Leslie Feinberg’s impact in communist and queer spaces

WW Commentary

“There’s this African proverb … Until the lions come to power, the history of the hunt will glorify the hunter.” — Leslie Feinberg

Leslie Feinberg at Syracuse, New York, Pride, June 15, 2013. Sign calls for freedom for CeCe McDonald and Chelsea Manning (then B. Manning). (WW Photo: Minnie Bruce Pratt)

As a transgender, butch, lesbian communist, Leslie Feinberg’s work shone a light on the queer identities, specifically the identities of queer people of color, who saw their personhood undergo a violent brutality in front of their very eyes. While content from Marxist theorists sometimes tends to be insular, Feinberg remained sensitive to the struggles of queer people of color worldwide.

In a talk given at California State University-Sonoma on April 26, 2008, zie discusses that before the Pride flag, the Gay Liberation Front carried the North Vietnamese flag in solidarity: “If we didn’t defend the Vietnamese people, we were gonna weaken, first of all, the people who deserved our support, because we were the aircraft carrier in which the war was being launched in all our names. We would lose the solidarity with the Vietnamese people, and we would lose our own political souls and movement as well if we didn’t take a position in support.”

Feinberg believed in the power of connection and unity across all oppressed peoples. Zie understood that liberation was not a one-person job. Under a regime that sought to expel those who experimented with the fluidity of their sexuality and gender and those who rejected the regimented forces of an intolerant capitalistic machine, Feinberg always assured these individuals that what was considered “unnatural” was indeed natural.

In hir own words: “Transgender women and men have always been here. They are oppressed. But they are not merely products of oppression. It is passing that’s historically new. Passing means hiding. Passing means invisibility. Transgender people should be able to live and express their gender … That is not the case today.” (workers.org/book/transgender-liberation)

Despite what the media would like to tell you, being trans is not a new concept. It was not born from the womb of TikTok or social media or from “Gen Z.” It has existed for ages, spanning across cultures from the Pharaohs to the Kalapuya people of the Willamette Valley to the Bugis people of Indonesia. It is activists like Feinberg who have paved the way for the growing visibility of queer individuals, from all cultures, who care about celebrating their gender and sexual expression.

Capitalism is poison

My generation is living in an epoch of social metamorphosis. We are seeing the way capitalism has eroded and destroyed everything in its path. Everything from the ground we stand on, to race, to gender, to sexuality, to the places we work, and the things we choose, is inhibited by a stagnant regime that is dependent on our captivity, to our being miserable and subjugated. It is a poison that steals and blames and abandons.

Therefore, every activist who seeks to dismantle these structures and introduce expression and passion should be celebrated. Feinberg carved a groove of fluidity to enable us to flourish! Each time a trans person feels comfortable enough to speak out about their experience, each time a nonbinary individual talks about using gender-neutral pronouns, each time a butch calls themselves butch, each time someone feels comfortable enough to don clothes that traditionally aren’t a part of their assigned gender, each time someone speaks out about their struggle and explores their gender fluidity, it is a blow to the capitalist Western machine.

Capitalism fights for homogeneity; it fights for complacency and for domination. In hir article, “Many histories converged at Stonewall,” Feinberg expands on this when talking about the destruction of culturally diverse gender and sexual structures in both African and Indigenous communities. In a world that still seeks to hide queer people from society, Feinberg fought for visibility at a time when just existing was a revolutionary act. (workers.org/book/lavender-red/)

As a lesbian, I believed for a long time that my sexuality was an arbitrary and unsettling part of my identity. The last thing I wanted was the world to see me for who I was. It wasn’t until I read “Stone Butch Blues” and Feinberg’s subsequent works that I learned about the historical and material roots of queerness in the class struggle.

“Stone Butch Blues” discusses the lesbian bar culture of the 1960s and the way butches and femmes would ally themselves together out of community and out of love. Even out of the incessant brutalization butches (who often worked blue-collar jobs) faced as people who were viewed as being “wrong,” they bore a stunning amount of unity from this pain. Cross-dressers, butches, femmes and trans people all worked together to protect each other. Individualism was not an option.

This of course overlapped with the working-class themes of the book. Unionization and the power in numbers present in working-class rebellions were foundational communist themes in “Stone Butch Blues.” Personally, Feinberg’s work has done wonders for me in understanding my place in the world as a socialist, as a lesbian and as a woman of color.

Consciousness and liberation

At the heart of true liberation from oppression is consciousness. Feinberg as an activist made me conscious of the fruit that my sexual and political identities bear. Being a socialist and being a lesbian are identities that I hold dear to my heart, that entangle deeply with one another. Each of these identities are about community, unity, love, camaraderie and a passion for pushing back against things that are deemed “natural” and “unchanging.”

Capitalism likes to tell a story that structures such as racial domination, gender domination (patriarchy and heteropatriarchy) and class domination are predetermined and instinctual parts of existence. That when the state passes fascist legislation and uses military and police authority to coerce and force a certain status quo, it is simply the maintenance of “law and order.”

This is a story that Feinberg sought to unravel. Through increased visibility of queer people, people of color and the working class in hir work, zie effectively revealed the cataclysmic impact of queer communities against capitalist structures.

During this month of Pride, as the state continues to try to police the bodies of others, it is important to remember Leslie Feinberg’s name and impact. Feinberg’s work brings to the forefront that another world is possible for communists, for people of color and for members of the LGBTQ2S+ community.

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