We Both Laughed In Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan narrates the inner life of a gay trans man moving through the shifting social, political, and medical mores of the second half of the 20th century. Sullivan kept comprehensive journals from age eleven until his AIDS-related death at thirty-nine. Sensual, lascivious, challenging, quotidian and poetic, the diaries complicate and disrupt normative trans narratives. Entries from twenty-four diaries reveal Sullivan’s self-articulation and the complexity of a fascinating and courageous figure.
We Both Laughed in Pleasure is necessarily provisional and condensed; the editors acknowledge they have “prioritize[d] the intangibles of Sullivan’s San Francisco, tracing his worldly pleasures and ephemeral expressions of identity.” And yet given how many contemporary trans narratives are rooted in trauma, their choice to foreground trans pleasure and sensuality is celebratory, even radical.
This is a great book by a great person…If I am perhaps too glowing in my praise of Lou, that’s probably because I can’t physically imagine myself without him.
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.
Lou is an open-book mystery, a man who built bridges of access, a gentle soul with whom I share similar demons. So when I learned about We Both Laughed in Pleasure, I let out an audible gasp. The book is a gift rich with intimate minutiae from his life, in which Sullivan describes everything from a crush on Paul McCartney to chin hair documentation (relatable trans content; still holds up). The painstaking care with which he writes about his long term relationships equals that of shorter-lived flings, jerk-off club interactions, even dead-end cruising attempts.
Mainstream trans narratives tend to emphasize disgust with one’s body as the defining aspect of the trans experience. But Lou Sullivan, a trans man born in 1951, was driven by another, less appreciated force than suffering. In his journals, published this week by Nightboat as We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan, the strongest impetus for his transition is, as the book’s title lets on, pleasure: He loves being masculine, he loves men, and no other way of existing ever makes sense to him.
It feels like a gift to be able to read such a complete and evocative record of a life spent in pursuit of joy. Now that so many voices speak loudly of transition as a kind of death, what a relief it is to have such a rich historical document of transition as a way of coming alive.
As hinted by its title, We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan is a deeply erotic book. Sullivan’s diaries record in great detail his sexual exploits, romantic infatuations, and complex personal relationships. These reminiscences are written in a style somewhere between childlike giddiness and deft description, where you can sense that Sullivan is turning himself on with every entry he writes.
Sullivan’s diary entries are personal and political. They are recollections of many sexual escapades, but they also demonstrate his activist sensibility, that he was aware of his body and lifestyle as political issues, and of being in the throes of one of the largest gay scenes in the United States.
It’s cathartic to read Lou’s frank acknowledgement of the terror inherent in making one’s own reality, while hoping against hope that the envisioned self might exist independently of one’s efforts to manifest it.
This Trans Day of Remembrance, if you’re in need of a little joy, a little reconnection with life, a little reminder of how we can fight for our own happiness, this is a volume to pick up.
Click here to hear editor Ellis Martin read several passages from We Both Laughed in Pleasure for We Have Always Been Here!
We Both Laughed in Pleasure featured in Entropy’s Best of 2019!
The writing is great, and, joyfully, aware of it’s own skill. The entries collected deal with obsession, politics, bodies (the sex scenes are great), medicine, longing. Easily one of the best things I read this year.
Reading the diaries, I thought a lot about the ways in which Lou was both creating and disrupting contemporary trans narratives that demand we be singular and palatable in order to be legible, respectable, and have presence. Though not a memoir, I found his diaries full of anguish, desperation, and anxiety but also dripping with determination, exhilaration, and lightness. Lou has taught me how to better have and hold them all.
“Self-documentation too often dies with its author. The descendants who cherish that work have to rescue it from the gutter, or from a stranger’s garage sale. One of Lou Sullivan’s last diary entries described bequeathing his newsletters to the GLBT Historical Society: ‘I’m feeling very at peace and reassured that my work will be preserved.'”
It could be argued that Sullivan’s story is a sad one, but I’d fight tooth and nail to say it’s not — he carved out his place in history as a gay man, and over 30 years after his death, gay trans men are fighting for their rights out in the open, because of Lou and others like him.