A victory for one is a victory for all: Lessons from “Trans Liberation”

Jul 27, 2023

Leslie Feinberg rallies marchers at Boston Pride, 2006. Photo credit: Marilyn Humphries. Source: www.lesliefeinberg.net/self/

Editorial note: Leslie Feinberg’s pronouns were “she/zie” and “her/hir.”

Introduction

Trans liberation is squarely on the agenda of today’s movements for justice, as over 550 anti-trans bills were already introduced in state legislatures across the country this year. Although 129 have failed because of the people’s resistance, 79 have passed so far [1]. The right-wing offensive against trans rights targets everything from gender-affirming healthcare and participation in sports to inclusive education and drag performances. Attacks on trans people are escalating; in 2022 far fewer laws—174—were proposed with 26 passing [2]. To fight back and strengthen the movement against right-wing assaults we must deepen our understanding of the contemporary LGBTQ struggle. Leslie Feinberg’s Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue—an accessible book by a historic U.S. fighter for LGBTQ and all oppressed and exploited people—can help us do just that.

Born in Kansas City, MO and raised in Buffalo, NY, Feinberg became a militant fighter for socialism and trans liberation. Raised in a family hostile to non-normative sexualities and genders, Feinberg was forced to support hirself during high school. In addition to the exploitation faced by all working-class people, hir status as a Jewish and transgender person made stable work difficult, so Feinberg moved from one part-time or precarious job to another, working in factories, offices, and kitchens. When confronted with discrimination, rather than tearing down the acts or beliefs of an individual Feinberg strove to educate and build camaraderie [3]. Hir organizing, speaking, and writing profoundly influenced queer and trans struggles. Feinberg’s first book, the semi-autobiographical novel Stone Butch Blues, introduced the struggle to political and non-political audiences across the world. It has so far been translated into Mandarin, German, Turkish, Hebrew, and other languages.

Feinberg entered the movement after joining Workers World Party in hir twenties and never stopped struggling in the streets, writing, and theorizing a Marxist conception of the modern LGBTQ movement until her last day in November 2014. Feinberg died at age 65 partially from Lyme disease and other co-infections like Polymyalgia rheumatica but also, or primarily, from the barbaric and bigoted U.S. capitalist healthcare system. Minnie Bruce Pratt (Feinberg’s long-time partner who died in early July 2023), wrote in her obituary that Feinberg used hir last breaths to utter these words: “remember me as a revolutionary communist” [4]. We do and will remember hir as such, as she used hir last years on Earth acting those very words out. While “very ill in Spring 2012,” Feinberg fought at least two significant battles simultaneously.

McDonald & Feinberg in April 2012. Photo: CeCe McDonald & Leslie Feinberg.

One was the campaign to free political prisoner CeCe McDonald, a young Black transgender student arrested for defending herself and her friends after they were harassed by a cop and attacked by a group of bigots who smashed broken glass in McDonald’s face. As they tried to escape, the bigots followed and continued their attacks that ended after Dean Schmitz, who had a swastika tattoo, was stabbed with a pair of McDonald’s scissors. The bigoted attackers were never charged or arrested, only McDonald. Feinberg traveled to South Minneapolis to visit McDonald behind bars on the first day of her trial and was arrested for spray-painting “Free CeCe!” outside the Hennepin County Courthouse where she was sentenced. The 20th anniversary edition of Stone Butch Blues, published in 2014, is dedicated to CeCe McDonald who won release from jail in January of that year. For years, the groundbreaking novel was out of print after the first and second small-publishing houses, Firebrand and Alyson, closed. After both publishers went out of business, and even before when Alyson Books stopped publishing books in 2010, Feinberg “had to spend thousands of dollars of my wages on legal fees to recover the right to this novel…. While very ill in Spring 2012, I recovered my rights again.” For two years, Feinberg worked on the 20th anniversary edition and removed it from the marketplace to “give this novel back to the workers and oppressed of the world” [5].

