Review: Spence MessihVincent Silkon Lou Sullivan

Our Father, Who Art In Heaven

My hands, my wrists, my arms

Spence Messih: I’ve had numerous encounters with Lou Sullivan over the years – from reading his biography and visiting his archives, to developing a series of sculptural works with him in mind in 2018 – but it wasn’t until you and I were planning a trans history workshop for a group of young queer people that I really started to understand the depth to which he was complex, insightful, and revolutionary. We were putting the slides and stories together, talking about how we wanted to speak about each of the trans trailblazers and what we felt would be important for the young people to hear at this stage of their lives. The young people were mid-way through a week-long camp, a place where they could go to sleep queer and wake up this way too. This camp is, for me, a place of love and care – both for our communities and for ourselves.

That particular year the majority of campers were trans masculine. There was an emphasis in conversations between the young people about passing and being men, conveying particular rigid expectations about aspirations to pass as cis – wear a large watch to cover your thin wrists, thick socks to make your ankles bigger. I know the power of language and how when a word enters you it can become you. Words have the power to change how you relate to others and yourself. Languages of naming, particularly around transness, have the ability to be both a receiver and amplifier, as well as a force that limits and judges our experiences through containing and classifying. When I think of Lou I think of someone who was astute and contradictory, persistent and enduring both in his commitment to himself and to those around him. Bringing Lou’s story to the group felt even more important that year. After all, describing something is very different from defining it.

Vincent Silk: I felt so lost that year at camp among the teenage trans masculinity! I found myself hiding from it, distancing myself from the talk of passing, the conversations about little wrists and big hips, the drama. Easy for me to say, huh? I think back on it now with a kind of cringy love. That year you were the House Person and I was the Cook. I remember the energy you and I brought to the evenings – hysterical laughter, pranks, revelling in the gaze of our ever-changing audience. I feel like we were doing something relational, reactionary, thrumming with love for each other and the situation. We were having so much fun. Maybe the campers weren’t the only ones being silly boys.

It felt so important to bring Lou’s story to that space, but my strongest memory is of how the young people reacted so strongly to the twentieth-century t4t love story of Michael Dillon and Roberta Cowell. I remember one of those campers exclaiming, ‘I can’t believe she dumped him!’ with such consternation. Even the adults were weighing in. It really created a furore.

Photo: Spence Messih (2018) Louis Graydon Sullivan papers, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Historical Society, San Francisco.

My body unveils itself

SM: Tenderly edited by Zach Ozma and Ellis Martin, We Both Laughed In Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan features a collection of Louis Graydon Sullivan’s unpublished diaries. Our Lou was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on 16 June, 1951. He was many things: activist, author and a pioneer of the grassroots FTM movement. To interject, we try to use the language of Lou’s diaries throughout this conversation. The term FTM has largely fallen out of popular usage, and has been replaced by some more, perhaps, expansive or inclusive terms. We use it here because language is history. Lou was instrumental in helping trans people access peer-support and medical services outside of the gender clinics that were popping up across the US in the 80s. In 1986 Lou founded the FTM Newsletter (first published in September 1987), a quarterly publication that featured editorials, news, advice, obituaries, and dating ads for the trans masculine community and their allies. The newsletter, and its affiliated peer support groups were one of the first organisations specifically for trans masculine people. Lou’s community, activist, archival, and personal work was intertwined, he had an enduring and enlivening impact on the lives of his trans siblings and trans grandchildren.

VS: Lou was one of four kids in a Catholic family, and his diaries attest to them being very supportive of the way he affirmed his gender and sexuality. He never completed university, and was a clerk most of his working life. His life’s work documents a process of becoming. His craft was writing and publishing, and his political work came in this form, beginning in his early twenties in Milwaukee. He wrote the Gay People’s Union newsletter, edited The Gateway, a monthly newsletter for transsexual social support group Golden Gate Girls/Guys, founded the advocacy organisation FTM International, whose quarterly newsletter still reaches subscribers across the globe. He stayed up all night writing letters to trans people who responded to his newsletter, answered the phone at multiple counselling lines, and wrote edition after edition of his book Information for the Female-to-Male Crossdresser and Transsexual between 1980 and 1990, which disseminated crucial information on medical transition that is still largely relevant today. He was committed to making space in the world for himself and for people like him. Lou’s diary oscillates between pages and pages of masturbatory fantasy mixed with matter-of-fact description of sex, and philosophical musings and anguished lamentations – ‘How will I look in 10 years? Like a frightened man? I need to relax all my muscles.’

