The 15th November 2014 saw the death of Leslie Feinberg. Hir partner wrote in hir obituary that zie was an ‘anti-racist white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female, revolutionary communist’. Lois JC tracks hir life, political legacy and influence today.
This article is the first in a new series on transgender politics. It uses the gender-neutral pronouns hir and zie.
Leslie Feinberg was born into a working class Jewish family in 1949 and raised in Buffalo, New York. Throughout hir life discrimination against hir as a transgender person made it impossible for hir to get steady work. Transgender people continue to experience these difficulties in their working lives today. Although transgender-specific statistics are difficult to come by, in the US it is thought that unemployment levels for trans people are at least double those of non-trans people. For trans people of colour it is at least triple. This results in disproportionately high levels of poverty, to which Feinberg was no stranger.
Feinberg met the Workers World Party (WWP) in the 1970s during a Palestine demonstration where zie became a member. Organisation was clearly important to hir – zie also took part in fights against exploitation and oppression wherever they arose: from organising the 1974 March Against Racism to mobilising against the KKK and picketing anti-abortion groups.
Zie was also a prolific writer. In hir 1996 book Transgender Warriors zie documented struggles of transgender people and the often unreported roles they have played on the frontline of resistance. It was through hir writing that I first read about Magnus Hirschfield and his Institute for Sexual Research. This kind of work is still vital today.
Stonewall is a perfect example of the need for trans voices in writing and activism. The organisation says they campaign for “Lesbians, Gay-men and bisexuals”. If someone unaware went onto the Stonewall website they would have no idea that the name “Stonewall” comes from a riot in 1969 that was lead by trans people of colour in response to an attack on the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan.
Trans people have been written out of this history and their struggles abandoned by organisations like Stonewall. Feinberg, and people like hir, were and are fighting against this trend. Zie wrote, “If I had known about these heroic struggles, I might have imagined as a child that cross-dressed workers could lead their trade union sisters and brothers on picket lines or that trans housing activists could inspire tenants to keep the rent strike going. I might have pictured myself in those ranks.”
Feinberg was the first to develop a theory of transgender liberation in a Marxist framework. Hir work centred around a belief in the right to self determination when it came to gender. Zie believed that transgender activists campaign for the right to choose whether or not to align to a ‘gender stereotype’. Zie wrote of how societal gender norms are bad for everyone; “These ideas of what a ‘real’ woman or man should be, straightjacket the freedom of individual self expression’’.
For many trans people this is a matter of life and death. 48% of all young trans people in the UK have attempted suicide, 60% of trans people in the US who are denied medical care commit suicide and nearly 80% of trans people in Ireland have attempted suicide. The work of Feinberg certainly saved lives through helping to explain the complexity of gender. Zie also illustrated how gender affects us all, even when we don’t realise.
Feinberg wrote about how it is through struggle that these distorting gender stereotype have been altered and changed. Zie wrote “The movement for trans liberation will expose the harmful myths that have compartmentalised and distorted every life…[the movement] gives you room to breath”.
Hir work was a serious attempt at revealing the different facets of transgender oppression. Zie wrote of the brutal state repression trans people are faced with on a regular basis before others were documenting this. Writing during a period when zie had been locked up for wearing a suit next to trans people in the same jail who had been imprisoned for wearing dresses. Zie spent time sharpening the understanding of how this oppression governs lives.
Zie was politically active up until recent years, heavily involved in the successful campaign to free trans activist CeCe McDonald from detention in a men’s prison. Feinberg was arrested at these protests. Importantly zie was asking the same questions we need to be asking today: where does the struggle for sex and gender liberation fit into movements for economic and social equality? How can we forge a movement with a strategy for transforming society and our lives? As a revolutionary zie wrote that the answer to the political questions of the day will only and can only be known when we get organised.
Reflecting this political outlook, hir last words, spoken to hir partner, were “Hasten the revolution! Remember me as a revolutionary communist”