Via Workers World News Service
Reprinted from the May 16, 1996
issue of Workers World newspaper

Review: A struggle history of gender bending

"Transgender Warriors"
by Leslie Feinberg, Boston,
Beacon Press, 1996, $27.50.

By Bob McCubbin

Leslie Feinberg's new book, "Transgender Warriors," is at the same time profoundly political and deeply personal. And this is as it should be. Feinberg is a political person. She is a revolutionary, a declared enemy of the capitalist system, a leader in the transgender movement, a longtime member of Workers World Party, and a contributing editor to Workers World newspaper.

But Feinberg's other struggle, to live her life as the person she is, has been equally demanding of her intellectual and emotional resources. As a trans person and a lesbian, as well as a woman, a person of Jewish descent, and a worker, her life has been a daily struggle against formidable odds.

Some of that personal history is recorded on the pages of this book. And this would be reason enough to get it and read it. But the autobiographical portraits here offered are most often used as stepping stones to information she has uncovered and insights she has gleaned about an extraordinarily important part of the human family, a part of humanity whose lives and history have hitherto been either hidden or grossly distorted: transgendered people.

Early on Feinberg discloses how she became a Marxist and the impact that the Marxist method of analysis has had on her own thinking. As a young person full of anger at the way the bosses exploited her and her co-workers, full of questions about society and politics, she became an avid reader of the Marxist classics.

These books explained much. She was clearly thrilled, for example, to discover Engels' analysis of the historical and class roots of the oppression of women in "Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State." But there was one overriding question haunting Feinberg that none of these books addressed: Was there a material basis for transgender oppression?

What follows the two introductory chapters is an extensive and remarkable example of scholarship by a worker intellectual. Not having been indoctrinated into the bourgeois approach to scholarship, with all its subtle and not so subtle ruling-class-based prejudices, she has had the freedom to reinterpret well-known and not so well-known historical events and historical personages from a working-class and pro-transgender perspective.

For example, undaunted by the hundreds and hundreds of studies of Joan of Arc that have made light of her transgender expression, Feinberg shows convincingly that this issue was at the very heart of Joan of Arc's life, her historic role in French history, and her death.

Similarly, by combing meticulously through the bourgeois anthropological literature with a critical eye, but also through personal communications with present-day Native people, she is able to present an astonishing amount of material documenting the esteemed social position occupied by transgendered people in pre-class societies and the vestiges of this special social status accorded trans people that survive up to the present day in some indigenous groupings.

And as she traces the development of European class society through the stages of slavery, feudalism, and into capitalism, an extraordinary correlation is revealed, a connection too frequent to be merely coincidental, between manifestations of transgender expression and rebellions of the oppressed.

This is a germinal discovery, and one that only a Marxist analysis could uncover. In brief, she shows that transgendered people, commonly among the most respected members of early matrilineal communal societies, became, with the onset and development of exploitative and oppressive class societies, transgender warriors, leaders in the struggles against the new systems of exploitation and oppression.

In the book's concluding chapters, Feinberg takes up some of the misconceptions about transgender, its relationship to same-sex love, the oppression of women, and the sex-gender distinction. These chapters demand a careful read. And then another. There is much to be learned here by transgendered and non-transgendered people alike.

This book, so full of facts, class consciousness, insight and understanding, is also a picture book. There are, in fact, over 100 photos and drawings on its pages.

A defiant transgendered anti-Klan fighter gazes out at us. A crowd of protesters surges toward the camera, their banners demanding an end to the police harassment of an African American drag bar in New York City. Dogs tear into the flesh of Two-Spirit Native people while Spanish conquistadors look on with obvious satisfaction.

This book is a must-read for all who reject the prevailing prejudices of our time. Transgendered people will treasure this portrayal of their true history finally revealed. For those who want a deeper understanding of transgender, this book is an A-to-Z textbook.

Revolutionaries will use the information and insights presented here to deepen their appreciation of the value of transgendered people to society in general and to the revolutionary process in particular.

Bob McCubbin is the author of "The Roots of Lesbian & Gay Oppression," WW Publishers.

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(Copyright Workers World Service: Permission to reprint granted if source is cited. For more information contact Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY, NY 10011; via e-mail: [email protected] For subscription info send message to: [email protected] Web: http://www.workers.org)

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