JENNIFER POLISH and LEILANI DOWELL
I loved my friend.
He went away from me.
There’s nothing more to say.
The poem ends,
Soft as it began, –
I loved my friend.
– Langston Hughes
“Remember me as a revolutionary communist.” Leslie Feinberg’s last words, spoken to hir lover of 22 years, Minnie Bruce Pratt, sum up hir life better than any memoriam piece ever could. “Remember me,” ze – the gender-neutral ze and hir being Leslie’s preferred pronouns – implored Minnie Bruce, and by extension, all of us. But Leslie, how could we ever forget?
Leslie passed away on 15 November at 65 years old. These devastating words threaten to flatten hir dedication and fervor for true justice. Born in 1949 in Kansas City, Missouri and raised in Buffalo, New York, Leslie’s writing, speaking, and public activism as a self-described “anti-racist white, working-class, secular Jewish transgender, lesbian, female, revolutionary communist” radically shook the lives of so many who encountered hir work. In 1993, Leslie published hir ground-breaking first novel, Stone Butch Blues, which was subsequently translated into many languages as it became an unapologetically intersectional queer classic.
Member and managing editor of Workers World newspaper, Leslie’s research and writing on transgender movements, communities, and individuals throughout history contributed profoundly to queering Marxist theoretics and activism. Writing powerfully about the myriad ways that capitalism and capitalist health care creates and perpetuates illness, suffering, and death, Leslie also contributed greatly not only to a queer understanding of revolutionary communism, but to an understanding which fundamentally integrated analyses of ableism and racism into revolutionary activism.
This is for my comrade, mentor, and friend Leslie Feinberg. The person who took me under hir wing when I showed up in New York City from the other side of the country, feeling more than a little lost. At a time when the editorial staff was beginning to work from home, Leslie and I made our way to the [Workers World] office in Manhattan every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday so we could work together, learn from each other (because Leslie was always clear that ze could learn as much from me – a young, revolutionary, queer hapa woman – as I could from hir), build a friendship. I owe so much of my skills as an editor, journalist, and thinker to Leslie’s patient work with me in those early years.
You were a warrior, Leslie. You were trained by the violence of heterosexism to know how to fight with your fists, but you were a warrior, also, of words. Written words and spoken words, words unspoken but clearly articulated as you held femmes with your eyes and fellow transmasculine people with your knowing. Words that defied expectation; words that you weren’t supposed to utter. Words that deliberately lacked academic jargon; words that intimately fused the academic and the activist as they fought to be accessible to the widest possible audiences. Words that you stitched together to give starving butches and femmes life-giving food across time and space, transcending everything we are taught about what is normal, what is moral, what is good. What is handsome. What is beautiful. What is both.
I have this picture of the day that I first met Leslie, before I had even moved to NYC. We held a meeting in San Francisco around the LGBTQ struggle for Pride, and we were both speaking at the event. There I am, trying not to look all nervous that I was meeting “the” Leslie Feinberg, author of Stone Butch Blues, transgender warrior and solidarity activist. And ze’s facing the camera but inclined towards me, with the warmest smile on hir face. I would see that smile duplicated on Leslie’s face so many times after I moved to New York – a gesture of respect and love to anyone dedicated to living their lives in defiance of the daily onslaught of capitalism and imperialism.
The picture, taken in front of the Women’s Building, blazes with color – the vibrant hues of the mural we are standing in front of, the deep red of the fancy femme shirt I wore for the occasion. And every time I see it, the warmth of the colors and the warmth of that smile transport me; I may as well be standing in the sun, ten or twelve years younger, head tilted upward to catch the rays on my face.
How to define your work, your life, to someone who has never had the privilege of knowing you, of experiencing the sheer power of your raw words? How to sum up the magnificence of the radical impact your life made on those you touched and those who touched your books?
You simultaneously brought to life and memorialized times and places and people that the forces of dominant history threatened to erase. Your novel Stone Butch Blues stitched together lives that were almost forgotten: working class butches and femmes in 1960s New York, forging lives that profoundly shaped the ways we live our lives today. Your writings, your speeches, your ways of living, gave so many of us the permission we thought we needed to embrace our femmeness, our butchness, our desires, our passions. To embrace the ways that we resist not just heterosexism, but racism, classism, capitalism, and ableism in our daily lives, through our survivals and the ways we give each other life and sustenance with each interaction. To embrace and to celebrate the microaffirmations we provide for each other in the (many) face(s) of the microaggressions that threaten our very lives each moment of interacting with the world. To embrace and to celebrate ourselves and our comrades with loves rising far above the violence we face each day.
I am picturing you dancing with Minnie Bruce in Phase in DC, and I remembering.
I am remembering the photographs of you spray painting the walls of the cage that trapped CeCe McDonald because she defended herself against a transphobic, racist attack, and I am remembering the pit of acidic knowledge in my stomach that you were willingly, deliberately, putting your body and soul back into a place that had terrorized you so many times, all so that people would know, so that CeCe would feel it, so that people who, in this racist place, would learn (more readily from you than from CeCe), so that changes would be made.
I am remembering the dedication with which you lived your life, the same dedication with which Minnie Bruce assures us that you made love. I am remembering the ways you wrote and spoke in always thoughtful, determined, accessible ways, so that you would not alienate – but in fact intimately invite – those you were trying to reach, and I am remembering the ways that you refused to ignore the intricate fusions of the violence of racism, classism, sexism, ableism, and heterosexism.
I am remembering the ways that both your body and your body of writing held such handsomely beautiful fusions of genders, of academia and activism, of love(r)s present and love(r)s past (passed).
I am remembering you, and I am thinking of Minnie Bruce, and I am weeping.
Without you, Leslie, none of us are sure how to keep fighting; though because of you, warrior, we know that we must. Together.
I want to write about just how fierce an anti-racist, pro-worker, revolutionary fighter Leslie was, in every moment, even as ze slowly succumbed to sickness. I want this to convey the belligerent fury I am feeling at the heteronormative, heterosexist structures of society in the United States, at the exhausting, constant attacks on our bodies, identities, souls that Leslie fought against for as long as I knew hir and that contributed to hir health complications over many years. I want to say, fist held high, Black and queer and proud, that I and my comrades will forever continue the struggle in Leslie’s name.
But maybe I don’t have to do this work today; I know and am heartened that so many others can tell these stories. What I really need to say is: