In the Blog
Leslie Feinberg: Transgender Warrior for Life
Leslie Feinberg speaks at a rally. Credit: Tikkun Daily.
As a young femme birthed into queer community in the 2000s, I thought I didn’t need Leslie Feinberg. I came up with the birthing of gender-neutral washrooms, trans men in my community and regular drag king performances at local gay bars (that were gay all week long, not just on Saturday nights).
Leslie Feinberg eluded me. I didn’t know hir experience. I didn’t live it either. As a brown femme I had my own Brown Femme Blues. But the truth is, I didn’t and still don’t know the experience of the butches in that very true fiction. While I felt camaraderie, while my experiences of heterosexism mirrored those of Jess Goldberg and her band of seldom merry butches back in 1967, I don’t know what it’s like being a gender bender.
Leslie Feinberg, the prolific writer and activist passed away on November 15, 2014.
I always had a massive sense of respect for Feinberg’s work but never picked up hir non-fictions Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Denis Rodman or Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink and Blue and when I had her first novel, Stone Butch Blues in my hand, I put it down twice because of the rape scenes at the near beginning of the book.
But as Leslie Feinberg left this existence for the next, out of fear of losing this amazing activist, I wanted some of hir work to live on in me. I read Stone Butch Blues for the first time.
I thought I would write an open letter to Leslie and all the Butch, Trans, gender non-conforming amazing folks that I know. Here goes…
Dear Leslie Feinberg, Claude Brown and all the Toronto-based 2-spirit, genderqueer, trans men, gender non-conforming, butches and friends that I know:
I love you so much. I am so grateful you exist.
As I recently devoured Stone Butch Blues for the very first time, I am reminded of my sexual, romantic and non-sexual/non-romantic love affair with butches, masculine women and trans men.
Through the lens of Leslie Feinberg’s award winning novel, I am reminded of your particularly hard and different struggle from any other identity in the rainbow spectrum. I remember the risks you take just going to the bathroom or being in the men’s section of a store. I remember the threat you feel being in the bar where butches are seen as masculine and worthy of fighting by cops and each other alike. Most of all, I never forget that the price you pay for your gender presentation is often one that has had violent consequences; harassment, assault and rape.
One of the greatest gifts that you Leslie, Claude and so many others have given me is the recognition of the right to be individual and to be different; to avoid an umbrella term for all genderqueers or transfolks just because the world wants you categorized. The brilliance in a butch remaining butch or transitioning to transman or a 2-spirited person floating in that seemingly precarious middle ground of androgyny is so exquisite, so perfect to me that it melts my heart, tosses my political brain and burns my belly all at once – with desire, hope and fear.
Leslie, it is not tragic to me that you needed to carry documents nearing the end of your life that legally claimed that your biological family was not your family. It is a sign of resilience and strength to have created chosen family and put up boundaries so you didn’t get hurt anymore. As a revolutionary communist because of your sexuality and gender expression, it was more for your own protection than rejection of your biological family. There are far too many butches, bois and 2-spirits I know who have had to do the same.
As transgender warriors, as lesbian, as queers – you are inherently activists. Your sex/gender is political, whom you love is political and which bathroom you use is political. As a brown queer femme paid activist, I know the trials and tribulations of working within the community to make changes, to work against white supremacy and to fight to have your sexuality and gender identity be recognized at all. I know that fight. What I don’t know - and much love and respect - is the fury in which you stay strong, stay grounded and stay in love with a movement that has not always accepted your masculinity. I am not of the days where other lesbians could deem lesbians as too feminine or too masculine. I am not of the days where butches couldn’t love other butches or being trans was a mythical idea, only to be seen in the shadows of alleyways in places that weren’t supposed to exist. Simply put, I know you have to be accountable to the movement in ways no one else has ever been expected to be. For whom you love, for how you dress, the way you carry your body, for the gender you are but weren’t born as.
Dearest Leslie, Claude Brown and so many others, I know you couldn’t stay in school. You could barely manage the violence in those places so you are left with life without academic degrees and high school diplomas – a privilege that would take you throughout life with confidence to get that job or write that book. You were denied education because you were a manly woman; the violence you endured didn’t allow you to concentrate. Despite this, you have a supreme experience and knowledge that transcends the LGBTQ experience; you became a writer, a teacher and an activist, someone who other people are inspired by. And, you did all this against the education system that turned you out. While you received awards and honorary degrees, I imagine that there were so many times you didn’t feel smart enough, didn’t have the courage to learn, or couldn’t learn the same way others can because you could not access school and feared violence and discrimination because of our gender presentation.
I know your health must have taken several tolls over the years because, similar to Jesse Goldberg, the fear of being found out as a he-she (Stone Butch Blues) or man-looking woman was so severe that you didn’t access health care. Which means others who had more access and privilege than you were healthier and even seen as more worthy of that health care. This is what you meant by being a ‘casualty of an undeclared war’.
In spite of all this, you gave us so much. In your talk, Beyond Pink or Blue you teach us that we cannot fight within singular movements, like the women’s movement or the Black Power movement, but that we must fight all oppression. You constantly remind us, in the way you talk, walk and breathe that we are more than our gender expression and sexuality. We are classed, colonizers and colonized, raced, people who land on one side of the war or another. You remind us that the struggle for workers rights is our struggle, the struggle for racial equality is our struggle, and that what White drag queens have to deal with isn’t the same as what Black drag queens have to deal with. You aligned yourself with Huey Newton, Silvia Rivera and Cece MacDonald. You acknowledge that we are all different but that we all share a common oppressor. Your way of understanding how intersectional oppression is used against us is one of the ways you loved all of us back.
While I mourn your passing Leslie, I celebrate the lives of so many gender non-conforming folks who came alongside and after you.
Thank you for being courageous enough to be who you are and love who you did. Thank you for the acknowledgement of your whiteness in the movements you were a part of. Thank you for being hard, stoic and stone. Thank you for surviving sexual violence and remembering hope for a better world. Thank you for your tenderness in all the times you share it with us femmes, pros, sex-workers, lesbians, co-warriors, cisgender men. Thank you for writing, reading, teaching.
I love you so much. I am so grateful you exist(ed).