SM: Throughout Lou’s life he was consistently deferred from accessing vital gender affirming care because of his sexuality – the medical establishment didn’t believe it was possible for a trans man to be attracted to other men. His personal diaries chronicle the walls that Lou came into contact with and detail his persistence and determination to be wholly himself, even when that meant he was turned away from accessing care. Lou knew too well the preciousness of time, but he also believed in the possibility of himself. Near the end of his life he made a terrifying statement, ‘They told me at the gender clinic that I could not live as a gay man, but it looks like I will die as one.’ Lou died of AIDS complications on 2 March, 1991.

and is simply, quietly beautiful

SM: While we can’t agree on what year it was, I like to think of the second time we met, around ten or twelve years ago. I came over to your big share house in Newtown. Your non-binary housemate was making a zine on non-cis male body hair and some skinny white anarchist guy was cooking lentils. With something bubbling up inside, and without any conscious process of questioning, I was very taken by you.

We position ourselves in relation to what we want to move into, or around… or at best, we try to get close. In my early twenties I had this fear of ‘going too far’ or of not knowing where things would end up if I took the first steps to listening to myself. I can recognise this now as essential to any process of living life true to oneself. I think this feeling of being pulled is particularly familiar to trans people. Some people don’t feel this pull, and sadly don’t ever feel dragged.

VS: I was petrified of mirrors, spent my late teens avoiding all the trans masculine people I even vaguely knew, though I was surrounded by gays, I swam desperately against that sucking whirlpool of self-designation. I too was scared of going ‘too far’ but I felt pulled toward it and positioned myself in relation to people I could see myself becoming-like. This type of relation is its own form of objectification. The proximity-pull drowns you in comparisons, which are mercifully fairly absent in We Both Laughed In Pleasure, and painfully present everywhere else. Like the opposite of t4t… t against t? I don’t know. Imagine never feeling the insistent tug toward something scarily true like that!

Remember the first time we met, at our mutual friends’ 21st birthday? She was my friend from work and your friend from high school. I was chuffed she invited me to her birthday dinner, felt that she must really like me. When I was seated next to you it was like an ‘ohhh’ moment, a realisation that she needed a mirror for you, a proxy. To occupy you. I love it, two pet freaks at the dinner table. I was wearing this pink ruffle shirt and velvet pants, I came off like a fag and looked like a lesbian. The friends were visibly icked by me and exasperated with you, and the chicken involtinis gave me food poisoning. I’m so glad we took the wheel.

SM: My memory of that night is that we were totally charming and everyone loved us. I think this feeling of going ‘too far’ was familiar to Lou too. There are a few moments where he mentions getting ‘outa hand’. Like when he’s reflecting on getting his first cock, he writes, ‘The only thing I can imagine was I felt it would come to mean too much to me the whole thing would get outa hand. But lately I’ve been getting out of hand anyhow.’ Throughout the diaries he records these intense reckonings that he nonchalantly passes off as insignificant and isolated thoughts. It doesn’t matter what he ends up doing, or if he is confirming or disregarding his own thoughts – it is the ability to think in such extremes that is important. With the declaration of an ‘I don’t know’, a ‘Shit, damn, hell’ or an ‘Ugh’ he clears the floor ready for a new thought to take shape. You do this a lot, Vinnie.

