The product of years of research and collaboration, We Both Laughed In Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan is the first ever collection of journal entries from the late trans and gay writer-activist Lou Sullivan. With this collection, editors Zach Ozma and Ellis Martin have curated journal entries that span Sullivan’s life, from his midwest youth through to his vibrant adulthood, and eventual passing from AIDS complications, in San Francisco. Still, those seeking a story of queer agony and suffering may be surprised to find that We Both Laughed In Pleasure bears a very different narrative—one of joy and effervescence. As Jeremy Lybarger wrote in The New Yorker, “…given how many contemporary trans narratives are rooted in trauma, [Ozma’s and Martin’s] choice to foreground trans pleasure and sensuality is celebratory, even radical.” Amidst the flurry of well-deserved celebration of this new release, I had the pleasure of speaking with the volume’s loving editors, Zach and Ellis, about everything that went into the project, about Lou, and about what’s next for them individually, and as a team…
JS: There’s this sentiment that gets tossed around in contemporary queer narratives, especially cis narratives, that we’ve come so far or that so much is behind us as a community and as a broader ‘allied’ public, which is really only a half-truth. Could you all articulate for us why Lou’s voice and his life are not just apropos but needed in our present moment?
ZO & EM: We’re in a social/political moment much like the time Lou Sullivan lived through. Large strides have been made in medical and social access for trans people, and we’re seeing both a social and a legislative backlash. Susan Stryker outlines it beautifully in Transgender History.
What we’ve heard in the audience response is that people are seeing their own most intimate and specific feelings and experiences of gender and sexuality reflected in Lou’s writing. Much has changed since Lou’s time and much has stayed the same. Lou gives a concrete record of where things were in his lifetime, and how they affected him materially and emotionally. People are seeing their experiences in the text, often in ways we wish were no longer relatable.
We also get to see a flawed, three dimensional person. It can be tempting to think of queer and trans elders as capital F Figures—pivot points in the trajectory of history. When we see Lou unflattened, in all his imperfect glory, it allows us to be a little gentler with ourselves.
JS: In your introduction to these journals, you talk about a degree of transparency that you all were hoping to maintain with the curation of Lou’s diary entries—a successful strategy, I think. Beyond transparency, what do you think can be gleaned differently from a collection like this as opposed to a biography or something more distilled?
ZO & EM: First and foremost, We Both Laughed in Pleasure is Lou in his own words. We get his impression of his life from inside of it. So you get the questions and the missteps and the real time transformation—both of Lou’s embodied presence in the world, and of his own sense of self. Of course, this has limits—a biography or a holistic historical look removes the lack of reliability we all have as narrators of our own story.
His journals give us something rare and valuable: the drawings and marginalia, his certainty, his uncertainty. Lou’s voice is so clear in the genre of the diary. We get to know him, as much as it is possible to know a person who is no longer with us.
JS: How did the two of you decide to collaborate on a project of such dimension? Had you both been pretty familiar with Lou’s story prior or was it more of a flashlights-and-hardhats discovery mission? Just how long have you two been working at the actualization of project?
ZO: I was introduced to Lou Sullivan in an undergraduate class with Rebekah Edwards called Transpoetics. Edwards assigned two essays on Lou:
Carter, Julian, Embracing Transition, or Dancing in the Folds of Time, Transgender Studies Reader, 2013.
Stryker, Susan. “Portrait of a Trans Fag Drag Hag as a Young Man: The Activist Career of Louis G. Sullivan,” in Kate More and Stephen Whittle, ets. Reclaiming Gender: Transsexual Grammars at the Fin de Siecle. London, Cassells, 1999.
In 2014/2015 I produced a body of work for my BFA thesis exhibition YOU ARE LIVING IN OTHER MEN’S THROATS, drawing heavily on the work of three dead gay writers: Truman Capote, Frank O’Hara, and Lou Sullivan. The centerpiece of the exhibition was an interactive set based on the ad-hoc studio in which Dr. Ira Pauley interviewed Lou Sullivan several times in the late 1980s. Of the three authors, I dove most heavily into Sullivan’s work, in part because Sullivan was difficult to research outside his own papers.
The diaries in particular became of interest to me. In a conversation with Zoe Tuck, a friend and frequent collaborator, I called the diaries “the book I keep asking for.” In 2016 Timeless, Infinite Light was floating the idea of beginning a queer-history imprint. They discussed reprinting out-of-print works by LGBTQ authors, as well as previously unpublished writing. Emji Saint Spero and Tuck (Tuck was working with TIL at the time) approached me with the idea to publish the diaries.
Ellis was brought on shortly thereafter, initially as an intern. After about six months of working together it became clear that we were already working as equals, with complementary and very different skills sets, so we decided to co-edit the book.
