Transmissions - Interview with Leslie Feinberg
July 28, 2006
by Jamie Tyroler
In 1993, a novel by Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues, opened many people's eyes to gender issues. It was the story of Jess Goldberg's life as ze* tried to establish a gender identity and a role in society both before and after the Stonewall riots. Goldberg goes through many of the struggles that face people who don't fit the traditional gender roles: frequent loss of employment, difficulties in maintaining relationships, police harassment, and discrimination not only in the community at large but also within the lesbian and gay communities.
I've been communicating with Leslie recently to discuss hir* new novel, Drag King Dreams, the story of Max Rubinstein, a male-identified transgender person working as a door attendant at Club Chaos, a drag bar in New York City, as he deals with life post-9/11.
Jamie: Let's start with the basics. Which pronouns do you prefer used in referring to you?
Leslie Feinberg: That's a thoughtful way to begin. 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.
Jamie: In Drag King Dreams you cover several issues facing the trans community - identification, violence towards transgender people, difficulty in finding employment, etc. What do you feel are the major issues facing the trans community?
Leslie: First, I'd have to say that there are many trans communities - shaped by different bodies, social expression, lived experiences, loves and identities, nationalities, classes, and regions. Drag King Dreams deals with the lives of marginalized working-class characters. Those who are easily "read" as gender-defiant, gender-different, gender-variant-those whose sex is not easily determined by strangers who demand to know that fact at a glance - face almost insurmountable obstacles finding a decent job, walking on the street, trying to use a public toilet, getting identification papers, being vulnerable to police harassment and also to bashings. I experience these as well. The Transgender Day of Remembrance every autumn is a testament to the violence that hangs like a sword of Damocles over our heads every day.
Jamie: Do you feel you can convey different messages in fiction than by writing books like Transgender Warriors?
Leslie: I don't know if the message is so different, but in my opinion the way it is conveyed certainly is. A novel takes us on a very deep emotional passage - an internal journey. Once we have traveled that path, the external nonfiction world can look changed to us.
Jamie: I know that you spend quite a lot of time traveling all over the world talking about many issues besides transgender issues, such as issues facing workers on an international scale. During these appearances, are you usually more focused on transgender issues, workers' issues, or human rights issues?
Leslie: I don't think I've ever given the same talk twice, because of course I'm speaking to very different audiences, and I always try to work hard to ensure that I am really talking to who is there with me, at that moment in time, and within the relationship of forces of sweeping current events. I would say that I do not separate out trans issues, or lesbian/gay/bi issues, queer issues, from that larger relationship of forces. That is true in my novels, too. They take place, like our lives do, within the context of a larger economic and social reality - including economic class struggle, the war being waged abroad and on the domestic front, daily battles against racism, immigrant-bashing, and misogyny, and deaf and disabled accessibility.
Jamie: In what ways do you feel the trans community in the United States can gain the most ground as far as being treated equally in the workplace and within the community at large? Do you think that using concepts of human justice and equality for everyone has a better chance of success than fighting only for transgender rights?
Leslie: The struggle for rights on the job has made some important strides. And it is important to see the work that is going on in labor unions. I am myself a national steering committee member of the LGBT Caucus of the National Writers Union/UAW; a member of Pride At Work, AFL-CIO; and an associate member of the Steelworkers Union. I first joined a union when I began working in the factories as an adolescent butch lesbian. I think that finding ways to revitalize the left wing of the LGBT movement - putting the "liberation" back into the goals of our movement - can strengthen our ability to build stronger ties of solidarity with all those who are struggling for economic and social justice, here and around the world. The union movement was built on this granite truth: An injury to one is an injury to all.
I invite your readers to get to know me and my work better by visiting me at my web page: www.transgenderwarrior.org.
*(See the book review of Drag King Dreams)