Leslie Feinberg – A communist who revolutionized transgender rights

Speaking in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Town Hall, New York, 1999.WW photo: Deirdre Griswold

Speaking in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Town Hall, New York, 1999.
WW photo: Deirdre Griswold

Leslie Feinberg, who identified as an anti-racist white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female, revolutionary communist, died on Nov. 15. She succumbed to complications from multiple tick-borne co-infections, including Lyme disease, babeisiosis and protomyxzoa rheumatica, after decades of illness.

She died at home in Syracuse, N.Y., with her partner and spouse of 22 years, Minnie Bruce Pratt, at her side. Her last words were: “Hasten the revolution! Remember me as a revolutionary communist.”

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

Her historical and theoretical writing has been widely anthologized and taught in the U.S. and international academic circles. Her impact on mass culture was primarily through her 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 and also passed from hand-to-hand inside prisons, the novel has been translated into Chinese, Dutch, German, Italian, Slovenian, Turkish and Hebrew. Her earnings from the Hebrew edition go to ASWAT, Palestinian Gay Women.

Painting a wall for CeCe McDonald.

Painting a wall for CeCe McDonald.

In a statement at the end of her life, she said 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 believed in the right of self-determination of oppressed individuals, communities, groups and nations.

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 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.”

Low-wage worker, anti-racist organizer 

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

With Minnie Bruce Pratt at Stop War on Iran protest.WW photo: Mike Eilenfeldt

With Minnie Bruce Pratt at Stop War on Iran protest.
WW photo: Mike Eilenfeldt

Discrimination against her as a transgender person made it impossible for her to get steady work. She earned her living for most of her 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.

In her early twenties, Feinberg met Workers World Party at a demonstration for Palestinian land rights and self-determination. She soon joined WWP’s 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. 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 10 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 embarked on a national tour about AIDS as a denied epidemic.

Feinberg was one of the organizers of the 1988 mobilization in Atlanta that routed the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan as they tried to march down Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue on MLK Day. When anti-abortion groups descended on Buffalo in 1992 and again in 1998-1999, following 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.

A WW journalist since 1974, Feinberg was the editor of the Political Prisoners page of the newspaper for 15 years, becoming a managing editor in 1995. She was a member of the National Committee of the Party.

From 2004 to 2008, Feinberg’s writing on the links between socialism and LGBT history, “Lavender & Red,” ran as a 120-part series in Workers World. Her most recent book, “Rainbow Solidarity in Defense of Cuba,” was an edited selection of that series. (workers.org/lavender-red)

Feinberg authored two other nonfiction 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, United Auto Workers Local 1981 and of Pride at Work, an AFL-CIO constituency group. She received an honorary doctorate from the Starr King School for the Ministry for her 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.

‘Bigotry, prejudice, lack of science’

During a period when diseases would not allow her to read, write or talk, Feinberg continued to communicate through art. Picking up a camera for the first time, she posted thousands of pictures on Flickr, including “The Screened-In Series,” a disability-art, class-conscious documentary of her Hawley-Green neighborhood photographed entirely from behind the windows of her apartment. (tinyurl.com/k5bpg58)

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. She had received treatment for these only within the last six years. She said, “My experience in ILADS care offers great hope to desperately ill people who are in earlier stages of tick-borne diseases.”

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

At the time of her death, Feinberg was preparing a 20th-anniversary edition of “Stone Butch Blues.” She worked up to within a few days of her death to prepare the edition for free access, reading and download from on-line. In addition to the text of the novel, the on-line edition will contain a slideshow, “This Is What Solidarity Looks Like,” documenting the breadth of the organizing campaign to free CeCe McDonald, a young Minneapolis (trans)woman organizer and activist sent to prison for defending herself against a white neo-Nazi attacker. The new edition is dedicated to McDonald. A devoted group of friends are continuing to work to post Feinberg’s final writing and art online at lesliefeinberg.net.

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. Feinberg and Pratt met in 1992 when Feinberg presented a slideshow on her transgender research in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the local Workers World branch. After a long-distance courtship, they made their home for many years in Jersey City, N.J., 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 her loved ones, but rather that she would define her chosen family, citing Marx who said that the exchange value of love is — love.

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.