The Life & Times of Leslie Feinberg

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Leslie Feinberg

If dying with a cause on your mind is proof of your commitment, then transgender activist and author Leslie Feinberg can be considered a true martyr. According to her life partner, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Feinberg’s last words before she died on November 15, 2014, were “Remember me as a revolutionary communist.”

Feinberg’s words alone don’t evince her commitment to the liberation of disenfranchised people. She – or ze – as she preferred to be referenced, traveled the country participating in demonstrations and actions that shed light on the plight of many, causing a disruption to mainstream society and its notions of gender identity.

Her personal political acts began early. She began to identify as a lesbian in her youth, causing conflict between her and a family who would not support her as a person. She involved herself in the gay scene in Buffalo, NY, and soon began to explore transitioning from female to male.

Feinberg struggled with the dichotomies within the queer communities in the 1970s. She had already started her sex reassignment procedures, yet felt trapped by labels. She wanted her identity recognized as a transgender person.

During this development of her unique identity, Feinberg began to develop a political identity as well. The Workers World Party, with its stated goal of opposing all forms of bigotry, appealed to Feinberg. She started working for the party and began writing for the party’s publication, Workers World. She wrote blazing critiques of Western society and imperialism. However, she’s most remembered for what is widely considered a revolutionary opus on the personal and political journey of a transgender person.

In 1993, Feinberg published a semi-autobiographical novel, Stone Butch Blues. It was the story of Jess Goldberg, a person who endured anti-lesbian prejudice, anti-transgender prejudice, hatred from her family and brutality from society. However, Goldberg, through her work with union activists, came to understand the intersections of the struggles of oppressed peoples worldwide. The novel’s lead also came to understand something about herself, that she could forge her own identity and reject the identity politics of the radical queer community in the 1960s and ‘70s.

In writing about Feinberg for The Nation, Jack Halberstam said of the book, “[I]t told a tragic but moving story about a gender queer journey from the indignities of childhood and adolescence, through the misrecognitions and mistakes of early adulthood to the fragile resolutions and accommodations of middle age.”

The award-winning novel was not her last work. Despite her ongoing struggle with Lyme Disease, Feinberg published more fiction and non-fiction, continuing to express a fiercely independent, fiercely Marxist, view on gender identity. She continued, as much as her health would allow, to travel the world speaking on behalf of the oppressed. She hardly limited her activism to LGBTQ issues. Feinberg fought racism and the Klan in Atlanta and fought anti-abortion activists in her hometown of Buffalo.

Feinberg’s family by the accident of birth included novelist Catherine Ryan Hyde, a self-identified lesbian who wrote the book Pay it Forward. She also wrote a book loosely based on her youth that she claimed was based on Feinberg’s life. Ze was outraged by this and felt Hyde had no right – nor knowledge – of her struggle. She rejects that there are any truths within.

While few in the mainstream know her name, her work has been a significant influence on many in the LGBTQ community the world over. Stone Butch Blues has been translated into several languages. Journalist Shauna Miller wrote that Feinberg “changed queer history.” That’s a fitting epitaph for a transgender icon.

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