I teared up when I opened it, but We Both Laughed in Pleasure somehow managed to make me laugh in spite of how many emotions were overwhelming me. Subtitled “The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan,” this collection takes you through the life of trans man and LGBTQIA+ activist Lou Sullivan from his teenage years during Beatlemania up to the time of his untimely death due to AIDs. The book follows thirty years of Lou’s diary entries, which means it covers a lot of ground in its 440 pages, but the editors, Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma, structured it in a way that makes it entertaining, heart-wrenching, and narratively satisfying. With Lou’s own words as well as Martin & Ozma’s careful curation, I was able to see myself in Lou, but I also saw someone completely different from me. Lou’s diaries are resonant, at times hilarious, so very messy, and so very real.
There are a number of ways that I am very similar to Lou (who I will call Lou, not Lou Sullivan or Mr. Sullivan or Sullivan or anything else, because when you’ve read thirty years of someone’s private diaries, you get to know them on a personal level). Lou and I are both trans men who are attracted to men, and we both easily romanticize chance encounters. We both have experienced dysphoria and a sense of hopelessness in a society that does not accept us. We both vacillate between extreme self-pride and self-hate. There were times when Lou would write something like, “I’m a 24 hour living art form, unique unto myself & that’s a damned hard thing to be!” (131) and I would feel it in my heart. I felt, at times, like I was reading back on my own diaries, or reading those of an alternate-universe version of myself set in a time when the Beatles were still at their height and bi/pan folks were referred to as “AC/DC”.
But Lou is not me. He lived in a very different time with very different people around him. While I took about twenty minutes to figure out my gender identity, he spent years in uncertainty. He had some people pressure him strongly not to physically transition, and he lived in a time when trans people could not be gay if they wanted to try to get surgery or hormones. He was also more open to sex, drugs, and alcohol–his lifestyle made me at times envious for its freedom and at times concerned for its toxicity. We also have very different taste in men! 😂
These differences weren’t a bad thing to me as I read the diaries. Through his escapades and his struggles I saw more of what life was like for a trans person back in the day, which is so very important since many of our community’s elders were stolen from us during the AIDs crisis. Even though I can’t talk to him, myself, with this collection, I got to see what he did and learn how I could incorporate some of his own outlook and his own projects into my own life. I even started to journal a bit more seriously after being inspired by Lou.
Ultimately, We Both Laughed in Pleasure is a book that I would absolutely recommend. I want every trans masc person out there to read this book. I do have to add a few caveats: Lou’s life, in its realness, is messy and filled with content that I should warn people about. (Make sure to check down below for the full list). As indicated in the editor’s note and in the introduction by famed gender theorist, Susan Stryker, Lou wrote at times with outdated language and gender theory. He also was at times wrong about certain medical information, simply because of the limitations of the time and his own knowledge. But I’m glad Martin and Ozma left those bits in–it shows the realities of the time period and of Lou’s life. I tried to picture what my view of Lou would have been had those parts been removed, but I couldn’t manage it. Lou just wouldn’t be Lou without the messy sides of him. Better to embrace him fully.
We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan, Edited by Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma
Publisher: Nightboat Books
Number of Pages: 419 pages
Content Warnings: Death, AIDs, outdated language, outdated gender theory, sex, BDSM, rape fantasies, drug use, alcohol use, dysphoria, slurs, harassment, misgendering, deadnaming, gender uncertainty, (brief) detransition, unhealthy relationships, discussions of genitalia, gender therapy, alcoholism.
As those of you who follow me on Twitter, know, the reason why this post is late is because yesterday was both my birthday and a protest at Seattle Public Library, which I feel would have made Lou proud. If you want to keep up to date on me and my own personal shenanigans, go check me out here.