Leslie Feinberg, Transgender Lesbian, Activist, Author, and Revolutionary Dies at 65

“Remember me as a revolutionary communist.”

These were the last words of Leslie Feinberg, as reported in an obituary by Feinberg’s partner of 22 years, activist and poet Minnie Bruce Pratt. According to the obituary:

Leslie Feinberg, who identified as an anti-racist white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female, revolutionary communist, died on November 15. She succumbed to complications from multiple tick-borne co-infections, including Lyme disease, babeisiosis, and protomyxzoa rheumatica, after decades of illness.

She died at home in Syracuse, NY, with her partner and spouse of 22 years, Minnie Bruce Pratt, at her side.

minnielesliephoto

Feinberg’s written work is widely known. Hir groundbreaking 1993 novel, Stone Butch Blues, broke open the discussion about the complexity and fluidity of gender. Over twenty years later, it is still being printed, read, passed around between friends and lovers. For many baby butches and transgender bois and genderqueer lesbians, this is the book that was dogeared and read and reread. Stone Butch Blues has been distributed all over the world, translated into seven languages, and sold by the hundreds of thousands.

The first Feinberg book I picked up was Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue. My partner and I also own and have read her other books, Transgender Warriors: Making History and Feinberg’s second novel, Drag King Dreams. In 2004, as college students running the campuses feminist organization and pride organization, my partner and I both met Feinberg when we brought her to speak at our campus. Feinberg’s talk was on hir theory of transgender liberation, a Marxist and intersectional view of organizing for collective equity. As Feinberg writes in Trans Liberation, “A political movement isn’t just our physical motion into the streets, it’s the motion of our consciousness soaring, too.”

feinberg books

Feinberg came from a working-class Jewish family, born in Kansas City, Missouri and raised in Buffalo, NY. Held up in academia as a theorist and activist, ze identified with working-class people more than ivory towers. Feinberg began supporting hirself at the age of 14. Due to discrimination based on hir gender identity and expression, ze was unable to get steady work for most of hir life. Ze worked in a pipe factory, cleaning ship cargo holds, as a dishwasher, and other low-wage jobs.

leslie Feinberg headshot

Feinberg was a lifelong member of the Workers World Party, which ze joined in her early 20’s through the Buffalo branch. Over the years, Feinberg was instrumental in many radical mass organizing campaigns. Pratt shares some of this work with the WWP in the obituary:

After moving to New York City, she participated in numerous mass organizing campaigns by the Party over the years, including many anti-war, pro-labor rallies. In 1983-1984 she embarked on a national tour about AIDS as a denied epidemic. She was a key organizer in the December 1974 March Against Racism in Boston, a campaign against white supremacist attacks on African-American adults and schoolchildren 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.

Feinberg was one of the organizers of the 1988 mobilization in Atlanta that re-routed 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. Barnard Slepian, Feinberg returned to work with Buffalo United for Choice and its Rainbow Peacekeepers, which organized community self-defense for local LGBTQ+ bars and clubs as well as the women’s clinic.

lesliefeinbergprotest

Feinberg was a gender revolutionary in openly straddling the space between, or rather off of, the binary. In a 2006 interview with Kansas City LGBT magazine, Camp, Feinberg said, “For me, pronouns are always placed within context. I am female-bodied, I am a butch lesbian, a transgender lesbian — referring to me as she/her is appropriate, particularly in a non-trans setting in which referring to me as he would appear to resolve the social contradiction between my birth sex and gender expression and render my transgender expression invisible. I like the gender neutral pronoun ze/hir because it makes it impossible to hold on to gender/sex/sexuality assumptions about a person you’re about to meet or you’ve just met.”

Pratt included these words on pronouns in Feinberg’s obituary:

[Feinberg] said she had “never been in search of a common umbrella identity, or even an umbrella term, that brings together people of oppressed sexes, gender expressions, and sexualities” and… believed in the right of self-determination of oppressed individuals, communities, groups, and nations. She preferred to use the pronouns she/zie and her/hir for herself, but also said: “I care which pronoun is used, but people have been disrespectful to me with the right pronoun and respectful with the wrong one. It matters whether someone is using the pronoun as a bigot, or if they are trying to demonstrate respect.

Diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2008, Feinberg stayed active in organizing, politics, and art. Ze lived her last years in the Hawley-Green neighborhood of Syracuse, NY with Pratt. (Pratt teaches at Syracuse University.) Some of my Syracuse friends met Feinberg when ze came to a community meeting about starting a Syracuse LGBTQ community center, something the city is sorely lacking. Feinberg was instrumental in raising awareness and support for CeCe McDonald. Ze was collecting documentation of the grassroots organizing work to Free CeCe in a project called, “This is What Solidarity Looks Like,” meant to be part of the free-access version of Stone Butch Blues ze was planning to release online for the book’s 20th anniversary.

Feinberg took up photography as a hobby when ze could no longer read, write, or talk. Hir work is posted on Flickr, including a “disability-art class-conscious documentary of her neighborhood photographed entirely from behind the windows of her apartment.” Hir photography was also shown at the Syracuse gallery, ArtRage.

my camera bag by Leslie Feinberg

my camera bag by Leslie Feinberg

Feinberg blogged about hir experience with Lyme disease and health care access as a transgender person in her “Casualty of an Undeclared War” series. Feinberg’s friends are working to post hir final works of writing and art online at a new site, LeslieFeinberg.net.

Feinberg is survived by Pratt and an extended family of choice, as well as many friends, activists, and comrades around the world in struggle against oppression and for liberation.


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KaeLyn is a 34-year-old (femme)nist activist and the reigning Queer Fat Korean Immigrant Ms. America Pageant winner. You can typically find her binge-watching TV, over-caffeinating herself, standing somewhere with a mic or a sign in her hand, eating tofu, or just generally doing too many things at once. She lives in Rochester, NY with her spouse, a baby T. rex, a xenophobic cat, and a rascally rabbit. Talk sexy about intersectionality, cult movies, or theatre nerdiness to her at @kaelynrich.

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40 Comments

  1. Oh my goodness, this breaks my heart. Stone Butch Blues was a big influence on my babyqueer self. Thank you, Leslie, for talking so eloquently about the complexities of gender and speaking out for the people whose voices weren’t heard.

  2. Stone Butch Blues was my first queer novel I read. It hit me so hard. I ended up binge reading it in about 24-48 hours. To this day, it is still one of my favorites. It helped me so much in my coming out process, and still does as I move forward in life.
    This is so sad, but to have someone like Leslie in the world to influence, educate, and just speak about their lived experience is a gift in and of itself. I will always be thankful for the knowledge she passed on to me and others as well.

  3. This is sad news. I’m very fortunate to have had the opportunity of reading Stone Butch Blues: I live in Peru and the book isn’t for sale in here, but my best friend brought it from a trip to the US. His boyfriend had read it and passed it on to him, and after he read it he passed it on to me. I’m re-reading it while I wait for someone to ask for the book, so it can pass from hand to hand in my city/country: it’s knowledge that should belong to the community. It was a huge book for my self-discovery, and helped me become an activist for LGBT rights in here. Thank you, Leslie, you will surely be missed.

  4. Honored to have met & known Les for the past 20 plus years. I’ve been crying all day too – this news hit me so hard. Les was & always will be one of my biggest influences & heroes. So many were & continue to be influenced by all of the works – and words. Grateful for such a wonderful person to have been on this earth & having the bravery to show us all more about being ourselves and finding our voices. RIP Les – I’ll miss you so much.

  5. This news hits hard. I consider “Stone Butch Blues” one of the most influential novels I’ve ever read (and I push it on friends whenever I get the chance). She was an amazing activist until the end of her life. Rest in power, Leslie. ♥

  6. I’m glad Leslie is finally at peace after having gone through so many horrible health problems the last few years. What I do find kind of disturbing about this news spreading of their passing is how everyone is using only female pronouns for Leslie Feinberg. I know this was due to the initial news piece at The Advocate which said it was with the blessing of Minnie Bruce Pratt, but up until very recently I’ve heard Leslie referred to by non-binary pronouns (I briefly met hir in SF 6 or 7 years ago and they used ze and hir). Maybe they used either, but it feels as if it’s removing an entire section of their life.

    • I get what you’re laying down. We had a whole convo about it before posting this article. I’ve always referred to Leslie by ze/hir pronouns, as well, as I’ve known Leslie primarily in the context of hir activist and written work. However, we decided to honor Minnie Bruce Pratt’s pronoun use in the obituary she wrote about Leslie. As I’m sure you know, Feinberg has, for a long time, been open to multiple pronouns in different contexts. Ze identified as a lesbian and as female, as well as transgender and butch. Using “she” was a little different for me as I wrote this, but I feel confident that both Leslie and her chosen family and loved ones would be more than OK with it.

