In Brice Smith’s research on female-to-gay-male pioneer Lou Sullivan, two trans stories intesect in a way that enriches both.
Since 2004, Smith has been absorbed in learning, writing and talking about Sullivan, who was born 60 years ago and died 20 years ago. The Milwaukee native is now a figure of great interest in trans history.
Smith pursued a Ph.D. in history at UW-Milwaukee in order to write Sullivan’s biography, and he is now working to get it, along with Sullivan’s journals, published.
Smith has moved around a bit, both geographically and gender-wise. He was born in Colorado, grew up in New Mexico, went to high school in Oklahoma and college in Missouri. He then moved to Wisconsin for graduate school.
“There’s something special about Milwaukee, which immediately felt like home to me,” Smith says. “I would like to stay here as long as I can.”
Since completing his Ph.D. last year, Smith has worked on the Milwaukee Transgender Oral History Project under the auspices of UWM Archives. Its interviews supplement those acquired from local lesbians, gays and bisexuals by the Milwaukee LGBT History Project. Smith calls it “a fantastic collection of interviews that reveals our city’s rich trans history.”
Will Fellows: How did you become aware that you are transgender?
Brice Smith: Many folks have known their entire lives that they were trans, or that their gender identity was at odds with their natal sex. That was not the case with me. My trans identity has evolved over time. Right now, I see transitioning as one of several key moments in my life where I came to better understand myself and the world around me, including moving from my childhood home, getting sober, coming out as a lesbian, (transitioning to male) and completing my Ph.D. For me, transitioning was an act of self-love requiring tremendous courage in order to become more me.
Our present realities affect what we remember and can cause the same memory to take on different meanings, especially when we claim new identities. Now when my mom thinks about my childhood, she sees indications that I was a boy. I didn’t see myself as a boy. I had an aversion to dresses, so-called girls’ toys and “lady-like behavior.” But so did many other girls. I’ve always had a heightened sense of gender disparity and inequality. My fifth-grade teacher told my mom that she enjoyed seeing me engage male classmates in debates about gender roles and expectations.
Trans people are frequently asked to recount their pasts, but usually through a narrow lens and with the expectation that each trans person will recount essentially the same narrative. Unfortunately we are still in a place where most folks want to know what a trans person is, not who a trans person is. My life experiences are just as unique and just as unoriginal as everyone else’s.
What drew you to Lou Sullivan’s story?
I first learned about Lou Sullivan when I read a sketch by Susan Stryker in “Transgender Warriors.” I was immediately taken by this trans activist who struggled to be recognized as a gay man, only to die from AIDS, and I scoured every available trans-related text in search of more. Several authors identified Lou’s importance in forging an FTM (female-to-male) community and in transforming understandings of the relationship between sexual orientation and gender identity. But I was frustrated by what felt like a lack of information about how he forged an FTM community, how he persevered in identifying as a gay FTM when such a thing supposedly did not exist, and how trans history fit into the broader LGBT historical narrative.
In the 1980s, Lou Sullivan argued that gender identity and sexual orientation were separate and distinct, so that people could transition regardless of whether they were straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, pansexual, whatever. You see, Lou had a hell of a time trying to transition because the medical experts did not want to help create – via surgery and hormones – a gay man. They believed that their medical services were for saving heterosexual men and women who were “born in the wrong bodies” from having to live as homosexuals, and that anyone who would go to such great lengths to become homosexual must not be sane. Because he identified as gay, Lou could not be diagnosed as transsexual and have access to their services.
Do you have any thoughts about Chaz Bono’s FTM journey?
It’s fantastic that he’s brought about greater trans visibility, and I think his public transitioning has done a lot to educate people. Hopefully this will inspire the mainstream to learn about more trans people and to discover our history. I find it fascinating that in the past 60 years we’ve gone from the shocking spectacle of Christine Jorgensen, who became a celebrity because she was trans, to the compassionate edutainment of Chaz Bono, a celebrity who became trans.
When it comes to LGBT, it seems that there are many gays and lesbians who don’t like to be lumped in with trans people. The view seems to be that being gay or lesbian is about sexual orientation, not gender identity, and that the two are very separate.
I’m all about unity in diversity. In order to achieve that unity, I think that we, as a community, need to address some shortcomings in our current LGBT model. In particular, I would love to see us embrace the intersections of sexual orientation and gender identity and recognize the ways in which lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender overlap. “LGBT” implies that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender are separate and distinct identities, but the fact is that the vast majority of transgender people either are, or once were, lesbian, gay or bisexual. When we focus on sexual orientation or gender identity to the exclusion of the other, we fail to see the significant ways in which our gender identities shape our sexual orientations, and vice versa.
Will Fellows is a Milwaukee author whose book, “A Passion to Preserve,” explores trans dimensions of gay men’s natures. His most recent book is “Gay Bar.”