- Interview by
- Karen Narefsky
Leslie Feinberg is known to many as the author of Stone Butch Blues, the first mainstream novel to directly address the struggles of transgender people in the US. In addition to hir career as a writer, Feinberg was a fierce and committed organizer in LGBT, civil rights, and labor struggles from the 1970s until the present day. Ze passed away on November 15 from complications of multiple tick-borne infections.
Feinberg grew up in a working-class Jewish family in Buffalo, New York, and became the first Marxist theorist of trans liberation. An obituary co-written by Feinberg and hir wife, Minnie Bruce Pratt, details how transphobia and discrimination limited Feinberg’s access to steady employment throughout hir life and to quality medical care once hir illness became apparent.
At the end of hir life, Feinberg dedicated hirself to the cause of CeCe McDonald, a black trans woman from Minneapolis who was imprisoned after stabbing an attacker in self-defense. Leslie spoke at McDonald’s trial, declaring, “The right of self-defense against all forms of oppressions — the spirit of Stonewall — is at the heart of the demand to free McDonald.”
A committed member of Workers World Party, Feinberg’s last words were, “Remember me as a revolutionary communist.”
Jacobin editor Karen Narefsky recently interviewed Ed Childs, a rank-and-file leader in Boston’s UNITE HERE Local 26 and an active member of Workers World, about his memories of Feinberg and the organizing work they did together. Childs was Feinberg’s close friend and videographer, accompanying ze to many of the rallies, marches, and meetings mentioned below.
He spoke about issues of police brutality against trans people and people of color that continue to this day, as well as Feinberg’s commitment to multiple struggles and the work that ze did to create solidarity between different movements.
“There was a huge racist movement in Boston.”
When the courts ruled that the schools had to be integrated in 1974, the racists organized a huge movement. In the summer of 1974, there were two demonstrations of over twenty thousand people. And during those marches, no black people were allowed downtown. Police would enforce that. And black people who accidentally walked in the area would get beaten. Police were a big part of the rallies. We had virtually an all-white police department.
The Left was paralyzed. We didn’t know what to do. This came on the heels of the antiwar movement, and most of the established antiwar movement folded. They just could not deal with it. So Workers World started organizing. We were a small organization. We went to different community groups and started organizing small demonstrations. People had to bring baseball bats.
Leslie Feinberg was identified as a man at that time, with a beard. But Leslie was also identified as a trans leader, even though the trans movement was in its infancy politically. Our movement was building, but we needed information on what the other side was doing. So I — being from Boston and having a Boston accent and having grown up in some of the neighborhoods where this stuff was happening — went undercover and joined the racist movement.
I went to all the leadership meetings. Leslie was the only person with the guts to come with me. We were young at the time, around twenty. Leslie was so gifted at identifying working-class issues that even though Leslie had a Buffalo accent, Leslie came and infiltrated with me. It was particularly funny, because everybody else had a Boston accent. So Leslie tried not to speak too often! But Leslie could relate to working-class people.
One time we were with them and they decided to go attack Governor Dukakis’s house, because the governor hadn’t made a commitment to oppose integration. I was caught by surprise. We were in a van with some of the militants. If someone needed roughing up, these were the people that were going to do it. It was a young crowd.
So we’re on our way, the leaders are driving, and I’m trying to pump some information from them, while Leslie is amongst the young people there. Since I hadn’t prepared, I was carrying leaflets and buttons for the March Against Racism in my pocket. Many of the kids were juvenile delinquents, and we liked to pick pockets.
All of a sudden, I feel a hand in my pocket, and I said, “Oh, fuck.” I realized what was in there, and I was ready to turn around and start swinging my fists. And I quickly turn around and Leslie’s laughing, hands up, saying “Don’t worry, don’t worry.” Leslie’s there encouraging this kid to pick my pocket and then taking my stuff out of his pocket, so no one sees it. Leslie was so quick.
“Leslie was a tremendous organizer.”
Leslie was a tremendous organizer. We were so small, and we saw that something had to be done. But how could we get the people of Boston to oppose the racists? So Leslie tried something: Leslie went to the lesbian bars. There was a famous bar called The Saints. Everybody knew The Saints; it had been raided a number of times.