      • Just saying that, even if someone says they potentially accept or aren’t offended by either, if I know someone is queer and trans identified (which Leslie absolutely was… ze specifically id’d as a butch woman earlier in life something many genderqueer people and trans men do) then I’m going to err on the side of using non-binary pronouns. I’ve seen too many instances of trans people’s identity being stripped from them after death by well-intentioned cis people, especially families and even lovers. Until I see a clear statement from Leslie that ze wanted to be referred to as a she I feel as if there’s something very wrong about this.

      • Yes, I know who Minnie Bruce Pratt is and I know she used female pronouns to refer to Leslie in the obituary. That doesn’t change how Feinberg’s genderqueer identity is being erased now that ze’s dead… and this is something which has gone on way too much in how deaths of trans people are reported even by their cis parents and some cis partners. I’ve never seen Leslie make a statement that ze no longer ID’d as genderqueer (and ze was still active in posting to the Internet up until fairly recently). So what I’m saying is… if the diseased never explicitly clarified they no longer ID as genderqueer (but had for decades prior to that) why is “she” the automatic pronoun default? Leslie Feinberg was all about identifying the contexts of social oppression and this, to my mind, is a clear example of that.

        • I didn’t see the obituary as contributing to genderqueer erasure since it repeatedly referred to hir/her identity as trans and reserved a section to discuss Leslie’s preferred pronouns and hir/her attitude about them. Can Leslie not simultaneously identify as trans and use she/her? (honest question; I’m not trying to be flippant)

          • I don’t feel the obit honestly discussed the issue of pronouns at all. It mentioned an old quote of Leslie’s about “being disrespected while using the proper pronoun and respected while being referred to the wrong pronoun.” That doesn’t in any way, shape or form therefore mean “let’s all default to using ‘she.'” That smells of cisnormativity. Nor was the obit directly from Minnie Bruce Pratt… it was written by a cis woman at The Advocate who, although she has a trans man partner has, IMO written some very problematic pieces about trans identities in the past and isn’t someone I trust to objectively identify a trans person post-mortem.

            As to the pronouns a trans person prefers or uses, I’ve never heard Leslie use ‘she’ when referring to hirself. That doesn’t mean ze never had within the last 20 years, but I haven’t heard it (maybe Leslie used female pronouns within the context of hir private relationship?). I have heard hir refer to hirself in public using non-binary pronouns about 6 years ago. Yes, potentially an AFAB person can refer to themselves as ‘she’ and still identify as trans. But if I’m going to agree with that, it better come DIRECTLY from their mouth, not interpreted by second and third parties.

        • “I’ve never heard Leslie use “she” when referring to hirself.”
          But see, that doesn’t mean she didn’t. And, in fact, she did.
          1) Pratt mentioned in the piece that Leslie preferred either she or zie pronouns. Obviously, in the past trans people have been misgendered by their family members, but it makes more sense to believe the words of someone’s partner of 22 years than people on the internet who did not truly know Feinberg.
          2) Direct quote: “For me, pronouns are always placed within context. I am female-bodied, I am a butch lesbian, a transgender lesbian – referring to me as “she/her” is appropriate.”
          3) Feinberg generally seemed to take a Judith Butler approach to pronouns, not heavily caring one way or the other.
          Sorry, but Feinberg’s a rockstar, and so is her partner. I feel like in this situation, again, the words of a partner of 22 years trumps the words of a random stranger on the internet.

          • I’ve heard hir refer to hirself in person using gender neutral pronouns… for me, that trumps anyone else’s version of their gender until I’m explicitly told otherwise. Moreover, Worker’s World, the publication which Leslie was intimately connected to, referred to Leslie using gender neutral pronouns (except for stories Minnie Bruce Pratt wrote, where she refers to hir as her/hir). Your assumption about Feinberg vis a vis Judith Butler is your own supposition as that of a cis person. I respect Minnie Bruce Pratt but I’ve never seen her come out and specifically talk about trans oppression except when discussing the efforts of Leslie Feinberg including issues which intersect her as a second wave feminist. My issue isn’t that Leslie’s identity as a woman shouldn’t be honored, but that hir long stated identity as a genderqueer person who referred to hirself using gender neutral pronouns is being erased the second news of hir death hits the media. And yes, there is context for that in the trans community and a sour history of it happening whether it’s trans women victims of violence, Brandon Teena or Billy Tipton.

