Look who’s got his own coffee mug? (This came in a fundraiser from the LGBT Historical Society San Francisco): My old friend Lou Sullivan, pioneering trans activist and fellow founding member of the LGBT Historical Society San Francisco. I originally met Lou in the 1970s, where he was an editor on the GPU News in Milwaukee and I was submitting my creative work (poetry, short stories, photographs) for publication. At the time Lou presented as a gay man. Later we met and became friends through our involvement with the LGBT Historical Society. Along with Paula Lichtenberg and Eric Garber, we had fun working on the newsletter (Paula is one of the old friends I had in mind when writing my essay on Friendship in Old Age).
Louis Graydon Sullivan (June 16, 1951 – March 2, 1991) was an American author and activist known for his work on behalf of trans men. He was perhaps the first transgender man to publicly identify as gay, and is largely responsible for the modern understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity as distinct, unrelated concepts. Sullivan was a pioneer of the grassroots female-to-male (FTM) movement and was instrumental in helping individuals obtain peer-support, counselling, endocrinological services and reconstructive surgery outside of gender dysphoria clinics. He founded FTM International, one of the first organizations specifically for FTM individuals, and his activism and community work was a significant contributor to the rapid growth of the FTM community during the late 1980s.
Sullivan grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the third child of six in a very religious Catholic family, and he attended Catholic primary and secondary school. Sullivan started keeping a journal at the age of 10, describing his early childhood thoughts of being a boy, confusing adolescence, sexual fantasies of being a gay man, and his involvement in the Milwaukee music scene. During his adolescence he expressed continued confusion about his identity, writing at age 15 in 1966 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.” Sullivan was attracted to the idea of playing different gender roles, and his attraction for male roles was outlined in his writings, specifically in his short stories, poems and diaries; he often explored the ideas of male homosexuality and gender identity.
At the age of seventeen he began a relationship with a self-described “feminine” male lover, and together they would play with gender roles and gender-bending. In 1973, Sullivan identified himself as a “female transvestite” and by 1975 he identified himself as a “female-to-male transsexual”. In 1975, it “became apparent” that Sullivan needed to leave Milwaukee for somewhere where he could find “more understanding” and access hormones for his transition, so he decided to move to San Francisco. His family was supportive of the move and gave him “a man’s suit and [his] grandfather’s pocket watch” as going-away presents. Upon arrival in San Francisco, Sullivan began working at the Wilson Sporting Good Company, where he was employed as a woman but cross-dressed as a man much of the time. In his personal life, Sullivan lived as an out gay man, but he was repeatedly denied sex reassignment surgery (SRS) because of his sexual orientation and the expectation of the time that transgender people should adopt stereotypical heterosexual opposite-sex gender roles. This rejection led Sullivan to start a campaign to remove homosexuality from the list of contraindications for SRS. In 1976, Sullivan suffered a severe crisis of gender identity and continued living as a feminine heterosexual woman for the next three years. In 1978 he was shaken by the death of his youngest brother. In 1979, Sullivan was finally able to find doctors and therapists who would accept his sexuality and began taking testosterone, with double mastectomy surgery following a year later. He then left his previous job to work as an engineering technician at the Atlantic-Ritchfield Company so that he could fully embrace his new identity as a man with new co-workers. In 1986, Sullivan obtained genital reconstruction surgery. He was diagnosed as HIV positive shortly after his surgery, and told he only had 10 months to live. It is likely that Sullivan was HIV- infected in 1980, just after his chest surgery. He wrote, “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.” Sullivan died of AIDS-related complications on March 2, 1991.
Sullivan wrote the first guidebook for FTM persons, and also a biography of the San Francisco FTM, Jack Bee Garland. Sullivan was instrumental in demonstrating the existence of trans men who were themselves attracted to men. Lou Sullivan began peer counselling through the Janus Information Facility which was an organization that provided transgender issues. He is also credited for being the first to discuss the eroticism of men’s clothing. Sullivan was active in the Golden Gate Girls/Guys organization (later called the Gateway Gender Alliance), one of the first social/educational organizations for transgender people that offered support to FTM transsexuals, and in fact successfully petitioned to add “Guys” to its name. From July 1979 to October 1980, Sullivan edited The Gateway, a newsletter with “news and information on transvestism and transsexualism” that was circulated by the Golden Gate Girls/Guys. It was originally primarily focused on the needs of MTF and transvestite readers and read “much like a small town newspaper”, but under Sullivan’s editing it gained more gender parity between MTF and FTM issues. According to Megan Rohrer, Sullivan “transform[ed] Gateway in a way that [would] forever change FTM mentoring” because trans people could still obtain information on how to pass without having to attend group gatherings in person.
Sullivan was a founding member and board member of the GLBT Historical Society (formerly the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society) in San Francisco. His personal and activist papers are preserved in the institution’s archives as collection no. 1991–07; the papers are fully processed and available for use by researchers, and a finding aid is posted on the Online Archive of California. The Historical Society has displayed selected materials from Sullivan’s papers in a number of exhibitions, notably “Man-i-fest: FTM Mentoring in San Francisco from 1976 to 2009,” which was open through much of 2010 in the second gallery at the society’s headquarters at 657 Mission St. in San Francisco, and “Our Vast Queer Past: Celebrating San Francisco’s GLBT History,” the debut exhibition in the main gallery at the society’s GLBT History Museum that opened in January 2011 in San Francisco’s Castro District.
Lou was a writer and capable of standing up for what he saw as truth. He was a gay transsexual man, before this was even allowed or recognized. He is also the person who helped to change that, and now – being gay is no longer an issue if you want to begin transition. Sullivan lobbied the American Psychiatric Association and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health for them to recognize his existence as a gay trans man. He was determined to change people’s attitudes towards trans homosexuals but also to change the medical process of transition by removing sexual orientation from the criteria of gender identity disorder so that trans men who are gay could also access hormones and surgery, essentially making the process “orientation blind”.
In June 2019, Sullivan was one of the inaugural fifty American “pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes” inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument (SNM) in New York City’s Stonewall Inn. The SNM is the first U.S. national monument dedicated to LGBTQ rights and history, and the wall’s unveiling was timed to take place during the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. In August 2019, Sullivan was one of the honorees inducted in the Rainbow Honor Walk, a walk of fame in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood noting LGBTQ people who have “made significant contributions in their fields.”
Works: “A Transvestite Answers a Feminist” in Gay People’s Union News (1973); “Looking Towards Transvestite Liberation” in Gay People’s Union News (1974); Female to Male Cross Dresser and Transsexual (1980); Information for the Female to Male Cross Dresser and Transsexual (1990); From Female To Male: The Life of Jack Bee Garland (1990).