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Desire and Discovery in 1970s San Francisco

Desire and Discovery in 1970s San Francisco

Author: William Johnson

September 23, 2019

This month, Nightboat Books is releasing We Both Laughed In Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan. Edited by Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma, this fascinating publication reveals the personal musings of Lou Sullivan, a trans mans who lived in both Milwaukee and San Francisco during his lifetime. Through his journals, Sullivan, one of the first openly gay trans men to medically transition, earnestly details his various desires, heartbreaks, and triumphs. The book also provides a vivid and complex snapshot of LGBTQ culture in the latter half of the 20th century.

From the publisher:

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.

Below is an excerpt from the diaries, which encompasses Sullivan’s life in San Francisco in 1976.


Yesterday was the Annual Gay Pride Parade + it was spectacular. The papers estimate 120,000 watching + participating. I didn’t march—maybe would have had I felt in a cheerier mood, but it didn’t take long for me to get all choked up by it + when the Gay Fathers Group contingent went by + a youngman holding a little kid like Jakey on his shoulders + the kid holding a sign saying “I’m Proud of My Gay DadI just couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. I felt so deeply that they are my people—tho I know I can never be accepted as one of them.

Sunday nite slept over at J’s. Monday had off work but he didn’t. I took a nice bath, washed my hair, dressed in all black + wore my binder for the 1st time in a long time—black pants, black T-shirt + black long sleeve cotton shirt, tucked in but open. Silver pens in pocket, silver ID bracelet, silver sunglasses.

Went downtown + some guy comes up to me + says he’s a photographer (gives me his card) compiling a book on people in SF + he thinks I’d make an interesting addition to his photos + would I sit for him? + he’d give me copies of the pictures he took. I said ok + we took the bus to his place.

He was close to my age, very clean-cut, looked intellectual. We barely spoke to each other. His place was very close to empty but for his backdrops, camera, some other of his photos tacked on the wall. I hardly even combed my hair. He stood me there, arranged the lighting + took about 36 pictures. I hardly moved, he never told me what to do except “just turn your head slightly this way” stuff. I just shifted, gave my usual dirty looks (remember I used to call them Bobby Dylan looks?) + punk postures.

When he finished I got the distinct impression of those people they say have sex with you + then want you OUT of their sight immediately. He almost rushed me out, I said I’d get in touch with him. Went back downtown feelings 100 feet tall + so punky. Outasite I’d been discovered! So much wanted to tell someone. Knew J’s reaction would be one of jealousy + why couldn’t it have been him, instead of happy for me.

My motto, since I decided we had to get separate places, has been “let go.” Not “let go of J,” but just “let go.”

Sat aft went to see David Bowie’s movie. Came outa there envisioning how beautiful he is + how I could look just like him if only I’d… more thought of mastectomy (that word sounds like a species of dinosaur) + sterilization. There’s a TV-TS drop-in rap group in Berkeley at a reputed Center [1] 14 every 1st + 3rd Wed of the month. I should go + talk this out, get it settled in my mind once + for all, one way or the other.

Lou Sullivan

Wandered to that certain bar David thought I’d like. It’s funny how it happens but I’m standing there, casually surveying the crowd, really not OUT for anything + then my eyes fall on this gorgeous thing + I’m star-struck → “HIM.” I sidled up to him, asked if I could buy him a drink. He says “Oh I’d just love a Coca Cola !” Oh my God he’s a real live doll. So incredibly thin + graceful + tall + giddy, his face is perfect, Rudolf Nureyev, when he was beautiful.

We danced sexy a little, I got him another soda, I can’t believe how slender his hips are (“And oh dear God he has slim hips that could go into a small bottle.”[2]). He is smiling, laughing, gyrating to the music. He kissed me + I proceeded to continue kissing his perfect neck, his bare neck, his bare chest at his partially opened shirt. He was fragrant with perfume + make-up + he was smiling, still + quiet, his eyes closed as I kissed + tasted him. Oh God. Pleasure I hadn’t felt since (dare I say) that fart M.

It was near bar closing time + he went off to “make the rounds one more time.” I saw him circle past once + wink at me, + then he disappeared. Ah, sweet moments! Another vanishing angel in the night. (Such a sentimental fool! I figure I got my buck’s worth of kisses off his neck!)

On the street we ran into some guy who used to work next door to J’s work. J introduced me to him as “Lou” we shook hands, + then the guy leans his arm on my shoulder + says “Hey man, no offense or anything, but the first time I saw you come in (to J’s work) I thought you were a girl in a tuxedo!” (Tuxedo ? ?) But I said, “oh, no,” like how could you possibly have thought that + J just smiled. That does it! I had been going back to introducing myself as Sheila, not using Lou anymore + I’m causing as much controversy trying to be Sheila, as I feel I am trying to be Lou.

Told J I was going to a doctor at this TV/TS group to get this question straight in my mind + he was obviously against it, even said I was wasting my time hanging around “with all those…..”, but stopping short of whatever he was going to call us.