        • Ok, but you’re still forgetting that direct quote, from Feinberg herself (not Pratt, not you, not anyone but Feinberg:
          “For me, pronouns are always placed within context. I am female-bodied, I am a butch lesbian, a transgender lesbian – referring to me as “she/her” is appropriate.”
          That works for me. But again, I would still operate under the assumption that Pratt’s understanding of Feinberg’s desires re: pronouns trump yours, or anyone other random unrelated person on the internet.
          Oh, and you keep bringing up this genderqueer thing, that BECAUSE one of Feinberg’s identities was genderqueer (these identities also included female, lesbian, etc), she must’ve deeply preferred a gender neutral pronoun. Not every genderqueer person uses gender neutral pronouns.
          But whatever.
          My condolences to Ms. Pratt, especially in light of all of these negative assumptions being made about her by total strangers who think they know about her partner than she did.

          • At least have the honestly to use the ENTIRE quote:

            “For me, pronouns are always placed within context. I am female-bodied, I am a butch lesbian, a transgender lesbian – referring to me as “she/her” is appropriate, particularly in a non-trans setting in which referring to me as “he” would appear to resolve the social contradiction between my birth sex and gender expression and render my transgender expression invisible. I like the gender neutral pronoun “ze/hir” because it makes it impossible to hold on to gender/sex/sexuality assumptions about a person you’re about to meet or you’ve just met. And in an all trans setting, referring to me as “he/him” honors my gender expression in the same way that referring to my sister drag queens as “she/her” does.”

            It has a completely different meaning than what you’re trying to present. Not even close.

        • Oh, one last thing re: Butler y Feinberg.
          ACTUALLY, my conflating the two is perfectly valid in terms of their feelings about their pronouns, because BOTH have said that they don’t have strong feelings about any particular pronoun and that they don’t mind people using any of the known pronouns on them.
          So, you know, logically, that means their opinions re: pronouns, were similar. In fact, their statements are almost identical in some interviews.
          Never mind that they were both Jewish, gender nonconforming white lesbians who wrote extensively about gender, and whose narratives most certainly overlapped, re: their own experiences in their younger days with thoughts of transition and then exploring and critiquing gender as it had been taught to them. Many of their theories and experiences and what they learned from those experiences overlap.
          Plenty of lesbians have benefited from their work in similar ways. I know I have.
          But what do I know?
          Peace out, scouts.

      • As far as I know and can tell from what I’ve read of hir own writing, and from what people who knew hir have told me, zie often used gender-neutral pronouns in specifically trans settings — kind of a way of showing that zie identified as trans — but often used female pronouns in general non-trans settings, as a way of showing that zie was visibly queer, i.e., female pronouns juxtaposed with hir masculine appearance. The obituary is not directed specifically at trans people; hence the female pronouns.

        But just because it was appropriate to use female pronouns in the obituary (and I don’t believe for a moment that either Minnie Bruce Pratt or Diane Minshall would have used female pronouns for Feinberg if that weren’t what zie wanted), doesn’t mean that I or anyone else has to default to female pronouns in referring to Feinberg from here on in. So I won’t.

    • Hi ya’ll. I’ve been working my day job all day, so just catching up on these comments. As you see, our editors made the changes you all requested. I have always used ze/hir pronouns for Leslie, as well, because I have mainly followed hir work in a political and literary context and ze used gender pronouns often in that area of hir life.

      I was conflicted about which pronouns to use, leaning towards the gender neutral pronouns, so I did check in with my editors and with the AS Trans Editor, who all agreed that she was acceptable given Leslie’s clear acknowledgement that ze used both and that Minnie Bruce Pratt chose to use she/her pronouns. We never meant to aid in erasure of genderqueer or trans* identities, FYI, and I’m sorry if anyone felt we did.

      I will say that I also had the privilege of meeting Leslie and have heard, from hir directly, that ze embraces different pronouns in different contexts and cares much more about whether the words are meant to harm or honor hir identity. Personally, because aside from that in-person meeting, I know Leslie primarily through hir activist work and writing, I have always personally used ze/hir pronouns. However, I wanted to honor Leslie in the way that ze wanted and I assume Pratt would want the same, so I followed Pratt’s lead.

      Again, thanks for the discussion and feedback. We did make the changes to gender neutral pronouns. I am, personally, more comfortable with this change, too. But I want to be clear that Leslie did not ever feel that she/her was an offensive pronoun, in hir own words, unless it was meant to be derogatory. Thanks!

