Leslie Feinberg

Leslie Feinberg was a gentle-butch. Ze was, to me, an icon and hero. The world is an infinitely better place for having had Les in it. I miss Les and know there is nobody that can replace Les. Ze was one of a kind.

When I was first peeking my head out of the closet door, I remember that an acquaintance of mine told me that they were going to Provincetown for the weekend. I desperately wanted information about transgender issues. This was before the onset of the internet, back in 1993 or so. So I gave her all the pocket change I had and asked her to bring me back trans books from Provincetown. If anywhere would have them or they would be there, along with the Castro in San Francisco it would be in the legendary P-Town. When she came back she brought me three books: a book about transition and becoming a woman, a book that was a biography by Lou Sullivan called From Female To Male: The Life of Jack Bee Garland. The third book was a novel by one Leslie Feinberg entitled Stone Butch Blues. I read the advice book first because I was very early in my transition and wanted to learn more about what it meant to be a transgender woman. I put the others in my pile of books as I was deeply immersed in school and trying to keep up with my course readings.

One rainy weekend I grew tired of studying and there was no desire to go out due to the weather. And so I went through my pile and picked up Stone Butch Blues. I had no idea what to expect. I read it in one sitting. It is a book that changed my life like no other. It was like holding a mirror up to myself and seeing myself reflected through the words of the novel.

I wrote Leslie a [snail mail letter] and boy do I wish I still had that letter. I told Leslie how much I admired hir writing and how much I would like hir to come to to my campus at UNH to speak. The first time ze called and said, “hi, this is Leslie Feinberg” I almost dropped the phone because I felt like I was talking to royalty. This is totally against Leslie’s frame of reference as a revolutionary communist, but indulge me for a minute.

We were able to have the talk and we filled the house. There were around 200 people in the student center and many of them were young queers like myself who were desperate for the message that Leslie had to impart upon us. Leslie won a standing ovation and many people lined up to buy hir novel and a now-classic pamphlet called “Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come.” The event was a success and it was great to talk to Leslie in person. Ze was just as friendly and open-hearted as I expected hir to be.

Over the years, I saw Les at various conferences. I saw the video of hir life entitled Outlaw. I saw hir appear on the daytime television talk show The Joan Rivers Show. And most of all I saw hir engage in various forms of activism: around HIV/AIDS, economic justice, socialism, LGBTQ rights, racial justice, anti-incarceration and the CeCe McDonald case. I saw Leslie write about these issues in socialist newspapers.

Once when I saw Leslie doing a reading from hir important book Transgender Warriors, I heard hir talk about being sick. At the time the root cause of the illness was a mystery. Only much later would it emerge that Les was suffering from Lyme disease and co-infections. I was heart-broken to see Leslie’s health deteriorate and how it made it impossible for hir to travel and to engage in writing books. Leslie passed away on November 15, 2014 at aged 65 in Syracuse, New York alongside hir long-term wife/partner Minnie Bruce Pratt.

The legacy of Leslie Feinberg for me is gargantuan. The reason is that Leslie Feinberg taught me to fight back. Ze taught me to revel in my difference as a non-binary gender nonconforming person. Ze taught me to stand up for what I believed in and taught me that no matter how much we had right on our side, the battle was not going to be easy. If I had to name five activist-writers who have made a difference in my life, Leslie would be in the top five. Thanks for all the sacrifices you made for us all Leslie. We will fight to preserve your name and your legacy.

 

Icons

All my icons are dead. Well, that not quite true. But most of them are. And they died much to soon, in their 40s and 50s.

On June 25, 2009, I was working on final edits to my dissertation when I heard the news that Michael Jackson had died. I immediately broke into tears and called my friends to come pick me up because I did not want o be alone. I was in a state of shock. Growing up, MJ meant everything to me. He still does. “Thriller” was one of the first albums I ever bought. And I practically wore it out. I remember a white female in my class consistently dressing up as Michael Jackson and playing his music on the bus on a portable tape recorder. While I see this as horribly insensitive now [cultural appropriation], it showed how much he was loved by young people in the early to mid 1980s.

Next was Whitney Houston, which was yet another mind-blowing tragedy. If MJ was the king of pop, Whitney was “the voice.” I remember singing along to her songs so often and it being part of my queer development as a youth. She was a diva like no other and I just adored her diverishness. I want to be a queen diva like her. She was beautiful and fierce and ultra talented. A talent ordained directly by God. Her voice has carried me through many a trouble and I am thankful for the music she has left behind, but said it ended far too soon. The fact that her daughter died not long after her is another tragedy of epic proportions. I only hope they can be together now in peace and serenity. “I didn’t Know My Own Strength” as performed on Oprah is my go to picker-upper.

Next came Prince, the beautiful one and the purple one. What a gift he had and how wonderful his androgyny was. He also meant a lot to me growing up, especially the album and movie Purple Rain. I remember when music videos used to be shown on regular TV and I especially liked his video “When Doves Cry.” I got goosebumps when I heard he had passed because I knew that another legend had left this realm behind. and far too soon. I would have liked to see him making music into his 80s.

Finally, last Christmas George Michael died. I will never forget when I first saw George Michael sashaying down the runway in bright dayglow short shorts for his video “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go.” Later, his work became even more explicitly sexy and queer. While he was loathe to come out of the closet, he finally did and brought camp and fun to a thoroughly queer aesthetic. His voice was angelic and he lifts me up like few other musical artists can. He, too, was a musical genius, just like MJ, Whitney and Prince.

All of these icons were queer to me, whether because of their androgyny, their lyrical content or their diva qualities. I am heartbroken that they are gone but thankful that their musical gifts persist. I will never forget the mother of Notorious B.I.G. saying how much comfort she felt when she was on the street and suddenly heard her son’s voice come on when a song from a radio or whatever came on or car playing his music passed by. The voices live on, the music lives and the legend lives on.

I’ve cried about my icons that are gone. I include non-musicians in this as well like Leslie Feinberg, Audre Lorde and Harvey Milk. All we can do as the living is try to carry on the work that they were trying to do in the world. This is a responsibility but also an exhilarating possibility. Their music, spoken words or written words can make me filled with fire, the fire to be fierce and fight tooth and nail for a better world. They can remind to fight the fuck back. They can remind me to dance to get out the rage and let the beat overtake me. I love my icons and am glad to have many more. I salute them all.