Yesterday I phoned the psychologist I’d seen, when going crazy trying to find a job, at the Center for Special Problems. Told her I thought I was ready for their TS group. She asked me to call the group coordinator tomorrow + she’ll tell her to expect my call. So I phoned her today. She warned me the group was all male-to-female, if that bothered me. Told her they’re the only kind I’ve had contact with so far. We made an appointment to meet + talk next Monday.

I really hope it helps to go thru this doctor bit. I’m so weary of considering it. I just want a mastectomy + to get sterilized + continue living this half + half life. I don’t feel this surgery would make me a better man or woman, but I know it would make me a better person. I don’t believe I can successfully live as a man or as a women.

But I have to do all I can to live comfortably + this surgery would do that. I have never felt as sure of that as I do now.

It’s really difficult for me to write down what’s been going on, my feelings, etc. The 2 weeks between when I first talked to Claire Capor (the counselor for transsexuals) + our first session were ridden with hectic downs + euphoric ups. My thoughts were so laden with this switching-over idea I could barely function at work. I tried unceasingly to step outside myself, see myself as others would, trying to imagine what I’d be like as a male, how I would pass, how it’d be different, how I’d be different, could I really make it, what about my job, J, etc, etc.

And then, like an angel sent just for me! Saturday morning’s paper on the front page, just for me:[3]

I knew immediately that I had to talk with her + she could set me on the right path. Just the thought there was someone else like me!—I told J I would write her to meet with her + we had our first real discussion. The two things he said that stuck in my mind were “What are we going to be afterwards? Friends ? ? I’m basically straight, you know!” and “I’m going to use as much of my influence to stop you from doing it as other people are influencing you to do it.” And that in essence if I do go thru with the change I will have seen the last of him. He said that. I felt pretty bad.

Later that night we had a second, similar talk. He said my ambiguity was one of the few things that made me “interesting.” Afterwards I cried while talking with Charles about it, saying I don’t want to be interesting, I want to be happy.

He pointed out how J + I go back + forth threatening to leave each other—me because of his alcoholism, he because of my transsexualism. That it seemed absurd to him that I was ready to part with J forever only a few weeks ago + now I’m trembling at the idea of him leaving me. And that he felt I was mostly upset because this is the first rejection I’ve gotten because of my wish to switch. Good point.

Sunday I penned my letter, Monday I mailed it c/o the high school.

And Wednesday at 6 am my morning paper brought me a picture I’d so wished for + a beautiful beautiful article. I re-read it over + over, stared enchanted at the picture. He was so so beautiful. I felt as tho I were seeing myself.

Took the paper to work, vowed not to discuss it because I was so high on it I couldn’t trust myself not to burst. The women at work gathered around one of their desks over the article + I could see them discussing it, laughing, but all I heard was one say it was probably harder to switch to a man than to a woman. No one said a word to me. I was too high to go sit outside + have lunch with the warehouse foreman like I’ve done for the past few months.

J phoned + asked if I’d seen the article, saying “He really looks good”—me just holding myself back from bursting with emotion. Counting each minute to hear from her, each phone call I got I knew it must be him.

Thurs the foreman asked if I was going to have lunch with him cuz there’s something he wants to ask me about. At lunch he says he wanted to ask me about the women who had a sex change, “Can they really do that?” I said “Oh yeah!” + launched into an outline of the procedures, etc, + finally said, “Don’t tell anyone this, but I’ve been thinking of doing that same thing myself.” He lent his support, saying when I first came there the women had talked about me, “I wonder which bathroom she’s going to use” + he told them I could use the one in the warehouse if I wanted.

He confided “don’t tell anyone this but” he has a “homosexual” son. I felt so great after our talk, felt I really had a friend. Since then he’s said things like “That-a-girl…er, I guess I should say, that-a-boy,” and that I’m his “buddy” and “pretty soon they’re not going to let you in there [the women’s room] anymore!”

Monday my session with Claire Capor. I felt something like an insect under a microscope + weighed each word I said, knowing what could be read into anything I said. We discussed my background, how I felt about the parents, my first boyfriend, how I found out how men + women have sex. She asked had I ever seen 2 men having sex with each other + I said I don’t remember ever having.

Afterwords I asked her what the point in rehashing all this was. She said to try + see why I’m doing what I am + if it’s worthwhile for me to continue. That I had to admit it wasn’t a “typical reaction.” Ok, that sounds harmless enough.

But talked later with Charles, expressing my apprehension at the worth of it + my fear that my defenses + securities will be destroyed. That no matter WHY I’m doing it, I want to continue doing it + that’s that.

So why find out why? Etc., etc. But I knew that that’s only fearing the truth + if rehashing all these things in my past (that I’ve tried to interpret as causes years ago) will break me, I better find that out now.