      • Since someone has brought up her non-gender related activism, I have to say the following. Stone Butch Blues was one of the best books I’ve ever read. It was amazing. Drag King Dreams was good too. I’ve liked everything I’ve ever read that Leslie Feinberg wrote about gender and transness. Including, most recently, at a time when zie was very ill, leading demonstrations on behalf of CeCe MacDonald and even allowing hirself to be arrested.

        I’m very sorry about hir passing, and also that zie was so ill for so long, and suffered so much.

        However, just to show that people are complicated and few are plaster saints, there’s no way of getting around the fact that whatever you may think of her views on Palestine and Cuba, hir politics on many other international issues were reprehensible. Zie was not only a member of the Workers World Party for decades, but on its national committee, and strongly supported every one of its positions — in favor of the Soviet invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan; defending every aspect of the Cultural Revolution, and the “Gang of Four”; supporting the Chinese government’s actions in Tiananmen Square; a staunch supporter of North Korea; the author of lengthy screeds for the WWP newspaper blaming everything and everybody except “the system” for Soviet oppression of LGBT people — all in all, probably as authoritarian and neo-Stalinist as any leftist group in existence.

        All of which seems completely inconsistent with hir humanitarian and anti-authoritarian ideals as they come across in hir fiction and in hir writings about gender.

        Make of that what you will. People have made all sorts of excuses for hir because they like and admire hir; I don’t buy any of them. It’s as if zie was two different people.

        I understand the doctrinaire “ends justifying means” rationale. Needing to break eggs in order to make omelets; anything is justified in the service of creating a utopia, and so one. I first heard that metaphor the first time I had an argument about communism with a committed 12-year old Marxist-Leninist when I was in 7th grade, and didn’t like it then any more than I do now. Without getting too much into politics, I suspect there’s also the idea that if you see the imperialist Americans and their lackeys as the source of all evil in the world, anyone who opposes them is doing “good” by definition.

        None of this detracts from my admiration of Stone Butch Blues or some of hir other writing and activism. I would like to think that if zie had actually lived in some of those other countries, zie would have been on the other side. Real life trumps theory. At least it ought to, for someone with as much humanity as Feinberg’s fiction displays. (Example: see Emma Goldman’s opinions of Bolshevism and Lenin before vs. after she spent time in the Soviet Union.) But maybe I’m just being naive. In any event, this is exactly why I had hoped the discussion here would not get into her general politics. But it has.

        • Specifically regarding Palestine: As a Palestinian who lived in Palestine, I deeply appreciate hir solidarity work with us. I can’t speak for every Palestinian, but the support ze received from Palestinian civil society groups indicates that I’m far from alone. Perhaps you’re right about hir international communism advocacy work but I think it’s unadvisable to assume what people resident in those countries would feel. In fact to do so would be quite “imperialist” don’t you think?

          • No “assumptions” on my part involved. I specifically didn’t include Palestine and Cuba. But if you want to argue that it’s imperialist to condemn the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, and imperialist to condemn the murders of demonstrators in Tienanmen Square, and to oppose the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, and to support the thousands of people who’ve testified about how the North Korean government has treated its population over the last 50 years or so, then you just go right ahead and join the Workers World Party and you’ll feel right at home.

            Also, you can’t defend it as “international communism advocacy” when most communist organizations that aren’t quite so authoritarian (and aren’t directly affiliated with the Chinese or North Korean governments) take exactly the opposite position on most of these cases.

          • This is my last comment on the subject: Being an admirer of Leslie Feinberg does not mean that I believe that everything zie did, and all the positions zie took, were admirable. As I said, people are complicated. And I am far from the only person who has pointed out that the WWP is notorious for defending the actions of authoritarian and totalitarian governments such as North Korea and China. You don’t need to take my word for it.

  7. Her life reminds me of the Native American Indian belief in two-spirit people. Pronouns are for the gender score keepers between female and male. Her life was about acceptance of all gender variations.

    • Oh, okay, but it’s fine to refer to hir as “she” now that ze can’t respond? The reality of the last couple of days is hir accepting view of pronouns (in specific contexts) has been turned into what sounds like remolding hir into a binary woman, and that’s not the Leslie Feinberg I’ve heard speak.

      • You misunderstood my meaning, I think. Call Leslie he…she…them…?? …not about “category”….about acceptance as a non-binary human being. New knowledge and acceptance….not a dogma…or competition of genders. Love and acceptance of beautiful gender difference….in a world of binary judgment…and ignorance of who you and I and everyone in the world is! Fuck the pronouns…..love the message!

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