Trans Liberation, composed of talks Feinberg delivered primarily in early 1997, provides the theoretical clarity needed to wage a serious and disciplined struggle. Throughout, Feinberg formulates unity not based on a common identity but on common interests and insists on the necessity to reclaim our repressed knowledge and history of resistance to defeat the system that denies the rights of self-determination and freedom for the vast majority.

Social & political context of Feinberg’s political development

LGBTQ organizing ripened in the latter half of the 20th century as activists fought against the oppression of those daring to step outside the rigid confines of the pink-blue binary, like laws against “cross-dressing” [9]. AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) formed in 1987 by those “committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis,” developing rapidly into over 100 chapters [10]. ACT UP inspired the formation of other organizations like Queer Nation, all of which engaged in militant direct action to demand equal opportunities, funding for and access to healthcare and HIV treatment, and an end to anti-queer, anti-trans oppression more generally [11].

Transgender militants long fought in the gay and lesbian liberation movement, women’s liberation movement, and Civil Rights movement [7]. Yet there was not yet a movement for the liberation of transgender people [8]. The formation of groups like the Transvestite-Transsexual Action Organization, the Cockettes, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, and Transvestites and Transsexuals didn’t take place until 1969 and 1970.

The book addresses the internal struggles that emerged in the 1990s when a larger transgender liberation movement emerged that, like all mass movements, had various contradictions, such as those emanating from the evolving use of terminology within the community and the medical industry’s shifting diagnostic categorizations of sexualities, which impact access to healthcare, housing, employment, and other social necessities [6]. The book’s subtitle, Beyond Pink or Blue, signals the ongoing need to escape from the narrow confines of the male-female binary that even encircled some queer activists.

Threading together struggles around healthcare, jobs, a living wage, anti-queer/anti-trans oppression, and more, Feinberg responded to a moment shaped by reactionary policies like the rollback of welfare legislation while military budgets blossomed under the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton [12]. In addition to the phenomenon of mass incarceration targeting Black and working-class people, politicians enacted anti-worker legislation like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the Defense of Marriage Act [13].

 An injury to one is an injury to all and a victory for one is a victory for all

One of the most important contributions of Trans Liberation is the clear and expansive theoretical understanding of gender oppression articulated based on Marxism, which “gives working and oppressed peoples a roadmap to find the path toward liberation” [14]. Writing on the goals of the trans liberation movement, zie recalls the repeated—and to organizers today, still familiar—questions posed by those who don’t share the structural identity of those leading it: “What do I do as a non-trans person to support the struggle?” For Feinberg, “The answer is: There is no formula. There is only this guideline: What would you want a sympathetic stranger to do if you were in a similar situation” [15]? Put differently, don’t be an ally, become a comrade [16].

Two main themes permeate the speeches. One is the need for building a united movement encompassing all struggles of the oppressed without subsuming them under one. The second is the need to reclaim and recover our true history: the knowledge and resistance of oppressed groups including, in the case of Trans Liberation, the roles LGBTQ people played in struggles for unions, Black liberation, international solidarity, and the freedom of political prisoners, to name a few.

The struggle for trans liberation cannot be confined to those who share the same identity; the LGBTQ movement itself includes various identities. Feinberg sweeps away the grounds for the serious divisions within the gay rights movement over the inclusion of trans people by stressing that trans liberation isn’t “trying to barricade the road you travel” but “trying to open up more avenues to self-definition, and identity and love and sexuality,” something that benefits humanity as a whole [17].

The primary distinction between liberal identity politics and revolutionary Marxism doesn’t revolve around the importance of identity but rather the question of power. Marxism doesn’t stop at demanding the recognition of identity within the existing society but understands that real self-determination for people of oppressed identities can only be achieved by “the taking of power for the purposes of reorganizing society” in the interests of the people and the planet. [18].

Feinberg places the trans liberation movement as part of the broader struggle for global emancipation. One potent example is Feinberg’s recollection of hir conversation about the Stonewall Rebellion with Sylvia Rivera, a transgender Latina activist who worked with the Young Lords and founded STAR, who participated in the Rebellion:

“I asked her, ‘Were you fighting police brutality? Were you fighting racism? Or for your right to be gay? Did you fight because so few of the queens could produce the military draft cards government agents demanded that night? Or because so many of you were homeless and hungry and embattled on the streets?

