"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." — Lou Sullivan
To make a community is to come together. For queer folks, we often have to fight for that community. But what of those who are a part of multiple communities; those who do the work to bring communities together? For Lou Sullivan, pioneer of the grassroots FTM movement, it meant paving the way for himself and other gay trans men.
Lou Sullivan was born in Wisconsin on June 16, 1951, and he was brought up in a large Catholic family. Normally in this work, we don’t have much information on how people felt about their identities growing up. It is not until they are much older that we can understand how they thought, and usually only through their interactions with others. Lou Sullivan is another story. Sullivan was given a diary as a child, and he continued to update it over the next decade.
In his second entry at age 11, he wrote, “When we got home, we played boys.” Just over two years later, he wrote, “I wish I were a boy.” A year after that, “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."
From his childhood, Lou Sullivan had an understanding of who he was and what he wanted. So in 1975, he decided to leave the Midwest and head to the west coast—to California. He felt it was the only place he would be accepted as a gay trans man. At his leaving though, he found the first bit of support in living his life as himself. His mother bought him a suit and told the tailor it was for her son. His siblings supported him in every way they could, his brother even saying that Lou was the closest thing he’d had to a brother. His grandmother was, in fact, the best with his new name and pronouns. His father would even offer to pay for SRS years later. His family sent him off with a tailored suit and his grandfather’s watch, and he made his way to California.
Once there, Lou lived his life as a gay man. He was out in his personal life, and became heavily involved in the gay and transsexual communities. However, heterosexuality was still a requirement for medical transition at the time. Gender professionals didn’t believe in “female to gay males”. There were gay men and trans men; two distinct groups.
He believed in and focused on helping fellow trans men, especially gay trans men. He lobbied for the American Psychiatric Association and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health to recognize gay trans men. He fought not only to have gay trans men recognized but 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 transition.
Outside of his work as an activist, or perhaps as an extension of it, he worked on a peer level. He was one of the first trans men to be a peer counselor at the Janus Information Facility, a center for trans issues. He played a key role in helping trans men and trans masc folks access peer-led support and counselling, trans-friendly endocrinological services, hormone therapy, and SRS outside of gender dysphoria clinics. He wrote the first guidebook for trans men, Information for the Female to Male Cross-Dresser and Transsexual and the biography of Jack Bee Garland, From Female to Male: The Life of Jack Bee Garland. He also edited The Gateway, a newsletter for trans folks, particularly focusing on “transvestism and transsexualism”, the preferred language at the time.
Shortly after his brother’s death, he found doctor’s and therapist’s that supported his transition. Whether or not they felt gay trans men could really be, they were at the very least sympathetic, and Sullivan started testosterone. Soon after, he also underwent top surgery. Still, the search for a clinic willing to accept him into their program continued. 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 to handle what they considered to be such an unusual case.
After his second rejection, Sullivan wrote a letter to the Stanford Clinic. He wrote:
“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.”
Lou Sullivan finally underwent bottom surgery in 1986. That same year, he found out he was HIV+. From the time he found out he was HIV+, he worked even harder. Sullivan helped found the GLBT Historical Society, where he maintained an archive of resources and references for trans people. He wanted gay trans men to have someone to look up to, to hold as a beacon of hope. And for the younger trans men who knew him and the many who never got a chance to, that’s what he is. In December 1986, he started hosting a support group for trans men. This group eventually became FTM International, the largest organization of its kind still running today. As an activist, he did so much work for the community in educating and lobbying and counseling. Living his life as an out gay trans man, taking advantage of the world around him, he was able to inspire others like him. Through his life and work, he was able to leave behind a legacy. Though he lived years past his original prognosis, Lou Sullivan died from complications due to AIDS on March 2, 1991.
Before his death, Sullivan said in an interview, “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. And I kind of took a perverse pleasure in contacting the gender clinics that rejected me, and said that they’ve told me so many years that it was impossible for me to live as a gay man, but it looks like I’m gonna die like one.”
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
"Lou Sullivan in His Own Words." OurStories, vol. 8, no. 2, Summer 1993, p. 6-7.
“Lou Sullivan.” Lavender Magazine. February 29, 2008. https://www.lavendermagazine.com/archives/uncategorized/lou-sullivan/
Lou Sullivan to Judy Van Maasdam, March 22, 1980, The Lou Sullivan Collection, Courtesy LGBT Center at the SF Public Library.
“Lou Sullivan.” We’ve Been Around. Narr. Elliot Montague. 2016. http://www.wevebeenaround.com/lou/
Pauly, Dr. Ira B. “Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: I, II, III, IIII - Gender & Sexual Orientation.” University of Nevada School of Medicine. Ed. Rev. Megan M. Rohrer. 1988-1990.
Rohrerin, Megan. GLBT Historical Society. Man-i-fest: FTM Mentorship in San Francisco from 1976 - 2009. 2010.
Smith, Dr. Brice D. Lou Sullivan: Daring To Be a Man Among Men. Oakland: Transgress Press, 2017. Print.