“We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan” by Lou Sullivan, edited by Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma— The First Trans Man to Medically Transition

Sullivan, Lou, Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma, editors. “We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan”, NightBoat Books, 2019.

The First Trans Man to Medically Transition

Amos Lassen

“We Both Laughed In Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan” is the story of the inner life of a gay trans man living through the shifting social, political, and medical mores of the second half of the 20th century. Sullivan kept comprehensive journals from the time he was eleven-years-old until his AIDS-related death at thirty-nine.  He hides nothing as he shares “sensual, lascivious, challenging, quotidian and poetic” thoughts in his diaries which complicate and disrupt normative trans narratives. This is a collection of writings from twenty-four diaries and they reveal reveal Sullivan’s self-articulation and his complexities as a fascinating and courageous figure.

Unless we are experiencing it ourselves, I doubt any of us could possibly understand what goes on in the mind of a transgender person. I, for one, have a niece who became my nephew when he was 41 and as much as I try, I cannot wrap my mind around it and I am the gay uncle. My straight sister and my nephew’s mother has a much better understanding of what her child went through than I do.

What we have here from Lou Sullivan brings to life his journals and diaries as it shares thoughts about gender self-determination, illicit queer sexual desire, and relationship problems that took place during his entire life. It is as if, Sullivan knew he was writing for future queer trans people who needed and wanted to understand their identities and experiences.

We  meet Lou Sullivan as he experienced himself in the process of becoming. Zach Ozma and Ellis Martin have done an incredibly wonderful job bringing us the passages “that preserve all the voyeuristic pleasure of reading someone’s diary minus the boring minutiae of everyday life.” We see Lou as “contemplative and bold, despairing and determined, promiscuous and romantic, and powerfully aroused by men wearing jewelry.”

Sullivan was indeed a visionary, a leader, and one of the most significant trans figures of the late 20th century. He loved complexity and people, ideas and practices. He has opened up new worlds and began pathways for others to follow. He helped to tear down the walls of gender clinics and was a pioneer in new ways for trans folks to lead their own transitions. His intellect is obvious and he was a champion “who absorbed, produced, preserved, and disseminated trans knowledge.” He founded FTM, the Bay Area group 1986 that revolutionized the social and medical terrains for trans men and this became his legacy.

Sullivan shares his profound personal metamorphosis along with his political and cultural changes. We read here the journey he took from the hippie coffee houses, to the gay male diaspora of the Castro, to the early trans liberation movements, to AIDS activism and beyond. 

Through the intimate details of Lou’s life in his journals, we see his humanity and that he rose above the limited thinking of his time, the restrictions of his body, and even a terminal diagnosis and was able to leave a legacy that we must cherish.