 

“Sylvia replied with quiet dignity, ‘We were fighting for our lives'” [19].

“Skateboarders United.” Leslie Feinberg,

Trans liberation is the fight for working and oppressed people to exist, live, and thrive. “What unites us is not a common sexuality or experiences or identities or self-expression. It’s that we are up against a common enemy,” zie says [20]. Recounting decades of struggling to access healthcare services at all, let alone care facilities free of bigotry, zie concludes hir speech at the 2nd “Transgender Health Conference” at the Boston Convention Center by insisting that “winning more sensitive care for trans people is not enough to save our lives” and that the only way to win free and sensitive healthcare is “by fusing the power of the poorest and most oppressed communities” to win the battle together and for all of us [21]. To build such a force, Feinberg provides a precise and open definition of unity. In a speech at a queer conference in NYC, Feinberg clarifies, “I don’t mean reducing all our particular identities or struggles to one. I mean putting our collective strength and energy behind the demands of all of our identities and all of our demands.” During a speech at the “True Spirit Conference,” zie provides another formulation, telling the audience that solidarity is based on our “commitment to be the best fighters against each other’s oppression,” which means “unity depends on respect for diversity, no matter what tools of language are ultimately used” [22].

The second major theme of Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue is the reclamation of the existing but subordinated knowledges, histories, and theories of the oppressed. Critically, working and oppressed people need to wrest history from the control of the ruling class. In the hands of our oppressors, knowledge holds us back. But in the hands of the oppressed, it’s “a formidable weapon.” Feinberg witnessed this weapon’s power during the student and community uprisings of the 1960s-1970s, when LGBTQ people, women, Latino, Black, Indigenous, and other oppressed nations rebelled after reviving their subjugated histories. By doing so, we feel the power of our past, present, and future roles as historical agents, connecting separate struggles by identifying the common causes of progressive change. As Feinberg says, recovering our own knowledge and producing our own theory “helped shed light on the relationship between economic exploitation and oppression,” providing “renewed strength and clarity that enabled movements against oppression to exert powerful demands on cultural and educational institutions.” It is not only knowledge but the production of history and theory itself that the struggle requires. “Most working people think theory, in general, doesn’t have much to do with real life,” zie says, which is true when theory is too abstract and isn’t proven through struggle. The oppressed are capable of producing theory and it is particularly “important to those of us who are struggling to transform society because it offers distilled experience so we don’t have to repeat mistakes.” The same is true of history, as we’re taught history is the purview of academics. “Imagine the hypocrisy of telling us we cannot possibly understand history!” [23]. The reality is that the working and oppressed have always been the ones envisioning, fighting for, and realizing new societies and social relations.

We are taught we aren’t capable of theorizing and engaging in historical analysis so the presentation of history and theory of the ruling class prevails over all of society. When theory emerges from and informs struggle, as it does for Marxists, it serves as a tool to build the unity essential for revolutionary transformations, the other theme predominating Trans Liberation.

The ongoing struggle for trans liberation

Feinberg was writing and speaking during a time of intense right-wing backlash, from the LAPD’s vicious assault on Rodney King in 1991—an assault the cops were charged with but acquitted on—to California’s Proposition 209 which abolished affirmative action in state university admissions in 1996 [24]. As in our time, the broad assaults on basic democratic civil rights can’t be defeated if the movement is internally divided.

In the mid-1990s, political infighting between trans and other queer, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people erupted at the Human Rights Campaign and Congress over the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which didn’t include provisions for trans people when introduced in 1994 and the following two years. Barney Frank, a Democrat representing Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives who publicly identified as gay, claimed including transgender people would stop ENDA dead in its tracks [25]. While prompting some organizations to include transgender demands, the prevailing argument was to prioritize the “winnable” demands first and delay the “harder” wins for later in what Feinberg calls “a trickle-down theory of reform:”

“When a young social movement breaks down societal closet doors and floods into the streets, its leading activists suddenly begin to get advice from those in power who were never ‘friendly’ before. These advisors urge leaders to send in their ‘best-dressed, most articulate spokespeople’ (code words for white and middle- to upper-classed) to negotiate for progressive legislation and other reforms. But they counsel, ‘Keep it to a single, simple demand. And disassociate with those who are too angry and too militant”’ [26].

