Leslie Feinberg (1949-2014)

 

Leslie Feinberg “Self Portrait in Setting Sun” 2011

Leslie Feinberg “Self Portrait in Setting Sun” 2011

Leslie Feinberg, who identified as an anti-racist white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female, revolutionary communist, died on November 15, 2014.

She/zie succumbed to complications from multiple tick-borne co-infections, including Lyme disease, babeisiosis, and protomyxzoa rheumatica, after decades of illness.

Zie/she died at home in Syracuse, NY, with hir partner and spouse of 22 years, Minnie Bruce Pratt, at hir side.

Hir last words were:

“Remember me as a revolutionary communist.”

Transgender Liberation

Feinberg was the first theorist to advance a Marxist concept of “transgender liberation,” and hir work impacted popular culture, academic research, and political organizing.

Hir historical and theoretical writings have been widely anthologized and taught in U.S. and international academic circles. Hir impact on mass culture was primarily through hir 1993 first novel, Stone Butch Blues, widely considered in and outside the U.S. as a groundbreaking work about the complexities of gender. Sold by the hundreds of thousands of copies and also passed from hand-to-hand inside prisons, the novel has been translated into Chinese, Dutch, German, Italian, Slovenian, Turkish, and Hebrew (with her earnings from that edition going to ASWAT Palestinian Gay Women).

Pronouns & Trans* Language

In a statement at the end of hir life, Leslie said zie/she had “never been in search of a common umbrella identity, or even an umbrella term, that brings together people of oppressed sexes, gender expressions, and sexualities” and added that she/zie believed in the right of self-determination for oppressed individuals, communities, groups, and nations.

Leslie preferred to use the pronouns she/zie and her/hir for hirself, but also said:

“I care which pronoun is used, but people have been respectful to me with the wrong pronoun and disrespectful with the right one. It matters whether someone is using the pronoun as a bigot, or if they are trying to demonstrate respect.”

Early Adult Life

Leslie Feinberg was born September 1, 1949, in Kansas City, Missouri, and raised in Buffalo, New York in a working-class Jewish family. At age 14, she/zie began supporting hirself by working in the display sign shop of a local department store, and eventually stopped going to high school classes, though officially zie/she received hir diploma. It was during this time that she/zie entered the social life of the Buffalo gay bars. Zie/she moved out of a biological family hostile to hir sexuality and gender expression, and to the end of hir life carried legal documents that made clear they were not hir family.

Discrimination against hir as a transgender person made it impossible for hir to get steady work. Zie/she earned hir living for most of hir life through a series of low-wage temp jobs, including working in a PVC pipe factory and a book bindery, cleaning out ship cargo holds and washing dishes, serving as an ASL interpreter, and doing medical data inputting.

Organizing and Workers World Party

In hir early twenties Leslie Feinberg met Workers World Party at a demonstration for Palestinian land rights and self-determination. She/zie soon joined WWP through its founding Buffalo branch.

After moving to New York City, zie/she participated in numerous mass organizing campaigns by the Party over the years, including many anti-war, pro-labor rallies. Zie/she was a key organizer in the December 1974 March Against Racism in Boston, a campaign against white supremacist attacks on African-American adults and schoolchildren in the city. Feinberg led a group of ten lesbian-identified people, including several from South Boston, on an all-night “paste up” of South Boston, covering every visible racist epithet. In 1983-1984 she/zie embarked on a national tour about AIDS as a denied epidemic.

Feinberg was one of the organizers of the 1988 mobilization in Atlanta that drove back the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan as they tried to march down Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave. on MLK Day. When anti-abortion groups descended on Buffalo in 1992 and again in 1998-1999 with the murder there of Dr. Barnett Slepian, Feinberg returned to work with Buffalo United for Choice and its Rainbow Peacekeepers, which organized community self-defense for local LGBTQ+ bars and clubs as well as the women’s clinic.

Writing: Journalism, Theory, History, Fiction

A Workers World journalist since 1974, Feinberg was the editor of the Political Prisoners page of Workers World newspaper for 15 years, and became a managing editor in 1995. She/zie was a member of the National Committee of the Party.

From 2004-2008 Feinberg’s writing on the links between socialism and LGBT history, “Lavender & Red,” ran as a 120-part series in Workers World newspaper. Hir last book, Rainbow Solidarity in Defense of Cuba, was an edited selection of that series.

Feinberg authored two other non-fiction books, Transgender Warriors: Making History and Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue, as well as a second novel, Drag King Dreams.

Feinberg was a member of the National Writers Union, Local 1981, and of Pride at Work, an AFL-CIO constituency group. Zie/she received an honorary doctorate from the Starr King School for the Ministry for hir transgender and social justice work, and was the recipient of numerous other awards, including the Lambda Literary Award and the American Library Association Gay and Lesbian Book Award.

Illness & Art

During a period when diseases would not allow hir to read, write, or talk, Feinberg continued to communicate through art. Picking up a camera for the first time, she/zie posted thousands of pictures on Flickr, including The Screened-In Series, a disability-art class-conscious documentary of hir Hawley-Green neighborhood photographed entirely from behind the windows of hir apartment.

Diagnosed with Lyme and multiple tick-borne co-infections in 2008, Feinberg was infected first in the early 1970s when little was known about the diseases. Zie/she had received treatment for these only within the last six years. Zie/she said, “My experience in ILADS care offers great hope to desperately-ill people who are in earlier stages of tick-borne diseases.”

She/zie attributed hir catastrophic health crisis to “bigotry, prejudice and lack of science”—active prejudice toward hir transgender identity that made access to health care exceedingly difficult, and lack of science due to limits placed by mainstream medical authorities on information, treatment, and research about Lyme and its co-infections. Feinberg blogged about these issues in Casualty of an Undeclared War.

At the time of hir death, Leslie Feinberg was preparing the 20th anniversary edition of Stone Butch Blues. Zie/she worked up to within a few days of hir death to prepare the edition for free, open access on-line. In addition to the text of the novel, the on-line edition links to a slideshow, “This Is What Solidarity Looks Like,” documenting the breadth of the organizing campaign to free CeCe McDonald, a young Minneapolis (trans)woman of color organizer and activist sent to prison for defending herself against a white neo-Nazi attacker. The new edition is dedicated to McDonald.

Minnie Bruce & Family of Choice

Leslie Feinberg’s spouse, Minnie Bruce Pratt, an activist and poet, is the author of Crime Against Nature about loss of custody of her sons as a lesbian mother, as well as many other books.

Feinberg and Pratt met in 1992 when Leslie presented a slideshow on hir transgender research in Washington, DC, sponsored by the local Workers World branch. After a long-distance courtship, they made their home for many years in Jersey City, NJ, where, to protect their relationship, the couple domestic-partnered in 2004 and civil-unioned in 2006. They also married in civil ceremony in Massachusetts and in New York State in 2011.

Feinberg stressed that state authorities had no right to assign who were or were not hir loved ones but rather that zie/she would define hir chosen family, citing Marx who said that

the exchange value of love is—love.

Leslie Feinberg is survived by Pratt and an extended family of choice, as well as many friends, activists and comrades around the world in struggle against oppression and for liberation.

This life history was co-written by Leslie and Minnie Bruce in the months before Leslie’s death, with only hir last words added after hir death.

 

Feinberg speaks in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal Town Hall, New York City, 1999

Feinberg speaks in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal
Town Hall, New York City, 1999. Photo by Deirdre Stapp.

 

Leslie Feinberg’s homepage through November 15, 2014.