An anti-racist, white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female, revolutionary communist, Leslie Feinberg was a sight to behold. Known for hir hit semi-autobiographical novel Stone Butch Blues, Feinberg’s legacy resonates with those struggling to come to terms with queer identity, both in the realms of gender and sexuality. Today, I discuss the face behind the cover, and detail how it has helped me come to terms with both.
Leslie Feinberg was born September 1, 1949, in Kansas City, Missouri, and raised in Buffalo, New York in a working-class Jewish family. At 14, zie began supporting hirself by working in the display sign shop of a local department store, and eventually stopped going to high school classes, though officially zie received hir diploma. It was during this time that zie entered the social life of the Buffalo gay bars. Zie/she moved out of a biological family hostile to hir sexuality and gender expression. Until, the end of hir life, zie carried legal documents that made clear they were not hir family.
Discrimination against hir as a transgender person made it impossible for hir to get steady work. Zie earned hir living for most of hir 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 hir early twenties, Leslie Feinberg met Workers World Party at a demonstration for Palestinian land rights and self-determination. Zie soon joined WWP through its founding Buffalo branch.
After moving, zie participated in numerous mass organizing campaigns by the Party over the years, including many anti-war, pro-labor rallies. Zie was a key organizer in the March Against Racism in Boston, a campaign against white supremacist attacks on African-American adults and children in the city. Feinberg led a group of ten 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 zie embarked on a national tour about AIDS as a denied epidemic.
Feinberg was one of the organizers of the 1988 mobilization in Atlanta. This drove back the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan as they tried to march down Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave. on MLK Day. When anti-abortion groups descended on Buffalo in 1992 and again in 1998-1999 with the murder there of Dr. Barnett Slepian, Feinberg returned to work with the Rainbow Peacekeepers, who organized community self-defense for local LGBTQ+ bars and clubs as well as the women’s clinic.
The first book Feinberg released, a pamphlet entitled Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come in 1992. According to Feinberg, the pamphlet details “the historic rise of oppression that, as [of] yet, has no commonly agreed name. We are talking here about people who defy the ‘man’-made boundaries of gender. Gender: self-expression, not anatomy”. Essentially, Feinberg details the history of transgender lives to call out the system that has oppressed us for so long.
After this pamphlet released, however, Feinberg released perhaps hir most acclaimed novel: Stone Butch Blues. Stone Butch Blues, in its 330-page glory, explores the journey of one Jess Goldberg. A masculine girl growing up and coming out as a young butch lesbian in gay drag bars. It traces a propulsive journey, powerfully evoking history and politics while portraying an extraordinary protagonist full of longing, vulnerability, and working-class grit.
From this point, Feinberg released books leaning in these messages of before: Transgender Liberation and Solidarity. This includes Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue (1996) and Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. The former argues for the acceptance of all-trans peoples – and the building of coalitions between all progressive political groups. As the latter details more of a fantastical history of transgender individuals, similar to hir first novel.
Hir efforts in the World Workers party and many other organizations assisted in creating rights for many across America. However, hir impact as an author, especially that of Stone Butch Blues has helped many in the exploration of themselves.
Though I have yet to finish the novel, it reflects the raw emotions felt as you come out to yourself but others.
The sky was black and strewn with stars. I felt alone on the planet. I was so scared I could hardly breathe. I didn’t know where I was headed. I didn’t know what to do with my life. I strained to look into my future, trying to picture the road ahead of me, searching for a glimpse of who I would become.
All I could see was the night sky and the stars above me.– Feinberg
Once you accept yourself, it seems as though the world spins around you in an endless glory.
You revel in the high but also wallow in the loneliness of it all. Though I would argue that the closet is even lonelier, accepting oneself is one of the most difficult aspects of life, especially for an LGBTQ+ individual. We are taught most of our lives to repress and hideaway these aspects of ourselves. Therefore, once we come out, we must tear apart this seemingly “real” person we hid behind and come to terms with living as who we are. As I mentioned, it is a happy moment to finally look in the mirror and see yourself, but it is simultaneously horrifying.
This quote in particular reflected that moment for me as I came to terms with my gender. I felt not only alone but lost as to where to go next. Therefore, I too strained to look at the future. Because I did not know how the world would react to my transition. I felt as though I was a bomb waiting to go off, bursting at the seams.
But by ending on the line “all I could see was the night sky and stars above me”, Feinberg provides some solace in the madness. That loneliness and uncertainty is only a temporary feeling, and the tides will change, just as the night sky chases dawn.
Therefore, via this one quote, Feinberg provided a comfort I have struggled to understand: we are dynamic. Not only within ourselves but within the world as well. And though we cannot predict the changes to come, we must find comfort in that darkness within.
the sun will come.