The ruling class today is intensifying its attacks against our class, targeting particular sectors in an attempt to divide us. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, 24 states banned or severely restricted abortion access [27]. The American Library Association reported 1,269 demands to ban books and materials from public, school, and classroom libraries in 2022, which was almost twice as high as the 729 attempts in 2021, and eight times as high as the 156 attempts documented in 2020. The highest 13 book titles under attack in 2022 included Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison [28]. The recent battle against “Critical Race Theory” by AstroTurf conservative groups resulted in 18 states banning books and curricular content that teaches anything about the racist, oppressive, and bigoted history and present of the United States, with other states considering similar bans [29].

Twenty states outlawed gender-affirming care until the age of 18 and seven more are considering doing so, some of which want to ban such care into adulthood. Florida and Arkansas effectively banned transgender people from using restrooms or locker rooms [30]. The latest attacks add to the ongoing persecution of immigrants, inhumane treatment of migrants at the border, police terror specifically targeting Black communities, and more. In addition to reactionary domestic policies is the increasing military aggression against Russia and China. They want us to think our enemies are trans people, immigrants, China, Russia, Black people, Native Americans, and women when in reality we are united by a common cause and common enemy. Dividing us only protects the interests of the capitalist class, Feinberg writes, explaining that a

“divisive ideological blitz is mandatory in order to ram through these dramatic cuts in our standards of living and our social services. None of us can fight back alone and hope to win, no matter how much we sacrifice or how hard we struggle” [31].

Speaking to a range of people at an April 1997 queer graduate studies conference at the City University in New York, Leslie immediately brought the varied audience together by opening with a conception of unity forged through struggle, debate, and political education, not through subsuming difference. We come together through a desire for a new future, a shared goal, and a collectively forged political line.

Building unity is necessary and possible. We have recent proof. The 2020 revolt against racism and the War on Black America prompted a massive shift in popular consciousness almost overnight. People of all backgrounds, many of whom had never protested before, entered the streets to oppose racist police terror. They began connecting the dots between the role of policing to the capitalist system. This shift from local issues to systemic problems illuminated the interconnection of the struggles against racism and LGBTQ oppression. In a powerful example of how the fight of a particular group is part and parcel of a larger united struggle, 15,000 people marched in Brooklyn in June 2020 stating, “Black Trans lives matter” and demanding an end to the disproportionately high rates of violence faced by Black trans people [32].

Bridging struggles for LGBTQ liberation and Black liberation shows the reality that a truly mass movement can confront the system from which all our various oppressions stem. Transgender communities, Black communities, and the working class as a whole are fighting the constant attempts to reverse our hard-won rights across the U.S. as part of a movement for a larger revolution. As Feinberg wrote:

“Genuine bonds of solidarity can be forged between people who respect each other’s differences and are willing to fight their enemy together. We are the class that does the work of the world, and can revolutionize it. We can win true liberation” [33].

