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Turning 'Challenges Into Fuel': The Story of Trans Activist Lou Sullivan


June is Pride month - a time for people around the world to celebrate the LGBTQ community. But there are still many stories of the community that haven’t yet been widely told. Local author Brice Smith tells one such story of a pioneer transgender activist in his new book Lou Sullivan: Daring to be a Man Among Men.

Lou Sullivan was born Sheila Jean Sullivan in 1951 in the Milwaukee area and grew up in Wauwatosa. Sullivan realized early in his life that he was attracted to men, but wasn't comfortable with his gender identity as a girl.

Credit Transgress Press
Transgress Press

Although Sullivan struggled with his own gender identity, he became a central part of Milwaukee's gay community and liberation movement in his early twenties - particularly with the Gay People’s Union at UW-Milwaukee. It was in Milwaukee where he gained the tools he needed to become the trans activist and author he was known for later in life.

Sullivan moved to San Francisco in 1975, where he began to hone in on his identity and pursue female to male transitioning. A gay trans man was neither widely known nor accepted at the time, and because of that it took Sullivan years to transition.

"(The medical professionals) were afraid of failure. They also wanted to do their best to ensure that whomever transitioned would not regret it later. So they put in place very strict criteria - they were just trying to produce cookie cutter men and women," Smith explains.

He says, although female to male and male to female surgeries were being performed at high rates since the late 1960s, it took Sullivan years to find doctors who were willing to help him.

"What (the medical professionals at the time) had a hard time realizing is that it is so different to be a man among men and with men, than to be a woman with men," Smith says.

Once Sullivan successfully transitioned, he dedicated his life to teaching both the medical profession and the public about gay trans people and the relationship, or lack thereof, between gender identity and sexual orientation. Smith says Sullivan also improved other trans lives through connecting the community with published works and personal outreach so they didn’t have to face the same hardships as he did.

Sullivan was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986 and lived with the disease for four years. "His having AIDS really made some gender professionals stop and listen," Smith explains. "His favorite quote was, 'They said I couldn't live as a gay man, but it looks like I'm going to die like one.'"

It was in those last four years that Sullivan accomplished more than most activists can do in a lifetime, he says. In order to keep his story alive and accessible to help others in the future, Sullivan donated all of his written works to the GLBT Historical Society upon his death. During his lifetime, his works were considered the quintessential female to male guide, and they still influence people 25 years after his death.

Smith came across part of Sullivan's story as he was finishing his masters degree in 2004 and needed an elective. He decided to take his first history course in gender in American history with a focus on trans history.

"I went into the UWM library and there was only three feet of bookshelf space having to do with trans people in any capacity, and it seemed like a third of those books all referenced Lou Sullivan," Smith recalls. So, he researched Sullivan's archived personal journals, articles and books to write a complete account of Sullivan's life.

"(Lou's) story just had such a visceral effect on me and I felt like I just couldn't find enough information about the guy," he adds. "I was bothered by the fact that his biography didn't exist because he had obviously been such an inspirational and transformational figure in history."

Credit Courtesy of Brice Smith
Courtesy of Brice Smith
Author Brice Smith

Smith notes that at the time of researching and writing the book, he, himself, identified as gender queer. "It was through my work in writing and researching Lou I came to better understand my identity as a trans man and to find the courage to transition myself," he says. "I figured if he could help me to do that, I had no doubt that his story could continue to help others."

Smith says that although Sullivan's story is about one man's strong sense of self and courage to live honestly, he says all people can identify with and care about Lou's struggles and triumphs.

Smith hopes this book will encourage transgender readers to be more aware of their history and  find inspiration in Sullivan's work and experiences. He also hopes readers who are not transgender will "open themselves up about learning what it means to be trans."

"Ultimately this book is just about what it means to be human too, and to live our lives as meaningfully as possible, and to do our best to take the challenges that we face and turn those into an impetus for change," says Smith.

Brice Smith will be attending a book reading and signing for his book Lou Sullivan at Outwords Books in Milwaukee on Saturday, June 24.

Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.