VS: Like you say, it’s about making way. As an historian, Lou is also very in life, constantly living it, making history, although he mentions more than once being unable to think of his life as exciting. There’s a point to be made here about heroes: we hold him up as one. I know in that history presentation we spoke of him as the first, or one of the first, who paved the way. I posted a photo of him to my Instagram story with the caption ‘Our Father, Who Art in Heaven’. (Wonder what pervy Catholic Lou would have thought of that!) We do these things with a certain reverence. It’s not undue, either. Reading his diary did not make him more saint-like. On the contrary it made me lose some of my reverence for him and see him instead as he was, as he has been picked up by respectful and loving descendants. Losing that reverence only deepened my love for him. I thought about how pitiful and flawed we are. How frustrating it was to read about his significant relationships, the way we feel frustrated when our friends are stuck with shitty or controlling partners. How thrilling to read all the sex he ever had! There’s a helplessness in reading someone’s account of their own life and moment. I had to surrender myself to his world. There was so much pleasure. And so much grief.

Suddenly, magically we found each other

On the right is a photograph of a shopping trolley on grass. On the left is black text on a black background that reads: 'CORONA DAZE 24 by CAConrad //for years after / friends died of / AIDS they still / danced with me in my dreams / did survivors of the Black Plague / dance with their dead / who will dance / with whom / in a year / let’s / keep / safe / dance / together / IN PERSON’
CORONA DAZE 24 by CAConrad. Source: @caconrad88 on Instagram.

VS: Writing this in the midst of another pandemic, it is impossible to make one single, clear comment, to draw one line of connection. It feels necessary to think historically: plague and contagion, and the ways that those with state and corporate power use these concepts to subdue, intimidate, and lessen the lives of the people. I’m thinking about the cost of Truvada in the USA, the smallpox epidemics that hit east coast Aboriginal communities in the 1790s and 1830s, lock hospitals, prison hulks and slave ships, the casualties of agriculture, plague as shadowy spectre of capitalism, what we all already know about the criminalisation of illness and the stigma of contagion, home detention, ankle bracelets, the strength it takes in this moment and to turn to solidarity rather than despair and fear. It’s big, but it doesn’t involve retreating into the arms of an incompetent, uncompassionate State. We’re not dead yet. I want to dance with you in person.

SM: Being trans has taught me not to believe in coincidences. I believe in deep-down love, intuition, persistence, relearning, kindness, consequences, and trying to find something to live for and be mildly good at. But I don’t believe in coincidences. Everything is deeply connected. The exploitation of humans is age-old: bodies and identities are weaponised to make money out of suffering; we are gaslit, told that money is more important than human life; and we are told to fear each other. No one can look you in the eye.

I often watch live-streams of places around the world, in the same way one might look under the sink to see if a corner of mould was expanding – to check with no real anticipation or investment but maybe as a way to identify the threat of a visible contagion. Last week I was watching the Trevi Fountain live-stream. Usually the site is completely packed, people throwing coins in the fountain – one coin for returning to the ‘Eternal City’ of Rome, two coins for returning and falling in love, and three coins for returning, falling in love and marrying. When the camera came on there was one solo soldier walking around the arc of the marble fountain with a rifle in hand. We are all invisible at the moment – and not being seen has its consequences.

Lou never got to help physically rebuild his personal world after the peak of the AIDS crisis in the US, but in many ways he helped to rebuild the worlds of countless people who came after him. Early on in his diaries, Lou says, ‘My problem is that I can’t accept life for what it is…like it is presented to me. I feel there is something deep and wonderful underneath it that no one has found.’ I wonder what messages the dead have for us now. I want to dance with you too.

There we were…here we are

VS: Lou wrote over and over clearly about how he saw himself, how he wanted to be seen. He lived in a world where collective queer discourse was disseminated through the vectors of nightlife, university and community groups, in-person meetings, sex-stores, movie theatres, bookstores. Posters and leaflets and flyers and marches; AIDS activism and activism against the Vietnam War. Lou was staffing the gay phone counselling line in Milwaukee in the early seventies, watching bands play in bars, wearing leather and suit trousers. He was moving through the world without a descriptor or prefix.