References

[1] “2023 Anti-Trans Bills Tracker,” Trans Legislation Tracker, June 2023. Available here; Walter Smolarek, “Civics Class for Radicals: The Supreme Court,” Liberation News, 08 December 2022. Available here.
[2] “2023 Anti-Trans Bills Tracker.”
[3] Leslie Feinberg, Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1998), 82.
[4] Minnie Bruce Pratt and Feinberg’s Family, “Leslie Feinberg Obituary,” The Advocate, 17 November 2014 (published under the title “Transgender Pioneer and Stone Butch Blues Author Leslie Feinberg Has Died”). Available here.
[5] Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues, 20th anniversary ed. (Lulu, 1993/2014), 412, 413. Available here; for more on CeCe McDonald, see Iv Sta, “CeCe McDonald Released from Prison,” Liberation News, 13 January 2014. Available here.
[6] Historians especially highlight the removal of “homosexuality” as a mental illness in the 1972 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM) and the introduction of “Gender Identity Disorder” in the 1980 version of the DSM-III as one. See, for example, Jack Drescher, “Queer diagnoses: Parallels and Contrasts in the History of Homosexuality, Gender Variance, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual,” Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, no. 2 (2010): 427-60.
[7] See Morgan Artyukhina, “‘Our Armies Are Rising:’ Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson.” Liberation School, 13 October 2020. Available here; Liberation Staff, “Before Stonewall: Uprisings Set Stage for Movement,” Liberation News, 08 June 2015. Available here; Toshio Meronek and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Miss Major Speaks (New York City, NY: Verso Books, 2023); and Roseland Rosenberg, Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017).
[8] Susan Stryker, Transgender History (New York City, NY: Seal Press, 2008).
[9] Clare Sears, “This Isn’t the First Time Conservatives Have Banned Cross-Dressing in America,” Jacobin, 15 March 2023. Available here.
[10] Sam Sanders, Jinae West, Andrea Gutierrez, Sylvie Douglis, Liam McBain, Manuela Lopez Restrepo, and Jordana Hochman, “ACT UP: A History of AIDS/HIV Activism,” NPR News, 18 June 2021. Available here; ACT UP, “ACT UP Partial Chronology,” ACT UP New York. Available here.
[11] Queer Nation, “History is a Weapon: The Queer Nation Manifesto,” History is a Weapon, 1990. Available here.
[12] Peter Dreier, “Reagan’s Real Legacy,” The Nation, 04 February 2011. Available here.
[13] Gautam Raghavan, “10 Years Later: Looking Back at the Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” The White House, 20 September 2021. Available here.
[14] Feinberg, Trans Liberation, 115.
[15] Ibid., 133.
[16] Jodi Dean, “From Allies to Comrades,” Liberation School, 09 September 2019. Available here.
[17] Feinberg, Trans Liberation, 102-103.
[18] Brian Becker, “Theory and Revolution: Addressing the Break of Ideological Continuity,” Liberation School, 28 September 2016. Available here.
[19] Feinberg, Trans Liberation, 96-97.
[20] Ibid., 102.
[21] Ibid., 84, 85.
[22] Ibid., 113-114, 60.
[23] Ibid., 114-118.
[24] Liberation School, “Rebellion and the Need for Organization,” Liberation School, 01 February 2008. Available here; Emma Bowman, “Here’s What Happened When Affirmative Action Ended at California’s Public Colleges,” NPR News, 30 June 2023. Available here.
[25] Riki Wilchins, “Linking Trans Rights to Gay Rights Wasn’t an Easy Sell in the ‘90s,” The Advocate, 16 June 2020. Available here.
[26] Feinberg, Trans Liberation, 102-103.
[27] Orlana Gonzalez, “Where Abortion Has Been Banned Now that Roe v. Wade is Overturned,” Axios, 22 May 2023. Available here.
[28] American Library Association, The State of America’s Libraries 2023, April 2023. Available here.
[29] World Population Review, “Critical Race Theory Ban status [Updated April 2023]. Available here.
[30] Human Rights Campaign, “Map: Attacks on Gender Affirming Care by State,” Human Rights Campaign, 01 June 2023. Available here; Kiara Alfonseca, “Transgender Care Targeted into Adulthood in These States,” ABC, 17 February 2023. Available here; Facility Requirements Based on Sex, C.S./H.B. 1521 (2023); To Amend the Criminal Offense of Sexual Indecency with a Child, Act 619 (2023).
[31] Feinberg, Trans Liberation, 104.
[32] Anushka Patil, “How a March for Black Trans Lives Became a Huge Event,” The New York Times, 27 June 2020. Available here.
[33] Leslie Feinberg, Transgender Liberation: A Movement Has Come (New York City, NY: World View Forum Publications, 1992), 22.

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