In memoriam: Leslie Feinberg, 1949-2014

Author of Stone Butch Blues shed light on butch experience but also made connections between all struggles for social justice


Groundbreaking transgender activist, thinker and writer Leslie Feinberg has died, leaving a chasm in the LGBTQ intellectual and activist community.

Feinberg was born in Kansas City to a working-class Jewish family. As a teenager, she/zie (Feinberg’s choice of pronoun) moved to Buffalo, where zie discovered the gay bar scene and began to develop a queer identity.

But Feinberg supported all oppressed minorities, joining the Workers World Party in the late 60s, heading up anti-war demonstrations and pro-labour rallies during that period and campaigning during the 80s to make people aware of AIDS as a denied epidemic. Zie also marched against the Ku Klux Klan and for reproductive freedom, while writing for the Workers World newspaper from 1974 to the late 80s.

Sounds like the type of radical you’d consign to the margins, right? Wrong. The first writer to connect Marxist ideas to transgender experience, Feinberg was a brilliant communicator of both radical ideas and her/hir (also her chosen pronoun) personal experience.

Hir 1993 book Stone Butch Blues – a shoo-in for Lambda Literary Award – blew the minds of readers, regardless of their sexuality or gender.  Based on hir own life, it was the raw, real and revelatory story of a butch – and achingly vulnerable – dyke finding her identity. No one had ever seen anything like it.

But her market was far from niche. Stone Butch Blues sold hundreds of thousands of copies and has been translated into Chinese, Dutch, German, Italian, Slovenian, Turkish and Hebrew. Earnings from the latter went to ASWAT Palestinian women.

Feinberg was preparing a 20th-anniversary edition of the book when zie succumbed to multiple tick-borne co-infections, including Lyme disease. Zie attributed her late diagnosis to active prejudice against her transgender identity that made access to health care difficult.

There’s hope that the new edition will be available for free online, and committed friends are working to post Feinberg’s last writings and art at Lesliefeinberg.net.

According to Minnie Bruce Pratt, her/hir partner of 22 years, Feinberg’s final words were, “Remember me as a communist revolutionary.”

I honour that, but actually, zie was that and much more. 

susanc@nowtoronto.com | @susangcole

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