Lou Sullivan

I did not know who Lou Sullivan was two days ago. A friend recommended the recently published volume of his diaries, We Both Laughed In Pleasure, and it has been sitting patiently on my windowsill for about a month. It was meant to be personal reading but as a trans person who studies trans and queer politics, it has become increasingly “work-related”.

I also did not know that the anniversary of Lou’s death was this week. Just as I’m learning of his life, I am confronted with his death. The collection has caused so much introspection and to see other people sharing their thoughts publicly has been jarring. I’m still not used to people seeing me or knowing me this deeply! Now we’re all reading the same thing! And, to know that Lou himself started collecting his diaries for publication towards the end of his life is hard for me to grapple with; Why would someone share their internal self so brazenly with the world? There are several answer that I’ve come up with…he had nothing to ‘hide’, he wanted to remain an elder after his death, he had worked hard on building his life and living fully which deserves to be shared. I’m sure there is an explicit answer somewhere, from him, perhaps an interview or a diary entry. When I find it, I’ll let ya’ll know. For now, those three reasons are floating front-and-center in my mind all day. I am thinking about how they relate to myself but also my research: the idea that trans people have nothing to hide, that we don’t want to be ignored or erased, that our lives are worth knowing deeply.

I’ve only read about 100 pages of the collection, roughly his first 23 years of life, and I am too fascinated with these early memories to move on into the later years when he begins to transition, when he moves to San Francisco, when he “becomes” a gay trans activist, when he dies after contracting HIV/AIDS.

I see many people sharing his quote, from an early teenage entry, about wanting to be seen by people as someone who “interprets their own happiness”. In the introduction to the collection, Susan Stryker says that this phrase has stuck with her as the definition of trans experiences. I have to say that I agree. I nearly cried when I read those words. They are powerful and earnest and so honest. But, I also found tears welling when Lou complains about people “up the mountain” digging in to build a new house. There are two entries, back to back in the collection about the house. He’s disgusted by it! Annoyed! A child recording the things around him, the changes in his home. I could not help but wonder what my childhood self would have written. I was annoyed by the bus being late for school, by the new neighbors and their kid who used to peek in our front door…

I think we call this type of introspection “reflexivity” in research methodologies. We must be in tune with ourselves and our research subjects and must remember to treat them as complex people, not objects we can classify and extract from to move on to the next ‘big thing’. Even as a trans queer lesbian…I have slipped into a non-reflexive mode of research. My discipline almost demands it–the emphasis is on analytical clarity and causal stories. Reading Lou’s diaries reminded me that as a trans person I am complex and hold many stories, histories, versions of self. I remembered that my transness is about seeking joy and presenting my interpretation of happiness. The people that I’m writing and thinking about are doing the same thing.

We cannot give our research subjects the space to be full, complex, contradictory, and important if we do not give that space to ourselves as well. I want to thank Lou for reminding me of this and for sharing his life so that I can remember my own.

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