A good — relatively brief — article about the man is available at Wikipedia.
Issan Dorsey (March 7, 1933 — September 6, 1990), born Tommy Dorsey, Jr., was a Sōtō Zen monk and teacher, Dharma heir of Zentatsu Richard Baker and onetime abbot of Hartford Street Zen Center (HSZC) located in the Castro district of San Francisco, California. Earlier in his life he had worked as a prostitute and a drag queen, and had struggled at times with drug addiction. He died of complications from AIDS in 1990.
He established the Maitri Hospice at HSZC for students and friends dying of AIDS during the spread of the epidemic in the 1980s—the first Buddhist hospice of its kind in the United States. Numbers of his students and colleagues have observed that Dorsey was the embodiment of a bodhisattva.
Another short biography is available at the LGBT Religious Archives Network. A very short biography that manages to offer a new detail or two is provided by Astro-Databank; compare it to the synopsis of Issan Dorsey in The Dhamma Encyclopedia.
A much longer bio by someone who knew him is published at Shambhala Sun: The Lone Mountain Path: The Example of Issan Dorsey by Kobai Scott Whitney.
Someone else who knew him wrote an article about him while he was still alive: June 13, 1988. Apparently it was published in The New Yorker. The author is Katy Butler, who I was surprised to see in that Wikipedia link to a profile on her, was born the same year as I. Her Issan Dorsey article is badly typed towards the end, for some reason.
The following book on Issan Dorsey has been mentioned in at least the Wikipedia article, if in none of the other articles that I have linked to:
If you clicked that link to Amazon, did you notice the price tag for a brand new copy of the book — a paperback at that, it seems? How is that justified, I wonder?
Yet another person who knew and wrote about him is Bernie Glassman, published in Zen Peacemakers.
There are actually quite a number of other accounts about Issan Dorsey that can be found online. However, the broadest is by a writer/photographer named Rob Lee whose effort titled Collaborating with Angels is being made available as a series at a website called Subtopian. If you are interested, you can go here to read Part One. I haven’t done more than scan that particular piece, and I have not even opened up the other parts at all. It may be that something is explained about author Rob Lee within them, but if not, here is a short description of him from Empty Mirror Books:
About Rob Lee
Rob Lee is a photographer and writer. He has written a column on urban birds, “Birdbrain,” for the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as magazine pieces on natural history and a book on city birds, Angels at the Gates of Eden.
Rob’s photography has appeared in numerous books and magazines, including House and Garden, Yoga Journal and Whole Earth Review. A participant in many art shows and photo exhibits, some of the pictures on this web site first appeared in the 1989 National Poetry Festival. This work dovetailed with a project photographing in a Buddhist AIDS hospice, a life changing experience that led Rob to live and work in the hospice as a staff member for a year and a half. The series of photos from the hospice became a traveling exhibit criss-crossing the bay area, and an as yet unpublished text, that builds from a narrative of the intense life in the hospice, to a meditation on our societies’ uneasy relationship with death, and how deeply this sense of denial compromises our culture.
As a September 17 (2012) edit to this post, here are a few further references. A couple are reproductions of material I have already linked to above, but which are hosted at alternate locations or websites:
Today is the 22nd anniversary of the death of Issan Tommy Dorsey, a Soto Zen priest, from complications of HIV/AIDS. The openly gay Dorsey was a former drag queen who struggled with drug addiction for years. Dorsey was …
Publish Date: 09/06/2012 11:25
Today marks the 22nd anniversary of the death of Issan Tommy Dorsey, the Soto Zen priest who passed away of complications due to HIV/AIDS. A former drag queen who struggled with drug addiction for many years, the …
Publish Date: 09/06/2012 9:25
in his life before Buddhism, Issan Dorsey was a ‘bad drag queen’. But at the San Francisco Zen Centre he was a bodhisattva for a gay community blighted by AIDS.
Publish Date: 08/25/2012 0:33
I thought of Sokei-an recently when I went to visit my friend Issan Dorsey, the head priest of the Hartford Street Zen Center, formerly known as the Gay Buddhist Club, which occupies a white frame house in the Castro …
Publish Date: 08/02/2012 23:03
Like the old Zen masters of old, Issan Dorsey was outrageous; he manifested the shadow in our lives. And he was loved not just after his death but also during his life. For Issan had exuberance for all of life, and that included …
Publish Date: 05/21/2012 8:50
Issan Dorsey, sometime in 1933- September 6,1990, was a gay zen priest and teacher and ex-prostitute, drug addict and female impersonator. He established the Maitri Hospice at Hartford Stret Zen Center for people dying of …
Publish Date: 03/15/2009 19:10
A German play about Issan Dorsey, and the podcast of Bernd Bender’s dharma talk.
Publish Date: 07/17/2011 13:41
Issan Dorsey… Like Tristram Shandy, life happens quicker than I have time to write it down but I guess you don’t read me, for diary. Do you want to know about the worms in my worm bin? My approach to childcare with the …
Publish Date: 05/19/2006 4:10
Celebrated performers including Danny Kaye, Klaus Nomi, and Sylvester are brought to life by Eisen in addition to stealth performers, worthy of homage, including Issan Dorsey, Brazil’s Ney Matogroso, Bulgaria’s Azis and …
Publish Date: 06/20/2010 23:08
The above photo is on the Web in several places, but I used a version found on a blog apparently called Buddha, S.J.; and specifically, a September 17, 2010, post titled Issan Tommy Dorsey Roshi. In the lovely trio of “ladies” depicted in the photo, Tommy Dorsey would probably be at the extreme left.
Turning the Wheel of the Dharma in the Queer Community
Uploaded by afkaba2 on May 4, 2011
A discussion by Ken Ireland and Gregory Wood on Tommy “Issan” Dorsey and his impact on the queer community in San Francisco in the 80s and early 90s when he opened the doors of Hartford Street Zen Center and founded Maitri Hospice – the first Buddhist hospice in the western world – for AIDS patients in the Castro.
Although Issan Dorsey was not the first gay man to teach Buddhism in the West, and the Hartford Street Zen Center was not the first practice place to welcome LGBT practitioners, when the gay men who lived at Hartford St. asked Issan to be their resident teacher, the Dharma Wheel was turned in our community.