SM: In responding to We Both Laughed in Pleasure I’m conscious of Zach and Ellis working together, in the same way that we’re writing together, and also in the way that Lou corresponded with trans people from across the world, sharing with them connection, hope, knowledge, and a mirror – no matter how dirty the reflection was. Trans collaboration. Reading the diaries, I thought a lot about the ways in which Lou was both creating and disrupting contemporary trans narratives that demand we be singular and palatable in order to be legible, respectable, and have presence. Though not a memoir, I found his diaries full of anguish, desperation, and anxiety but also dripping with determination, exhilaration, and lightness. Lou has taught me how to better have and hold them all. As he says, ‘I love myself a lot. I love to enjoy the feeling of being alive + having a body + secrets.’ How beautiful it is to invent ways to feel connection through re-naming, befriending, and actualising who you are. How beautiful it is to do this with others.

VS: Lou identifies the struggle of wanting something else than what he was assigned. He writes of body and spirit and his internalised experience of mis-directed misogyny. He tells us of his complex relationships, which often weren’t affirming on more levels than his gender. He writes about fearing his long-term boyfriend’s resentment of his success and the struggle of making oneself smaller to fit a partner’s restrictions. Years after they broke up, when Lou is in the middle of a relationship that is turbulent, as full of love and yearning, and as unaffirming as the previous, he writes in his diary: ‘I’m so angry at J because he forced me to distort my image of love–.’

Importantly, he writes of becoming himself through sex and relationships, in beautiful, self-actualised, promiscuous detail. We Both Laughed in Pleasure is in some ways a tome dedicated to the detailed recounting of sexual experiences, a dogged pursuit of pleasure. The frankness with which he writes about his sexual experiences is, for me, the greatest gift in these diaries. We come to know ourselves in relation to others: Lou picks up a drag queen in a bar in San Francisco and writes ‘I said I wouldn’t take my clothes off, but she was really free + open + told me not to be that way, that we are all ok no matter what we are.’ Reading page after page of Lou’s sexual exploits left me with the pleasant scent in my nostrils of backrooms, bedrooms, parks, and pavements.

I plan to let you happy me

VS: It’s never going to be a fully comfortable experience to read a diary of a figure you admire who died thirty years ago. These words have lain untouched and my entire life has been lived in the time elapsed since then. That it is a personal diary makes clear and essential the flawed nature of one’s own reflections. In later entries Lou writes that his one goal before he dies is to publish his diaries in full. I wonder what he would have done with them? What he would have edited and slashed? Would he have felt exposed? I found myself tenderly uncomfortable with his obsession with thinness and youth, and the overtones of (sometimes internalised) misogyny: ‘When I told J I was bored listening to women talk when I wouldn’t had men been saying the exact same things, he agreed with me, saying he feels the same way… J looks down on women (and that includes me) just as much as I do. Big help he is.’

His writings about his courtship of T pulses with this anguished energy – after T tells Lou of his attraction to their mutual friend Cuca, Lou writes about regretting saying ‘she’s got a face like a dog’. His desire for T eclipses everything, he writes of it with the yearning familiar to so much queer literature: a pining, writhing love that cannot even will itself into being. I remember it well. The eroticism of what Jordy Rosenberg, in his recent addition to the trans canon Confessions of the Fox, describes as to ‘indulge a dead love, dead in the eyes of the world, and valueless’. In his long-term relationships, the ways Lou’s gender was enacted upon him are reminiscent of my early navigations of being trans, dating and sleeping with cis people. There’s something in reading his entries about those conversations and events that sat heavy in my guts. ‘I always felt had J not been around, if he got killed by a train, I would definitely go towards being male – that I’d even hoped somehow he’d get out of my life so I’d be free to be a man.’

His difficulties being affirmed in his own gender and with making decisions about what kind of medical intervention he wanted were often crises in the context of pressure from relationships and systems. His boyfriends often denied and negated his seeking a self-designation of maleness, at the same time as he chronicled the ways they did see him in all his authenticity, and the gender clinics boggled at his frank openness about his sexual interest in other men.

The things we tell ourselves, the things we wait for.

