Little did I understand at the time that we were masking our own unhappiness of living in a patriarchal household and society that keeps us down for being women. It was much easier to point my finger and speak outside of myself than break the silence, focus on my own sadness and fight the enemy within.

Reflections on Feinberg

by Laura McNeill

Leslie Feinberg is well known in the U.S. and around the world as a transgender activist who works to help forge a strong bond between the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, and one who has contributed deep personal reflections and analyses on the historical roots of transgender oppression. The Wisconsin Union Directorate hosted Feinberg in its “Distinguished Lecture Series” at the UW campus in late January.

“Transgender” refers to those who blur the boundaries of sex or gender expression or identity defined at birth and who defy the gender binary system of he/she, male/female. Feinberg–who chose to use the pronoun “she” to refer to herself–has been active in areas of struggle beyond that of transgender issues. According to her website, “As a trade unionist, anti-racist and socialist, Feinberg organizes to build strong bonds of unity between these struggles and those of movements in defense of oppressed nationalities, women, disabled, and the working class movement as a whole. Feinberg has worked for more than 25 years in defense of the sovereignty, self-determination and treaty rights of Native nations and for freedom of political prisoners in the U.S.”

Feinberg is also an internationalist who has participated in the anti-Pentagon movement since the Vietnam war, a national leader of the Workers World Party, and a managing editor of Workers World newspaper–among many other notable accomplishments.

Having the chance to see Leslie Feinberg speak was an opportunity to see one of my heroes. Her talk focused on the interconnectedness of multiple forms of oppression. She spoke genuinely of her personal experiences as a working class, Jewish, transgender person facing many struggles. Leslie also powerfully connected her oppression to areas where she has privilege, such as her race, nationality, education, and being able-bodied, pointing out that we must examine where we have privilege in order to challenge each other respectfully and move towards justice for all.

During Professor Ann Enke’s introduction of Feinberg, she illustrated how we can model justice in the everyday tasks we are given. Ann took time to explain language and express ideas that are not often defined in mainstream society: words like cross-dressers, transsexuals, bearded females, drag kings and masculine females. These are words that Leslie and thousands of others have struggled their whole lives to introduce into our vocabulary. Positioned next to Ann, the sign language interpreter took time to find and share a way to express these ideas through signing, since this has not yet been fully defined or accepted in the context of the dominant gender-binary system. Observing these two powerful women exercise justice through their actions made me cry, for I realized how rarely this happens.

Leslie spoke about the importance of connecting LGBT issues with women ‘s, race, class and nationality issues. She spoke of the long struggle to get the T (“transgender”) added to LGBT, and the many discussions of how queer issues were connected to trans issues. She referenced Frederick Douglass’s work during the early 1900’s, who during the struggle against the enslavement and for the human rights of African Americans, also advocated for women’s rights because he saw the connections. Unfortunately, many in the predominantly white women’s suffrage movement didn’t have that same depth of analysis. So when faced with the opportunity to secure their voting rights alone, they accepted the incomplete victory. Using their skin privilege to enter the U.S. white male dominated society, these white women abandoned the struggles of people against oppression based on race.

Leslie pointed out the significance of researching and learning our movement “herstories” outside of corporate mainstream information sources. She spoke of the legacies of resistance of queer people, dating back to the German Emancipation of the 1880’s, when queer people founded a lesbian and gay center where folks could feel safe, have access to resources, and communicate with one another. Before learning this history, Leslie and many others she had met assumed gay liberation began on Christopher Street in New York City.

One of the highlights of the talk was the question and answer period. In Leslie’s responses, she continually emphasized that she was not to be held up as ‘the expert.’ As we so often do in our ‘either/or’ society that lifts up ‘one’ leader, ‘one’ movement builder, ‘one’ way as the ‘right’ way, the audience seemed to be looking for the ‘one answer’ to their questions. Instead, Leslie gave the listeners one beautiful piece of the puzzle and invited us to find our piece as well. Leslie humbly answered each question, sharing her personal experiences and lessons learned and then turned it back to the crowd, reminding us that we all need to be thinking about these questions, and how we would address them in order to dismantle the oppressions that hold all of us prisoner.

When asked by a young transgender person about giving witty responses to people who are uncomfortable and ‘freak out’ on trans people in the bathroom, Leslie explained that when women express transphobia, they’re often cloaking their own oppression as a woman in a patriarchal society. Hearing her comment, I thought of the times in my past I’ve whispered about, chided, joked, pointed and laughed at transgender persons behind their backs or where they could hear me. One time in particular I was with my family in a restaurant. One of the wait staff was a transvestite and every time they passed our table, my sisters, mom and I would whisper, giggle and stare. Little did I understand at the time that we were masking our own unhappiness of living in a patriarchal household and society that keeps us down for being women. It was much easier to point my finger and speak outside of myself than break the silence, focus on my own sadness and fight the enemy within.

When Leslie answered this question, she recounted a story of an elderly woman who spoke up for her in a bathroom situation saying “this person’s not bothering you; they just need to use the toilet like the rest of us.” As an ally continuing to learn about trans issues and building my own confidence to speak out and in support of trans peoples more often, this experience really spoke to me and encouraged me to embrace my responsibility more, recognizing my own liberation as a woman is wrapped up in how we struggle together.

When asked by another student if Leslie had any thoughts on coalition building between Jewish and African American communities on campus, Leslie pointed to the importance of looking to the legacy of Jewish/African American coalitions in this country. She also brought in the magnitude of the current state of affairs in Palestine/Israel, with the creation of the state of Israel and Palestinians being expelled from their own land, saying if we’re not making the connections to racism at home with racism and imperialism abroad, then we’re not seeing the whole picture.

I found what Leslie modeled throughout her oration was that we’re all heroes and leaders who need to be stepping up to many challenges and facing our fears. She reminded me to be honest about my privileges as well as my oppressions, something each of us must do or we will continually fail to achieve justice. Quoting June Jordan before closing, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” Leslie once again reminded us of the opportunity to move forward together.

Feinberg is also the author of Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue, Stone Butch Blues and Transgender Warriors. Check out for more information on Leslie Feinberg.

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