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LGBTQ History Month: Diaries reveal hidden worlds for museums

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A series of personal diaries written by transgender activist Lou Sullivan are part of the collections at the GLBT Historical Society. In this photo, Sullivan wrote, "Damn I'm going to be a gorgeous man," at bottom, lower right. Photo: Rick Gerharter
A series of personal diaries written by transgender activist Lou Sullivan are part of the collections at the GLBT Historical Society. In this photo, Sullivan wrote, "Damn I'm going to be a gorgeous man," at bottom, lower right. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Editor's note: This is the second in a five-part series for LGBTQ History Month featuring objects that one day could be exhibited in a new, full-scale LGBTQ Museum and Research Center in San Francisco.

"Damn I'm going to be a gorgeous man," Lou Sullivan wrote 40 years ago in one of his personal diaries.

Sullivan, who died in 1991 at the age of 39 due to complications from AIDS, was a pioneering transgender activist in the 1970s and 1980s. His book "Information for the Female to Male Cross Dresser and Transsexual," published the year prior to his death, is considered a seminal work about the unique experiences of trans men.

Throughout his life Sullivan detailed his private thoughts, personal experiences, and the lives of those he knew in diaries spanning his adolescence in the 1960s growing up in a Catholic household in Milwaukee to living in San Francisco as a gay transgender man at the height of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

In one diary spanning 1979 to 1980 Sullivan wrote about wrestling with his gender identity and documented the first year of his gender transition. Throughout the volume and in his later diaries, Sullivan wrote in meticulous detail about transitioning from female to male.

"Now that I'm alone I see that, if it is true that we are all responsible for our own happiness, that we cannot expect others to fulfill us, and in the end we only have ourselves, then I better make peace with the feelings inside me," he wrote on October 3, 1979. "If I don't it will be the only thing on my death that I will regret not doing."

The San Francisco-based GLBT Historical Society, which Sullivan co-founded, has dozens of Sullivan's diaries in its archives. The society's Lou Sullivan Papers collection also includes his short stories, poems, essays, correspondence, and research files. All told Sullivan donated 8.4 cubic feet of archival material to the nonprofit preservation group.

"It's an extraordinary collection. It comes the closest to feeling you are meeting the person," said Isaac Fellman, a reference archivist for the historical society. "You have everything but their body to tell you who he was."

Having transitioned himself this year, Fellman said he connected personally with Sullivan when reading through his diaries. He found the entries in which Sullivan writes about second-guessing his decision to transition especially relevant.

"The pushback is part of the process," said Fellman.

Sullivan had wanted to see his diaries published during his lifetime but didn't live long enough to achieve that goal. In September, Nightboat Books published "We Both Laughed In Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan." Editors Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma selected entries spanning the years of 1961 through 1991.

Writing in an introduction to the book, transgender historian Susan Stryker, who helped process Sullivan's collection for the historical society following his death, notes that the journals Sullivan donated "offer one of the most complete, and most compelling, records of a trans life ever to have been produced."

As the archival group eyes one day opening a permanent museum in San Francisco, the Bay Area Reporter asked the historical society to select items from its collection to demonstrate the possibilities that would come from having its own building in which to show off its holdings.

Until the publication last month of Sullivan's excerpted journal entries, the general public has not had easy access to Sullivan's diaries. The historical society has yet to mount an exhibit based on them at its museum it operates out of a leased storefront in the heart of the Castro, San Francisco's LGBT neighborhood.

"Off and on over the years we have been trying to get an exhibit on Lou off the ground," said GLBT Historical Society Executive Director Terry Beswick. "If we can find someone with the knowledge and the time to do that we would like to. It is a perfect example of why we need a bigger space."

The historical society did collaborate with the Digital Transgender Archive to digitize a trove of Sullivan's correspondence and other papers and upload them to the web so people can see and read them online. The online repository also includes video recordings of Sullivan being interviewed about transgender issues.

And in 2010 the society mounted an exhibit at its former archival space near Yerba Buena Gardens about FTM mentorship that featured Sullivan's letters to a fellow transman called David as well as photos of his transition. The show, called "Man-i-fest: FTM Mentorship in San Francisco from 1976-2009," was curated by Rev. Dr. Megan Rohrer, the first openly transgender pastor ordained in the Lutheran church.

Sullivan's diaries also illustrate an issue that historical preservationist groups are struggling with in the digital age. Physical diary writing and journaling is quickly becoming a lost art due to digital communications like emails, blogs, and Facebook.

"Digital is the future," noted Kelsi Evans, director of the historical society's Dr. John P. De Cecco Archives & Special Collections. "Where the archival profession is going is we have to document email accounts."

It remains an open question if future museumgoers will have the same visceral reactions or feelings about printed out digital materials as they do to seeing an aged and tattered diary or journal in an exhibition. Sullivan's diaries, for example, are visual feasts.

He not only wrote in beautiful penmanship but also pasted photos to the pages with notes scribbled next to them. One such picture on a diary page from November 1979 includes the notation, "Me showing Johnny how to dress like a woman."

"Diaries are one of my favorite things in our collection," said Fellman, adding that those from gay men who succumbed to AIDS "where pulled out of the garbage" after their relatives tossed their personal affects rather than save them.

It is why Sullivan and others co-founded the GLBT Historical Society in the beginning, as a place where the ephemera, personal effects, and archival material documenting LGBT society could be collected and preserved.

"A lot of queer people have had a strong archival instinct even at an early age," said Fellman. "Our nuclear family is not the best repository of who we are, especially early on."

As cherished as Sullivan's collection is not only to scholars, academics, and historians focused on the transgender community, it also illustrates the gaps in the historical society's archives. Because of how it began, the collection early on skewed more toward white gay men.

It's something that society officials for years have been working to address by seeking out archival material that reflects the full spectrum of the LGBT community and hosting special exhibitions that highlight its diversity.

"I often feel we don't have enough of a lot of communities represented in the archive," said Beswick, "and the transgender community is a perfect example."

UPDATED 10/22/2019 to include mention of a 2010 exhibit at the GLBT Historical Society's former archival space that featured Sullivan's letters and photos of his transition.

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