SM: I feel that this current wave of visibility we’re in has intensified the ways in which our experiences are permitted to be spoken about and lived by ourselves. Jos Charles, responding to a question about online trans discourse and finding the ‘right’ language to use when she was writing her recent collection feeld, said she was thinking about ‘what it means to assume one must have internet access, free time, the right profiles on the right sites, availability to find the “right language.” And in order to what? To describe one’s very own body, experience?’ I think back to the young people at camp and how their language felt so far away from us, from our experiences of growing up unmediated by trans vlogs. I’m not attached to either one of these ways of coming of age, how could I be? – I’m just trying to describe the points where languages, feelings and realities differ.

VS: McKenzie Wark writes: ‘I don’t know the names. I never knew the names. In those days there weren’t any names, or weren’t any sweet ones.’ Lou called himself not only different names but every abbreviation he could find – TS/TV, cross-dresser, or simply ‘dresser’ (which I adore), man, youngman, FTM, F→M. Wimp, fruity little faggot, FAMOUS. Lou was a very emphatic writer, even reading the diaries in print you can feel how his scrawl raced across the page. He archives his experiences in their immediacy, and nowhere is it more piquant than when he describes feeling good: ‘I love the sound of my voice, I laugh a lot, join in a lot, feel intelligent, worthy of attention, open to new ideas, new experiences. I can be silly, or wrong, or stupid, + not feel ashamed.’

SM: In editing the diaries, Zach and Ellis have said in an interview they were thinking about the cis gaze and who the audience of We Both Laughed in Pleasure would be. They say ‘we cut a lot of that [Lou’s detailed writing about his surgeries and the physical impacts of his sero-status] out, because it started to feel both potentially painful to one audience and too voyeuristic for another.’ I think it’s important to talk about hypervisibility in relation to erasure. In many ways I think being ‘visible’ or ‘legible’ as a singular thing, as singularly trans, is a form of erasure – you can think here of what complexity and nuance is erased by people’s perceived legibility. Lou says, ‘I can’t even present myself as an interesting person. All the interesting things I’ve done + am doing are TS-related + I can’t mention.’ We have to work against the commodification of our work – which is equally our life and labour.

VS: And he was an archivist until the end. The hilarious ‘small problem’ language with which he narrates his life; American colloquialisms – ‘Brother, now I’m writing this page back to back, and in a few years the ink will soak through and mess up either side’ – that are so sweetly dated, narrating the potential erasure of his life’s work with the same breezy insouciance that he applied to so many situations, from being jilted by lovers and men he lusted after, to the gravity of his HIV diagnosis – ‘I am recovering + feeling so well that I’m beginning to think this is all a big joke!’

Photo: Spence Messih (2018) Louis Graydon Sullivan papers, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Historical Society, San Francisco.

Summer me

VS: I wonder if it is Lou’s dogged determination to be witnessed, to be seen, acknowledged, that means that I am able to refuse answering questions? To refuse a small part of myself and my experiences for perusal, to lie, refute, evade, deceive. Our Father Lou, who wanted to live in purity. And us his wriggling children.

SM: Whenever I’ve been to LGBT archives I always find myself surprised but not shocked at the lack of trans masculine material. While I’m not really talking about archival erasure, I do have complex feelings of not feeling represented or recognisable in collections. I feel the lack of visual representation as both a frustration and a relief – realising that I don’t necessarily want readability (especially in archival terms) – in many ways avoiding the eroticisation, sexualisation, tokenisation, and commodification that trans bodies, especially trans women, were and are still subjected to. Most trans archival material is from, or of AMAB communities – appearing as though trans women were running to the camera, or, more likely being chased by it, while AFAB people have been hiding from it, living stealth, passing as cis men, whatever.

