In the New York Times of June 22, a panel of writers named the 1993 novel Leslie Feinberg’s “Stone Butch Blues” as the most influential work of queer literature of the postwar era. Alongside the cover of the book’s first edition is a photo of two people wrapped in each other’s arms, smoldering into the camera. They are Feinberg and Minnie Bruce Pratt, two of Workers World newspaper’s managing editors.
When it comes to literary criticism, this is high praise indeed, especially as the panel — which included Roxane Gay, Edmund White and James Ijames among others — highlighted “Stone Butch Blues,” alongside the works of world-renowned Black writers James Baldwin and Audre Lorde. While previously lauded in the queer community and a staple of gender studies programs around the world, this perhaps shows a growing mainstream respect for Feinberg and this groundbreaking coming of age story of a working-class transgender youth.
Coming from the New York Times, however? It raises this transgender lesbian’s eyebrow. Let me explain here, in the pages of Workers World — which has held a mic up to the whisper network for over 60 years — why queer eyes are currently flashing across the room, sharing a smirk at this honor.
That’s because the pages that honored Feinberg for Pride this year are typically filled with equivocations on the rights of transgender people to exist. The Times is obsessed with the question of health care for trans people, especially trans youth. And when confronted about this dangerous enthusiasm by writers and advocates, the management of the Times responded with contempt and condescension.
An analysis conducted by Julie Hollar at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) found that “the Times . . . used its front-page coverage primarily to wonder whether trans people’s rights and access to health care have gone too far.” Hollar describes the paper’s reporting on legislation to restrict access to gender-affirming health care and participation by transgender youth in school athletics as “GOP-friendly.”
Times’ attacks ‘directly harm trans people’
“These relentless attacks, dressed up in the language of ‘grooming,’ ‘parents’ rights’ and ‘protecting girls,’ demonize and directly harm trans people, particularly trans youth, who already face staggeringly high rates of attempted suicide and homelessness. According to 2022 surveys by the Trevor Project, nearly one in five trans and nonbinary youth have attempted suicide, and 35% to 39% of trans and nonbinary youth have experienced homelessness and housing instability.
“The NY Times, though, has decided that the news about trans issues that’s worthy of the front page is not, primarily, the massive right-wing anti-trans political push and its impact on those it targets, but whether trans people are receiving too many rights and accessing too much medical care, too quickly.” (fair.org, May 11)
In February 2023, a letter condemning the coverage was signed by nearly 1,000 Times contributors and co-signed by “20,000 media workers, subscribers and readers of the Times.” (nytletter.com) A subsequent letter from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation was also sent to Times’ publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., and organizations like the Trans Journalists Association have created parallel style guides for journalists and publications that want to make their reporting on trans issues more accurate and respectful.
The Times’ response to the letters was to dismiss the allegations of anti-trans bias. Less than 24 hours after receipt of the second letter from GLAAD, the Times published a 2,000-word opinion piece defending anti-trans author J.K. Rowling for “standing up for truth.” (Feb. 16) Erin Reed, a transgender activist and reporter, wrote, “I was a signatory to one of these letters, and the response from the NY Times has been outright insulting.” (erininthemorning.com)
Could anyone, even for a second, doubt whether our comrade Leslie Feinberg would support this pushback against gaybaiting and trans paranoia? Is there anyone with a more decorated history of defending trans youth from powerful, wealthy institutions?
Oppressed youth led Stonewall Rebellion
Speaking on who participated in the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969, Feinberg once said: “It was mostly the homeless youth, who were transgender and gay and lesbian. They were mostly Black, Latina and white. Some of them had lived homeless on the streets of New York as transgender youths since they were 10, 11, 12 years old. They knew all about what it meant to be arrested. They still bore the wounds on their bodies and their psyches and their personhood.
“. . . And they took their precious pocket change — people who hadn’t eaten that day! — they took their pocket change and threw it at the police.
“Of course, who started it? Who led it? Those who had the least to lose and the most to gain from fighting back.”
The fact of the matter is, for a large proportion of transgender youth, the conditions have still not improved in the half century since Stonewall. We are so often poor, destitute, suicidal, humiliated and hunted. And the cops are still our primary enemy, the clergy and the landlords close behind them. And the Times has been shown in this climate as the flag-waving standard-bearer of the latest onslaught against us.
Feinberg said in 2006, “When I was about five, I got my first library card here [in Buffalo, New York] and they couldn’t keep me out of the library after that. I kept looking for things. I kept looking for explanations. I wanted to know why this city was divided with an apartheid divide down Main Street. I wanted to know why racism among whites seemed to be like a religion, like an ideology. I wanted to know why during the McCarthyite witch hunt, why everyone was so afraid when they read the newspaper, why they whispered to each other.
“I wanted to know what the jokes were about [transgender actress and singer] Christine Jorgensen, but I didn’t quite want to know if they had any relevance to my life. I wanted to know why everyone kept asking me if I was a boy or a girl and why it didn’t really matter what I answered, because it seemed the very fact they had to ask had already labeled me as an outlaw. I kept looking in the library . . . I perused those shelves; I read everything I could find.
“But you know, there was a terrible moment in my life when I realized the books I was looking to read, I might have to write them.”
Leslie did write them. And that five-year-old bookworm went on to become an artist so great that ze could not be ignored even in the most rarefied chambers of the literary elite. In fact, we are now watching in real time the attempts by the capitalists ze despised to claim hir as one of their literary courtiers.
It is impossible for the Times to honor Feinberg for the same reason it is impossible for the U.S. literary elite to claim hir: “Stone Butch Blues” exists in spite of U.S. literary canon. Feinberg’s contributions to political theory were forged as a weapon to be wielded against the ideology of the elite.
“During the lifetime of great revolutionaries,” Vladimir Lenin wrote in “State and Revolution,” “the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the ‘consolation’ of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.”
Well, it’s nice to see that the New York Times remembers Leslie Feinberg for writing “Stone Butch Blues.” Here at Workers World, which carried Leslie’s byline through five decades, we remember hir as a comrade, an accomplice, a friend, a lover and a leader. We remember hir as ze demanded in hir last words:
“Hasten the revolution! Remember me as a revolutionary communist.”
Long live Leslie Feinberg. Long live Minnie Bruce Pratt. Long live spirit of Stonewall.