Lou Sullivan: Out of Small Actions, a Tremendous Legacy

[Image description: White trans man Lou Sullivan speaks.  He is wearing a blue suit and tie]

Transgender history is made up of stories of people whose small actions have led to huge changes.  If we knew more about that history, we would have more faith that all our organizing, community-building, and resistance matters.

Take, for example, the story of white gay trans man Lou Sullivan.  He just wanted to get gender affirmation surgery– and ended up changing diagnostic categories:

Lou Sullivan was born in 1951 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  In 1975 He moved to San Francisco in hopes of obtaining treatment at one of the many clinics there.  However, when Sullivan approached the gender clinic at Stanford University they denied his application.  The reason?  Sullivan understood himself, in the terms he used, as an FTM gay man.  Because he loved men, they disqualified him from treatment.  This practice was widespread at the time.  Doctors wanted their surgeries to produce healthy, employable, heterosexual citizens.  Sullivan struggled to find a doctor that who would give him the care he wanted desperately.  His search led him to connect with other trans men, hoping to find resources and community.

Eventually Sullivan found a doctor who was willing to perform the surgery he wanted.  Tragically, he learned he was HIV+ in 1986.  At that time, AIDS was thought of as a gay men’s disease and Sullivan wrote, “[They] said I couldn’t live as a gay man, but it looks like I’m going to die like one.”  Knowing that his life was ending, Sullivan continued his activism.  He especially wanted the world to know that trans men could be gay.  He lobbied the American Psychiatric Association and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health to recognize the existence of gay trans men.  Lou Sullivan published widely his research into trans history and his own commentary.  His search for friendship and romance helped to shape U.S. trans men’s communities.  Sullivan died before he saw the diagnostic categories change in the ways that he hoped.  Nonetheless, they later did.  It is largely because of Sullivan that medical professionals today understand sexuality and gender as separate categories.  Sullivan’s community building and education efforts built trans men’s institutions that still exist today.

Lou Sullivan’s life is just one example of the long-reaching impact a person can have.  If we knew trans history, we’d believe our smallest actions matter.

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