Leslie Feinberg - Revolutionary Women

31 Days of Revolutionary Women, #09: Leslie Feinberg

By Catherine Petru

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ll be posting one story each day of March written by local citizen journalists about a revolutionary woman from history or today who has inspired them as women.

Leslie Feinberg bears remembering for two significant reasons: 1) Ze (alternative gender pronoun, “zee”) was the first author I read who made plain the imperative of trans liberation, and 2) Ze is an inspiring example of a white anti-racist author and activist – an example those racialized as white desperately need in a country where white supremacy is still de facto in policy and practice. 

My introduction to Feinberg was hir (alternative gender pronoun, “here”) essay We Are All Works in Progress (1998) which concludes, “Understanding each other will compel us as honest, caring people to fight each other’s oppression as though it was our own.” This sentiment is a live wire throughout Feinberg’s life and work.


Busting Open the Gender Binary

In Transgender Warriors: Making History (1996) Feinberg gives clear examples of the way in which gender nonconforming individuals were revered in cultures across time, space, and race. It is more of a contemporary practice to abuse, hate, and kill individuals who fall outside of the constructed categories “male” and “female.”

“To me,” Feinberg wrote in Progress, “gender is the poetry each of us makes out of the language we are taught.” Pronoun usage is so often a matter of 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,” ze explained in a 2006 interview with Camp.

“I like the gender neutral pronoun ‘ze/hir,’” ze continued, “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.”


Anti-Racist Revolutionary

Recognizing hir shared oppression, Feinberg wrote, protested, organized, and taught on classism, anti-racism, and ableism in addition to pioneering the trans liberation movement. Feinberg was a Jew who stood for Palestinian land and human rights; a key organizer in the December 1974 March Against Racism in Boston, where in solidarity, ze led an all-night “paste up” of South Boston, covering every visible racist epithet; and one of the organizers of the 1988 mobilization in Atlanta that re-routed the KKK as they tried to march down Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave. on MLK Day.


Beloved Legacy

As much as Feinberg elucidated on self-determination and acceptance, ze’s wisdom came from a life met with lethal bigotry. In 2014, Feinberg died of Lyme disease and multiple tick-borne co-infections. Ze was diagnosed in 2008, but was infected 38 years prior! As Progress illuminates, Feinberg’s ill-health was due in major part to active hatred and prejudice and refusal of treatment by physicians based upon hir transgender identity.

To learn more I highly recommend reading the short and phenomenal We Are All Works in Progress and visiting http://www.transgenderwarrior.org/.


Catherine (Cat) Petru can currently be found writing, reading, dreaming, and dancing in Oakland, CA. While in Seattle, she was an active member of Community Arts Create and you can find some of her artist interviews published in the Emerald. Her project du jour is an education collective called Liberation Spring.

Featured image: “self-portrait in setting sun” by Leslie Feinberg licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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