Lou Sullivan

By Lavender February 29, 2008

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Louis Graydon Sullivan was a pioneer of the transgender movement—not just as an organizer, but also as perhaps the first female-to-male (FTM) transsexual to identify publicly as a gay man. Born in 1951, and named Sheila Jean, Sullivan grew up in a working-class family in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Though he had enjoyed “playing boys” as a child, his issues around gender and sexuality came to the fore when he was a teenager, and he began to crossdress.

By the early 1970s, Sullivan self-identified as a “heterosexual female transvestite who was sexually attracted to gay men,” and embarked on a long-term relationship with an effeminate man. Active in the nascent gay liberation movement, he was involved with Milwaukee’s Gay People’s Union (GPU).

Over the next few years, Sullivan’s gender identity shifted from transvestite to transsexual. He and his boyfriend moved to San Francisco in 1975, but even amid the city’s queer milieu, Sullivan had difficulty finding others like himself.

“I want to look like what I am,” Sullivan once wrote, “but don’t know what someone like me looks like.”

Though still presenting as a woman in his job as a secretary for Wilson Sporting Goods Company, most of the rest of the time, Sullivan fully crossdressed, and lived as a gay man.

In the late 1970s, Sullivan sought sex-reassignment surgery, but repeatedly was denied, because he openly identified as gay at a time when people undergoing the procedure were expected to adopt stereotypical heterosexual opposite-sex gender roles. He recalled that one gender clinic told him he could not possibly live as a gay man, because gay men were interested primarily in large penises.

Sullivan’s frustration led him to campaign for the removal of homosexuality as a contraindication for sex reassignment—an effort that finally succeeded in the late 1980s. He volunteered as the first FTM peer counselor with San Francisco’s Janus Information Facility. He wrote the earliest informational booklet for transmen, Information for the Female to Male Cross-Dresser and Transsexual (1980).

In 1979, after several refusals from established gender clinics, Sullivan found sympathetic therapists and doctors. He began taking testosterone, and had a double mastectomy. He finally underwent genital surgery in 1986, but experienced complications, and never fully recovered. That same year, he was diagnosed as HIV-positive.

Sullivan devoted his final years to building his network of FTM contacts into an organization, and eventually a movement. In 1986, he began holding peer-support get-togethers for people on the male transgender spectrum, which evolved into the present-day FTM International—today the largest and longest-running organization of its kind. He died in 1991.

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication, or at [email protected].

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