn’t reside as a homosexual man,” he wrote, “but it surely appears like I’ll die as one.”

Earlier than his demise, he deliberate to complete two main tasks: 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 model of the diaries he had stored since age 10.

“His work was extra vital to him than demise,” Flame Sullivan stated. Although he lived to see “From Feminine to Male: The Lifetime of Jack Bee Garland,” printed in 1990, the conclusion that he won’t full the diaries undertaking weighed on him.

“He was so afraid that he was going to die and the medical career was going to disclaim the existence of homosexual trans males once more as soon as he did,” Smith, who wrote the biography “Lou Sullivan: Daring to Be a Man Amongst Males” (2017), stated in an interview. “He felt on the time that he was the one spokesman for homosexual trans males 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 printed in “We Each Laughed in Pleasure: The Chosen Diaries of Lou Sullivan, 1951-1991.” Edited by Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma, the ebook presents an intimate and candid portrait of a tenderhearted seeker of data and pleasure, and has launched Sullivan’s life and work to youthful generations.

His story impressed a dance suite (Sean Dorsey’s “Lou,” 2008) and a brief movie (Rhys Ernst’s “Expensive Lou Sullivan,” 2014). And because the diaries have been printed, there was an outpouring of Sullivan-related content material by way of songs, illustrations, memes and different media, which Ozma described in an interview as “the Lou Sullivan cultural manufacturing increase.”

“Lou would have gotten an actual kick out of how a lot work individuals are making about him,” he stated.

Megan Milks is the writer of “Margaret and the Thriller of the Lacking Physique” and “Slug and Different Tales.”


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