Lou was perhaps an exception to this observation – his prolific diaries, kept from age eleven until his premature death bear witness to his own personal transformation alongside the social and political changes of the world around him. When I visited Lou’s self-donated collection at the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Historical Society in San Francisco I also got to see his poems, creative writing and erotic stories, as well as correspondence with doctors, psychologists, media, and trans people from across the world. Materially, his writing featured pen traced over pencil, pencil traced over pen as he re-edited, placed emphasis and lingered on his choice of words. His handwriting was so slanted in places it threatened to fall off the page, in some ways complicating his declared intention to publish the diaries – did Lou care about the legibility and longevity of his work or did he just need to get words on the page? He wished for both. Small books often emerged out of single entries as Lou kept to the daily one-page limit in his pre-filled notebooks by gluing pages on top of each other. Lou’s diaries speak of the malleability and vulnerability of language, the body and material and are a testament to his own perseverance and resistance to the social and structural constraints that shaped his life and death. Reading the text after encountering the physical diaries, I had great admiration for the editor’s own perseverance with deciphering the material and presenting it in a printed form. Its wild that we can all hold a selection Lou’s life in our hands. Lou’s diaries were the place where he sought to find and create language not just for himself but for those around him, and those that would come after him. He says, ‘I wanna look like what I am but don’t know what someone like me looks like.’ He follows, ‘I mean, when people look at me I want them to think – there’s one of those people that reasons, that is a philosopher, that has their own interpretation of happiness. That’s what I am.’

VS: I too have scribbled into notebooks until all hours, trying to get it all down. I too want to be adored. Loneliness, mirror ideology, desire. The walls of stealth living. Lou writes about the restrictions of living in his new building with his new friends. The attention paid to hiding the parts of oneself that allude to gender history. Stealth can be a lot of things – safety, a moment’s respite, negation. Not available to everyone, it can be taken away at a moment’s notice. Sometimes, when I get the occasional ‘miss’ or ‘ladies’, I get a frisson of possibility, a thrill; how expansive must one’s ideas of gender be that someone could look like I do, a grizzled tiny dancer, and still be considered a lady! Of course, it’s not all fun and games, even when it is.

It is interesting to think about the demands on contemporary writers and artists to commodify our position. In a way I think this can be particularly true for trans people, being that the normative narrative is about movement from one thing to another, successfully – ‘this is my voice, two months on T’. If Lou had written a memoir it would hit so differently to his diaries. I read We Both Laughed in Pleasure from my particular position, but I didn’t find it voyeuristic.

Lou’s diary betrays no interest in performing purity, being the single good man, or not like other men. His narration of his experience is not interested in performing a ‘non-toxic’ masculinity, or a special version of masculine embodiment known only to trans men, coded as unoppressive due to birth assignment or gender history. Or something. He only wants to have the future he deserves, one where he is alive.

SM: In ‘The Empire Strikes Back: A Post Transsexual Manifesto’ Sandy Stone talks about researchers and doctors in the sixties reading Harry Benjamin’s ‘The Transsexual Phenomenon’ (1966) to help them identify the right behaviour in their trans patients that would ‘lead to acceptance for surgery’. Stone writes, ‘It took a surprisingly long time – several years – for the researchers to realize that the reason the candidates’ behavioural profiles matched Benjamin’s so well was that the candidates, too, had read Benjamin’s book, which was passed from hand to hand within the transsexual community, and they were only too happy to provide the behavior that led to acceptance for surgery.’ I love this.

VS: Lou’s diary entry for the day he went to the endocrinologist to seek a prescription for HRT: ‘He did ask some pretty dumb questions, like “What typically ‘masculine’ things do you like to do and what typically ‘feminine’ things?” I DON’T KNOW! How the hell am I supposed to answer that?? Oh, I put cream + sugar in my coffee, that’s feminine; I like to watch boxing matches on TV, that’s masculine; I put bath oil in the tub, that’s feminine; and I use Brut deodorant, that’s masculine. GOD. [. . .] I left there rather discouraged. I first went to a bar (masculine!) and then home to cry (feminine!)’

SM: We need more medical research and big-pharma accountability. In an interview after the book was published, Zach said ‘There still haven’t ever been any clinical trials around long-term effects of hormones. There’s just a bunch of stuff that nobody’s really researched.’ These are the thoughts that spin out from encountering Lou’s diaries today – how could they not? The diaries point to so much, to so many demands that we still have. I remember reading an article in FTM International where Susan Strkyer was saying that we need transness to be depathologised. Some forty years later we’re still fighting for the same thing! Here, I think a lot about the hard reality of keeping us alive and how the focus of this is often misdirected. It’s a miracle that we are.