EM: Just want to drop the list of qualities Zach was looking for into this question because they are all so lovely:
We need someone who:
- Is interested in queer/trans history and/or publishing
- Can read cursive
- Can commit to a few hours a week in SF for the next couple months
- Is organized
- Can type reasonably accurately
- Will work for class credit
- Likes hanging out with weirdos in libraries
- Not put off by salacious and explicit gay journal entries
- Access to a good quality camera a plus
JS: Once you were with all of these archived journals, how did you incorporate your own visual and embodiment practices into your approach to them?
ZO & EM: Both of us had previously created work with drawing and text elements, from typesetting to hybrid drawing to zines. The inclusion of the special characters (e.g. plus sign-ampersand hybrid) and small illustrations (e.g. illustration of his chin hairs) very much reflect that. We transcribed in a way that prioritized the aesthetic qualities of Lou’s words in addition to the information and content. Additionally, we felt very strongly about making a sexy object. Something to honor the world Lou lived in and co-created.
JS: What kinds of themes were you working with when you were arranging the entries along an arc?
ZO & EM: After sitting with the material, we created a very specific set of themes: his three long term relationships, hookups, fantasy, medicine (transition, hiv/aids), family, activism. Lou’s storytelling ability is so strong that it really made our jobs very easy once we picked up a few of his threads. It was a true delight to watch him tend to these six threads diligently throughout his entire journaled life.
I was pretty consistently smirking to myself while reading the entries from Lou’s younger life in Wisconsin. There’s such a sweetness about his juvenile preoccupations with things like The Beatles and Bob Dylan, bragging to his diary about being a bigger fan than anyone else at school. Were there any particularly sweet or singularly endearing moments in his journals that you came across that didn’t quite make the final manuscript?
ZO & EM: Nightboat really let us stay true to our original vision which was decidedly full of sweet moments. They let us go well beyond our initial page limit in service of that goal.
There were a few parallel moments of him watching his lovers, his crushes, strangers from across the bar that we cut to make space for other entries. One example:
“Went upstairs. Hung around with Lynn all night. The Ox played. Only a scattering of people there. Then in the beginning of their 2nd last set they had a jam session. Jeff Daegenhardt played lead guitar, John Paris drums, Bob Metzler organ bass, + J harmonica. And did he play!!! Kripe. Last time he played at the Garde he played so soft ya couldn’t hear him + didn’t use any rhythm. But he was excellent. I watched him + he looked so beautiful. Had this high collared coat on + musta been dying sweating under those spot lights. As I watched him I thought of things we did . . . and I began wishing I could hold him + kiss him . . . insane. He was so beautiful + he played so well. And when they quit + he came to the back I told him he was just excellent, he thanked me + moved on. When he came back over I told him he was so good + we clutched hands + began hugging. Suddenly we were hugging + kissing.”
JS: What are you two working on next? Do you think there’s the possibility of another collab some time in the future?
EM: Yes! Lou Sullivan brought us together and will keep us together forever! For now, I’m curating an art show for Compton’s Trans Cultural District that opens January 10th, 2020 at Pentacle Coffee in San Francisco. I’m also leisurely working on a cowbabe movie with my dear friend Leila Weefur.
ZO: Oh yes, we’ve thrown around all kinds of ideas from a collection of essay fragments/titles to a documentary short about my mom’s one-woman show. When Ellis and I were in New York Anna Gurton-Wachter gave us a tour of Keith Haring’s archive – which is housed in Haring’s actual studio. Seeing his space and process materials made me want to get back in the studio, so right now I’m doing that, making objects and drawings, doing research. +
Order your copy of We Both Laughed In Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan here!
Zach Ozma is a poet, potter, and social practice artist. Embodiment theory, archival research, and neo-classically gay imagery inform his practice. Employing mimesis, pedagogy, humor, surprise, and reward, he works in a variety of materials including ceramics, found objects, performance, writing, and works on paper. He is the author of BLACK DOG DRINKING FROM AN OUTDOOR POOL (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019). He holds a BFA in Community Arts from California College of the Arts in Oakland. Ozma lives and works in the Philadelphia area.
Ellis Martin works with digital derivatives in the interstice of art and archive. Martin holds a BA in Visual and Critical Studies from Mills College. He has generated large-scale digitization projects at Mills College Art Museum, John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives, and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Historical Society. At GLBTHS he was the Digitization Project Archivist for the Bay Area Reporter project, a collection of 1,514 back issues from 1971 to 2005 now accessible on the Internet Archive. His short films have screened at San Francisco Transgender Film Festival and Trans Stellar Film Festival.