Leslie went and started making speeches, started making contacts, started doing this, started doing that. One night, Leslie got the whole Saints bar and a sister bar to do a car caravan at midnight. They went to South Boston, which was the stronghold of the racist movement, and put up posters all night long, so when they woke up in the morning South Boston was full of antiracist posters. And the lesbian community had really taken it to heart that they were an integral part of this movement. Only Leslie could have done that.
The movements at that time — gay, lesbian, and trans — were kind of isolated. And Leslie brought the lesbian and gay community to an antiracist march that was led by the black community. It was a tremendous step forward in the civil rights movement as a whole, both for the black community and for bringing gay, lesbian, and trans people into the movement. You just felt it. The movement felt it.
The March Against Racism itself was fantastic. Many thousands showed up. The city opposed it, and had the police attack it. We literally pushed the police back and marched to Boston Common. It was one of the best marches Boston had ever seen. And Leslie was a huge part of it, and the gay and lesbian community was a part of it for the first time.
That’s what Leslie’s life was: not just staying in the community that Leslie was part of, but making sure the working class as a whole, that we all moved together.
“It’s on. Gay pride is on.”
Leslie spoke everywhere, bringing the gay and lesbian community together, but never letting it be isolated from the working-class movement as a whole. Leslie was always bringing struggles together: the civil rights movement, the union movement, the gay and lesbian movement, even though, obviously, there was opposition within some of the movements.
But every meeting Leslie was part of, everybody’s struggle was there, and Leslie made sure the audience felt it. It was very dynamic, because it was going against the political climate and the political leadership.
A big part of Leslie’s work was bringing the trans movement into the gay and lesbian movement. The gay and lesbian movement had isolated the trans movement. Most gay pride marches would not allow trans representatives. But trans people won, and they became integrated into gay pride, so much so that Leslie became the grand marshal of the gay pride parade.
The first time Leslie was the grand marshal here in the Boston gay pride parade, in 1998, Boston had one of the worst rainstorms ever. There was a discussion about postponing the parade. But before the gay community could make their decision, the police made a decision. And the police went on the news saying, “We have canceled gay pride.”
So Leslie went to all the gay bars and started organizing, saying, “No way. Gay pride is a celebration of Stonewall. We’re not going to allow those police, the same police that beat us, to tell us when we’re going to march and when we’re not going to march. It’s on. Gay pride is on.” So gay pride was on, even though the “official” gay pride organizers went along with the police.
We had a couple floats with political slogans, and Leslie said we were going to bring the floats down to the South End, where most of the gay bars were at the time, and we were going to stand outside with the microphones getting everybody to come into the parade. So we did.
And in the torrential — I mean torrential — rain, we had two or three thousand people. It was the strongest march I’ve ever seen at gay pride, and it was the loudest. People were happy, but strong and serious. And we marched the official route and had a rally at the Common. It was so wonderful. Leslie got on that mic the whole time and didn’t stop speaking. That’s who Leslie was. Leslie was a character that the movement needed.
“Stone Butch Blues had become very popular on campus.”
In the 1990s, there were movements on campuses throughout the country to get Leslie to be the commencement speaker. They were pretty much unsuccessful. But there was one school in Massachusetts, Bradford College, which was a working-class school that started as a community college and then transformed into a four-year school. It was near Lawrence, Massachusetts, in a working-class town.
The students were told by the administration that they could choose the commencement speaker by a vote of the student body. So the student body organized, and they voted for Leslie Feinberg. But the administration said, “No, that cannot happen.” Everybody who was on the board of directors said, “No, that can’t happen.” So the student body seized the administrative office. For two weeks, they barricaded themselves in. And they won. The administration was forced to allow Leslie to be the commencement speaker.
There was bigoted opposition to Leslie speaking. So Leslie was notified and given a chance to back out. And Leslie said, “Are you crazy?” Leslie was only more determined to be there. On commencement day, Leslie went to campus early to meet with student groups.