Winter me

SM: When I saw Lou’s collection in the archive I was thinking about legacy and attraction. Holding his diaries, poems, photos, and erotic stories I was thinking as much about him as I was wondering about every other trans person who has visited the archives and asked to see his collection, or perhaps just ‘any trans material that you have’. And I was thinking about Susan Stryker, Leslie Feinberg, Brice D. Smith, Sean Dorsey, Morgan M. Page and Rhys Earnst – just some of the people who have visited and drawn from Lou’s extensive collection.

VS: To think of him with others is so important. All the members of his FTM support group, sitting around in all their different iterations of having a body, all looking perfectly themselves. Their voices, talking to each other about themselves, each other. Towards the end of his life he writes: ‘Word is out, I guess, that Lou is on the deep skids, and all the female to males who have benefited from my work in the community are coming forward and telling me things like, I’m their hero!’A few years later, well past his prognosis in one of his last entries, among his cataloguing of symptoms and ailments (swollen, painful ankles, fatigue, a fungal rash on his torso and legs), he writes about handing over the FTM International meeting and newsletter responsibilities: ‘I feel much relieved that it’ll be in good hands and survive.’

SM: All his life, Lou was so determined and prolific in record keeping. While you can read humour, spontaneity, and drama in his diaries he was also a very serious person becausehe was having very serious things happen to him. When you see footage of him he is softly spoken and barely cracks a smile. He worked so hard to be taken seriously. I think the important thing here is to realise that he was both, and the dualities are not in opposition. I wish I could have asked him about this, as a friend. How did he prioritise time to record his experiences, as well as those of his peers, when the world is so distracting? How did he make room in between love and cruising and fucking and working and doing community work and tanning and being an uncle and brother, and looking after so many pets?

VS: Lou’s biography of Jack Garland was published in 1990 by Alyson Books, the same LGBT press that picked up Stone Butch Blues for its second release in 2003, and would go on to publish Patrick Califia’s ferocious oeuvre of leather-smut and Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For (the foundation of the ‘Bechdel test’). We Both Laughed in Pleasure allows a reading of Lou that is less party-rules political (than Leslie Feinberg, say) in a way, his writing is so interior, but it was his personal diary. His philosophising is sliding, momentary even when it is sharp: ‘I realize that people never put any worth on day-to-day activities, no matter how difficult they are. (It’s capitalism! I thought.)’ Lou’s diary is neither academic theory or narrative memoir. His writing has more Dorothy Allison than Eileen Myles, more Frank O’Hara than Paul Preciado. Comparing them is a pointless exercise – as what? Contemporaries? Writers? Activists? If he was alive now, what kind of presence would he hold as a public figure? I can imagine him now, protesting price gouging of PrEP, railing against medical gate-keeping that looks today so much like what it did for him. And I can see him too, sitting on a stool in a bar, wearing a leather jacket, gray-whiskered and with the tell-tale crows feet that we get when our formerly estrogen-powered skin loses its elasticity to testosterone, cruising hotties, and flirting shamelessly.

SM: I want for the values of multiplicity, persistence and collective care to fall off the page and leak out into our lives and communities, just as they did for Lou.

VS: I want us to stay alive! Like Lou in his late teens, telling his dear diary how excited he is to move out of home: ‘I only want me and all my future’.

Photo: Spence Messih (2018) Louis Graydon Sullivan papers, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Historical Society, San Francisco.


All section titles are from Lou Sullivan, We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan, eds. Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma (2019), Nightboat, New York.

Works Cited

Smith, Brice D. 2017, Lou Sullivan: Daring To Be A Man Among Men, Transgress Press

Zach Ozma and Ellis Martin, We Both Laughed In Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan (Nightboat, 2019)

Sullivan, L. 1990 From Female to Male: The Life of Jack B Garland, Alyson Books

Sandy Stone, The Empire Strikes Back: A Post Transsexual Manifesto

Rosenberg, J. 2018 Confessions of the Fox, Atlantic Books, London, United Kingdom, pp. 169

McKenzie Wark, 2020. Reverse Cowgirl, Semiotexte, NY