I don’t know how often I’ve re-read it now. And now I realize my biggest hang up is my lack of self-confidence, lack of respect for my own judgement + my inability to make a decision that will affect my whole life. I am plagued by fear of the unknown future, tho I know in my heart I feel the same way now as I did 10 years ago. With this new awareness I’ve decided to look into the possibility of getting myself sterilized. Even if I have doubts of my ability to live as a man, I have no doubts of my inability to live as a woman with child. Haven’t told J + won’t until the day before the operation + am finally resolved to not let his reaction change my mind. Went to Planned Parenthood but they were closed, will call them Monday. It’s incredible the feeling of oneness + peace with myself

I have once I make a decision like this. You don’t have to be a transsexual to get sterilized + I want it badly. No more intense fear, horror at the thought of what I’d do if I became pregnant, disgust at the thought of bearing + having to center my life around this child, out of guilt + the feeling I should be responsible, guilt identifying with how J would feel about the kid. I know he’s very against abortion, therefore must want his children. But even though—they’ll have to be someone else’s. I can’t.

J + I had our first decent discussion on my problem. He said a lot of stuff that makes sense + I really feel good about the whole talk.

He said he didn’t feel any operation was the answer for me because he sees my problem as being “mainly one of fashion,” i.e., I am tired of the look I have now and just can’t think what to do next.

He says (and it’s true) that if I were to switch over it still wouldn’t solve my social identity probably because, like him, I don’t know how to be a typical male, that I’ll never dress like everyone else or act like everyone else. No matter what, I’ll never fit in with either the male or the female scene.

He compared my obsession with surgery with his alcoholism; saying I go toward that direction just because it’s so easy for me to give in to my desires, just as it’s easy for him to wander into the bar.

He said no matter how many operations I have or bodybuilding courses I take I’ll never look how I dream I want to, that I should rather look toward an ideal I can reach, like Romaine Brooks. That maybe I should try wearing some women’s suits like I used to.

I must say that since this talk with him, it’s the first time in months I’ve really felt the idea of switching over is not right for me at all—that I should try to look in another direction.

He said he thinks it’s a good idea for me to see Steve Dain but that I shouldn’t go into it with a hero-worshiping attitude.

Somehow I have to learn to love myself as the weirdo boyish female I am.

It’s impossible for me to avoid becoming deeply attached to her (Dain)—I like to call him her because it allows me to identify more easily, to really grasp what he is. I cannot help falling in love with him. I feel he is my soul. Anyway at the rate his hassles are going, I’ll never get to meet him. I wish somehow I could be of some help to him.

I had my 1st gay infatuation. It’s so fucked up I feel nauseous even thinking about it + it really tears me up inside. He was about 43 yrs old, small, attractive guy. J + I met him in J’s favorite straight bar. Name was Cal. I just feel so shitty. He was pretty drunk by the time we got there + began talking to us, saying he’s seen us “two guys” + watched us several times—that we reminded him of two hitmen out of Dashiell Hammett (some 1940’s detective story writer) and “I really like you 2 guys… you got a certain, ah… class.”

Then he began to “read our beads” saying he’s observed us often + he sees J as “a villain,” not very flexible or open + a cynical person. But he sees me as a man with a sense of humor, much more open to different things, that J can’t adjust to change. But that I have a whole realm of possibilities to choose from. That J is basically happy with his job + his life, but that I’m not. Well, of course he knew how to hold our attention, as everyone likes to talk about themselves.

Something very girlish about him. He had lovely expressive eyes + brows and almost involuntarily he’d look in mine. I’d look back and he’d wince, a visible hurt as he studied my eyes, and then he’d look away.

It’s as tho my whole inner core of who or what I am is totally stripped away. I wonder how much longer I can continue to function, and that’s the truth. I feel more + more alienated from myself. How can I gather up the pieces of my mind? I can’t think of anything, anything but this switch over. It just permeates my entire mind. And I’m so so tired of it.

Ridiculous when my whole crusade was to be a feminine gay male. And also my inability to merge into a male-male relationship with J, even tho I know now it would have been impossible. I knew I was acting strangely toward him, that I wasn’t relaxed or really me… that with the only person I’ve really felt at ease around. Maybe I would have fallen into the Miss Plastic Surgery syndrome—always blaming one thing or another for the fact that I’m not a “real man.” I hate to face it, but it’s true: I would never be entirely comfortable as a male.

Because in my heart I know I am nothing.

And so the big trip to Milw turned out OK.

Eldon talked to me in length about my identity crises + ended up telling me I am a transvestite + why don’t I just relax with that?

Had an in-depth talk with ma about my conflicts + out of nowhere she said she thought sterilization would be right for me, after she’d made such a scene when Johnney wanted a vasectomy.

The only real low of the visit was trying to deal with dad’s depression because of the divorce, his business failing, etc, but when I tried to make realistic suggestions he finally said “Sheila, don’t try to help me too much.” So that ended my sympathy.

I’ve returned to SF feeling pretty free of my gender conflict + with an acutely raised sexual desire of J. I must pursue my own ideal of the perfect male/female balance + not try to oust one for the other.

[1] Pacific Center for Human Growth

[2] Sullivan acknowledged this quote was “from Male Muse”–probably Male Muse the guy poetry anthology

[2]”Sex Change Uproar in Emeryville” article about Steve Dain taped in Diary

Excerpt from We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan (Nightboat Books, 2019), reproduced with permission of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society, San Francisco.
Photo: Lou Sullivan; photo Credit: Mariette Path Allen
William Johnson photo

About: William Johnson

William Johnson is the former Deputy Director of Lambda Literary.

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