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One Moment In Time With Leslie Feinberg

By | 2014-11-27T09:00:00-05:00 November 27th, 2014|Opinions, Viewpoints|

by Gwendolyn Ann Smith

Let me set the scene. It was early in the autumn of 1998. I was at the Southern Comfort Conference, a large transgender-themed convention in Atlanta, Georgia. At the time I was overseeing the jump of the Transgender Community Forum from its days on America Online to a much more restrictive format on the then still very new World Wide Web. I was still a couple months away from launching the “Remembering Our Dead” project, and looking back, I was also still pretty green when it came to transgender activism.
The event was what you’d expect from any convention built around an affinity group. There were breakout sessions throughout the day of transgender issues, big-ticket speakers at the luncheons and even a “vendor room” stocked with everything from breast prosthetics to books. The latter was my interest. I’ve always been a fan of a good book, and to this day I have several shelves full of transgender-themed texts practically spilling out over the floor.
At that time, one of the newest ones being sold was a thin text by Leslie Feinberg titled “Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue.” It was the third or fourth published work by Feinberg, depending on how you choose to count the even thinner pamphlet of a similar name, “Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come,” from about five years prior. Hir other works are the groundbreaking novel, “Stone Butch Blues,” as well as “Transgender Warriors: Making History,” “Drag King Dreams” and “Rainbow Solidarity in Defense of Cuba.”
Leslie Feinberg and hir partner, Minnie Bruce Pratt, were both speaking at the conference. There was also a book signing later that day. I had hoped to get a copy of this book signed for my shelf.
I was already a fan of Feinberg. I devoured “Transgender Warriors,” a book about transgender history. It was a seminal work on the subject, covering transgender people from the earliest reaches of recorded history all the way up to the modern era. It was a powerful read that showed that being trans was not some new invention at the hands of western medicine, but something with a long, complex past full of strong, incredible people.
At the time, the transgender community was really only starting its long, slow venture out of the shadows; while we had stood with the larger LGBT community at the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot and the Stonewall Rebellion, ours was a community that retreated — or was pushed — into the shadows while the largely gay and lesbian movement gained ground. The notion of being proud to be transgender was a novel, frightening one for many.
“Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue” was the follow-up, of sorts, to “Transgender Warriors.” It is, at heart, a collection of speeches focusing on the liberation of transgender people and, by extension, all people. Leslie had long identified as a revolutionary communist, and this book intertwined hir fight for the rights of the worker with those of us who identify as transgender. It is a powerful and strong read that deeply affected my own left-leaning worldview.
At the conference, though, I had yet to crack the spine. I was about to pony up a fresh twenty-dollar bill when I realize that — eyeing the books to my left — was Leslie Feinberg and Minnie Bruce Pratt. I paused, awed. I had no idea what I should say.
We had met before, sort of. When I ran the Transgender Community Forum all those years ago, Feinberg had spoken one evening to the online chat I moderated on Sunday night. Still, this was a pretty slim connection, and — of course — one forged in a faceless medium. Why should I think I could bother the two of them, knowing they’d both be swamped in just an hour or two by everyone else at the conference wanting their own book of “Trans Liberation” signed?
As I mused, probably looking like the proverbial deer in the headlights, Leslie saw me — and the convention name-badge on my chest. Ze smiled broadly, and exclaimed to Minnie Bruce who I was and what I did. I smiled proudly, taken totally off-guard to find out that this person whom I admired so much also felt a great amount of admiration for me.
Yes, ze signed my book. On the front flyleaf, Feinberg wrote, “To Gwen — Our trans cyber maven — stay strong, proud & active. Warrior — we need you! Les Feinberg.”
On the Nov. 15, 2014, Leslie Feinberg passed away at the age of 65 due to complications from several tick-borne diseases and many years of illness. Ze had been fighting ill health — and ill treatment from the medical establishment — for nearly as long as we’d known each other. Even while fighting for hir life, ze was still active enough to keep changing the world, championing CeCe McDonald, a black transwoman who was sent to jail for defending herself against a white neo-Nazi during a brutal street assault. When ze passed, Feinberg was working on a free online version of “Stone Butch Blues” and a slideshow about the Free CeCe campaign.
I’ll never forget that moment of warmth and recognition all those years ago. It wasn’t that I felt like I got to stir with a star, nor that I felt important enough to warrant Feinberg’s attention. Rather, it was a moment where two people, one who was known for hir words, the other who was then known for code and community, were able to share a moment of solidarity.
It is a moment I reflect on often — especially now, in loss.

About the Author:

BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.