In Memoriam: Leslie Feinberg

On November 15th, we lost another pioneer. Leslie Feinberg, trans/activist, theorist, mass culture changer, gender explorer and warrior, died at the age of 65, succumbing to multiple tick-borne infections that zie’d been battling for years, and zie saw all too well how the healthcare system denies access to millions of people through institutionalized discrimination and bias. If you know Feinberg’s work and impact, that shouldn’t surprise you. If you don’t, zie was a rare visionary activist who drew on myriad threads from myriad approaches and contexts that continue to resonate.

Leslie Feinberg. Self-portrait in setting sun.
Leslie Feinberg. Self-portrait in setting sun.
From Autostraddlel
From Autostraddle

For those of us who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, Feinberg was an integral part of the LGBT activist nexus, and a trailblazing pioneer in transactivism and radicalism. We were schooled by 1993’s Stone Butch Blues, which tells the story of a butch named Jess Goldberg who grows up prior to the Stonewall Riots. SBB entered the LGBT literary canon worldwide in several languages as a groundbreaking work on gender, and remains one of the best-known books in that canon. Hir theoretical approaches to gender — including the first Marxist analysis of transgender liberation — have been taught for decades. Hir work has impacted political organizing, academic research, and popular culture.

Feinberg’s 1996 pivotal Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman was one of those works. Laurie Miles at the Socialist Review noted the book’s profound effect on her, in that it adopted “an accessible international and class perspective on the universality of gender variant individuals, groups and roles. The book identified a defining moment in the drive for LGBT unity in the last decade of the 20th century. It became a rallying cry for transgender rights and for trans people to recognise and reclaim our history and understand the nature and causes of our oppression.” transgender warriors

Feinberg’s work and activism is best described in hir own words from the bio on hir website:

S/he is well-known in the U.S. and many other parts of the world as an activist who works to help forge a strong bond between the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans communities. As a trade unionist, anti-racist and socialist, Feinberg also organizes to build strong bonds of unity between these struggles and those of movements in defense of oppressed nationalities, women, disabled, and the working-class movement as a whole. Feinberg has worked for more than three decades in defense of the sovereignty, self-determination and treaty rights of Native nations and for freedom of political prisoners in the U.S. Ze is an internationalist and has been part of the anti-Pentagon movement since the U.S. war against Vietnam. Feinberg has toured the country, speaking at Pride rallies and protest marches, and at scores of colleges and universities.

Hir spouse, poet Minnie Bruce Pratt, includes more about Feinberg’s work in the obituary she wrote for the Advocate:

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

After moving to New York City, she participated in numerous mass organizing campaigns by the Party over the years, including many anti-war, pro-labor rallies. In 1983-1984 she embarked on a national tour about AIDS as a denied epidemic. 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.

Feinberg was one of the organizers of the 1988 mobilization in Atlanta that re-routed 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. Barnard 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.

Zie was a transvisionary, as zie strove to forge links between communities facing oppressions in many manifestations, and zie was a throwback in some ways to the old-school labor rights activists of the 1930s and 40s, and that’s how I’ve always thought of hir: A beautiful and powerful melding of generations of thought and action — some from the past, and some that zie was pulling from the future. Feinberg never wanted to develop some kind of “umbrella” identity or term for everybody to get underneath. Rather, zie believed in the right of self-determination for oppressed communities, individuals, nations, and groups, and in coalitions between them.

Feinberg’s last words were, “Remember me as a revolutionary communist.”

I will. And as a warrior, philosopher, writer, and pathbreaker.

For more:
Leslie Feinberg’s website
National Center for Transgender Equality on Feinberg
HRC on Feinberg
Liberation News on Feinberg following hir death
The Atlantic
How Leslie Feinberg saved my life
Books on Amazon
1996 interview with Feinberg
Fall 1996 review of Transgender Warriors

NOTE: From Minnie Bruce Pratt’s obituary: “She preferred to use the pronouns she/zie and her/hir for herself, but also said: “I care which pronoun is used, but people have been disrespectful to me with the wrong pronoun and respectful with the right one. It matters whether someone is using the pronoun as a bigot, or if they are trying to demonstrate respect.”