Leslie Feinberg fought for justice across all lines
Her novel, "Stone Butch Blues," inspired a generation
She created space for many people to come out
Editor’s Note: Katia Hetter is a CNN.com writer/producer and former vice president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.
Before Ellen DeGeneres was out and proud and dancing every day on her talk show, when heterosexual male actors wouldn’t dare to play gay, and violence against gay people was the talking point of the day for LGBT activists, there was transgender activist Leslie Feinberg.
It’s hard to find Feinberg’s 1993 classic novel, “Stone Butch Blues,” today. The novel’s protagonist starts out as a girl and moves through the identities of being lesbian, butch and a man in the 1960s and 1970s.
“You’re more than just neither, honey,” Feinberg wrote in “Stone Butch Blues.” “There’s other ways to be than either-or. It’s not so simple. Otherwise there wouldn’t be so many people who don’t fit.”
Like the customers who had enough of police brutality and rioted at New York’s Stonewall Inn in 1969 and energized a movement, there was no closet big enough to hold Feinberg, who passed away November 15 at age 65.
Feinberg died at home in Syracuse, New York, from complications from several infections, her spouse of 22 years, Minnie Bruce Pratt, told The Advocate. She was working on the 20th anniversary edition of “Stone Butch Blues” when she died.
When I first read her book, the landscape for LGBT rights was very different. For a 20-something like me coming out in the early 1990s, there was nothing trendy or cool about being out. It was dangerous territory.
Forget ever getting married: There was no law that protected me from being fired or attacked because of my identity.
I didn’t “look” gay so I could hide, as I had through my teen years and most of my undergraduate education. I could quietly enjoy the benefits of the work done by Feinberg and other transgender activists, butch women, gay men and drag queens who could not or would not fade into the shadows.
Feinberg and the other people who would not be silent taught me that was not a way to live, to truly live, standing on the backs of others without lifting any of the load myself. Always a writer and journalist, I came out during my last year in college, stayed out in graduate school, and have been out at every job I’ve ever held; I did service work in my profession to bridge the gaps between journalists of different racial, ethnic, LGBT and other identities.
I know other members of the LGBT community feel the same way about Feinberg.
“Reading ‘Stone Butch Blues’ in ‘93 and later ‘Transgender Warriors,’ I was able to recognize and name my own gender queerness,” activist Candace Gingrich wrote me.
“Feinberg’s quote ‘Gender is the poetry each of us makes out of the language we are taught’ is a truth that trans and genderqueer people live every day, and I’m grateful for the wordsmith (Feinberg) helped me become.”
We never met, but I suspect Feinberg and I would have disagreed on Cuba and other parts of her political life. But that she had a larger and diverse political agenda was one of her many strengths. She fought for workers’ rights, marched against racism, protested against the Klan and fought for abortion rights in upstate New York.
Gay rights, transgender rights, workers’ rights, any rights: They did not exist in a vacuum to Feinberg.
There was no parachuting into a town to get everyone rising up for gay rights but forgetting when those allies needed help on race or gender or other issues. Feinberg linked them all together, organized and protested in the streets and fought for all of us.
That’s what stands out to my friend Ina Fried, an openly transgendered journalist and senior editor at Re/code. “It was the real-life struggle for justice, particularly economic justice that was Feinberg’s life work and passion,” Fried wrote to me. “With Feinberg’s death we each have more work to do to make this a fairer and more just world.”
For all the progress that’s been made, I can still get fired for my identity in the state in which I live, and I still can’t get married (or divorced) here. But I haven’t been afraid for a very long time. That was Feinberg’s gift to me, and to you.