One of the reasons Leslie was such a popular choice was that a professor had taught Stone Butch Blues, and the book became very popular on campus. So as we were going to meet with the students, we saw a group of big guys on top of a hill looking down at us. So we said, “Uh oh, I think this might be our first test.” And then one of the guys says, “There’s Leslie Feinberg!” And they all start chanting, “Les-lie! Les-lie! Les-lie!” It turned out that it was the football team, who had endorsed Leslie to be the commencement speaker.
And Leslie gave this wonderful talk combining struggles from a couple of centuries ago in China with current struggles. Leslie spoke about class division, the advent of slavery, and the advent of capitalism. The audience was spellbound — except for the corporate board members, who were sitting on stage. They were very nervous! But the students and custodians and everybody else were spellbound, and Leslie not only got a standing ovation, the students stood on their chairs.
“It took Leslie a while to find a doctor that would actually treat a trans person.”
Leslie was suffering from a disease for a large part of life. Leslie wrote about the struggle of going to a hospital and getting screwed at the hospital by the doctors who refused to treat Leslie because Leslie was trans. Instead of begging, Leslie just carried the struggle forward, even if it meant the end of Leslie’s life. Leslie wrote about it and had pickets and got other trans people to make sure they no longer got treated this way in hospitals.
The first time Leslie went in with those diseases, the doctors refused to treat. Once Leslie’ clothes came off, the doctors just left. It took Leslie a while to find a doctor that would actually treat a trans person. And by the time the disease was finally treated by some great doctors, it was really too late. Leslie’s immune system had been hit hard. Leslie was making these great speeches in front of thousands of people and having to be taken to bed immediately after the speech. Leslie was in really tough shape.
“This is our struggle. An attack on CeCe is an attack on all of us.”
Last year and this year, Leslie was really ill. The doctor confined Leslie to a hospital bed with an IV. Then the struggle of CeCe McDonald broke out. Leslie immediately started corresponding with CeCe, and with the gay, lesbian, and trans movements, saying “This is our struggle. We cannot allow CeCe to go to prison. This is an attack on all of us.”
With the IV in her arm, Leslie got out of bed, and went to the court while it was in session, stood up, and made a speech. And then Leslie painted on a public wall, “Free CeCe McDonald,” and was put on trial for it. We know how ill Leslie was, because Leslie died from it, but that’s what happened — Leslie took the IVs out, went to the trial and made a public statement, was arrested, put in jail, and put on trial. It was not an individual act, to say, “I’m a nice person.” It was part of a movement, to make sure everybody was watching.
Leslie made sure that the movement knew what CeCe McDonald meant. It was a culmination of the struggle for trans equality, survival, and for the trans movement as a whole. As a black person, CeCe McDonald also represented an oppressed nation that is under attack. Everybody had to rally around the struggle.
And Leslie got out of Leslie’s sickbed, which turned out to be a deathbed, to show what needed to be done. Wherever Leslie went, Leslie had a huge impact. But it’s not just because Leslie was there, it’s because Leslie did a huge amount of work. Leslie never sat down on any struggle and said, “Well, I did my part.” Leslie was always looking to build the movement.
“It’s only half the stuff that happened.”
Leslie never swerved. Leslie fought tooth and nail, and wanted to make sure that the struggle keeps going, that the movement doesn’t split apart and that it carries forward. Leslie recognized that we are in a period of reaction and that the bourgeoisie is in a much stronger position than we are, but believed that we should take tactical retreats and move forward whenever we can. Leslie’s passing is not a passing of the movement, because that spirit is going to carry on.
I was filming Leslie at the Lambda book convention in Boston. Afterwards Leslie did a workshop, and one of the questions that was asked was about Stone Butch Blues: “There was a lot of very heavy stuff in Stone Butch Blues. How much of that was true and how much was fictionalized? Did you have to add a lot to make it more dramatic?”
Leslie said, “I did alter it, because if I had put everything in about my life, it would have been too much and you probably wouldn’t believe it. So actually, I had to take out some things. So yes, it’s somewhat fictionalized, because it’s only half the stuff that happened to me.”