Gender Prac; advanced course
Julie Peters interviews Leslie Feinberg
JulieI was thinking I knew a lot about you because before I read "Transgender Warriors" I'd read "Stone Butch Blues", Minnie Bruce Pratt's "S/he" and saw a video tape of you speaking at the University of Minnesota. But then it hit me Stone Butch Blues was a novel not an auto-biography. Stone Butch created such a real and violent world that I left it thinking it was totally real and it was about you. Is it partly auto-biographical? And why did you write a novel?
LeslieStone Butch Blues is a complete work of fiction. It's not auto-biographical. Although I am a non-fiction writer, I wrote a novel because of the power of fiction to reach readers. I also chose a novel because of it's ability to reach down into emotional truths. SBB's certainly lives with that emotional truth that many trans people here--transsexual, transgender, drag and intersexual--live with day in and day out.
JulieIs there any of you in Stone Butch Blues?
LeslieI didn't put myself into this novel as a character. I am lucky to have lived a much richer, fuller life than Jess and have known allies, solidarity, victories and much more love. I had read many works of *gender theory* in the early 1990's. Although I may have found a concept here or there of interest, it was mostly so abstracted from humnan experience that it lacked meaning for me. I wanted to write about trans characters, and how their lives were intersected by race, class, and desire. I wanted to write the kind of gender theory that we all live.
JulieHow did you first discover you weren't alone? Did you have queer/trans friends at school? And how did you learn there was a queer/trans community in Buffalo?
LeslieI found the gay drag community--drag queens and drag kings--in the bars of Toronto and southern Ontario when I was a very young teen. That was the first trans community I met, and I was, and still am, very connected to it.
JulieThe concept of stone butch. Being stone butch emotionally gets you through today. How do you feel it works as a long term strategy?
LeslieThe phrase *stone butch* in the title of my novel has two meanings. First, it draws from African American vernacular, in which stone means *very.* Like being stone broke. That usage in my title signals that the subject is about gender--since *stone* butch means a very, very masculine female.
JulieI guess I don't speak African American very well; I didn't know that.
LeslieThe second colloquial usage here in the states is that *stone butch* means a person who has been so wounded sexually that it is difficult to allow oneself to be touched. I chose to bring to life a *stone* character so that people could see how this particular form of oppression--like incest or rape--sometimes forces people to *shut down* sexually for a period of time, or for a long time. I don't think of it as a strategy so much as a reflex.
JulieSome of the butch'est women I know are het farmers wives. These women are well respected in Australia. Is this true in the USA and how do people react to them?
LeslieI see women in the U.S. who range from feminine to androgynous to masculine, and men who range from masculine to androgynous to feminine. And I see a great deal of gender contradiction, fluctuation, fluidity and ambiguity.
Rural women in this country do tend to be more masculine. Although even among rural women I still see a spectrum of expression within that generalization.
One of the things I tried to stress in Transgender Warriors is that gender
expression is not an *announcement* of sexuality. Gender expression and
desire are not synonymous. I know many very, very masculine females who are
heterosexual and bisexual, and the same is true for many feminine males I
JulieSo are these masculine rural heterosexual women discriminated against?
LeslieIn both rural and urban communities here gender expression ranges from acceptable to tolerable to intolerable. While rural women are *allowed* a degree of what is considered masculine in urban life, crossing over that line still invites social penalties.
JulieI remember a line from a play (can't remember which play) "when you're gay your friends are your family". Are you in touch with your biological family and how do you relate?
LeslieI have a wonderful relationship with my youngest sister.
JulieIn the acknowledgements to TgW you mention Minnie Bruce, Ben, Ransom, Catherine, Star, Robin, Brent, and Wyontmusqui. You're family is not limited by the concept of the nuclear family; what is family for you?
LeslieIn the U.S., the right wing is redefining family in non-biological ways. Talking about family *values* for example, has nothing to do with birth biology. I think the progressive community, lesbian, gay, bi and trans communities are also redefining family as not restricted to biological ties. The fact that same-sex marriages are still illegal in this country means also that our partner/spouses and each other's children are not recognized as family by law. My family includes many who have chosen that bond of love and support for each other, just as I have chosen them as my family. I make no distinction in the acknowledgments in Transgender Warriors between those who I am related to by blood or who are chosen family.
JulieWe live in a society where there are huge pressures to be either male or female, do you fight this pressure minute by minute of your life? Are there times you take a rest from the fight?
LeslieThat fight is imposed on me minute-by-minute here. I cannot walk down the street or shop in a store or ride on the subway without crowds of people gawking and staring and making angry and mocking remarks and actions. I would like to take a rest from that fight, but it's not possible.
JulieMany transgendered have to deal with such levels of stress on a daily basis; how do you deal with your pain and anger and still be loving, articulate and a warrior?
LeslieI am very lucky to have spent my entire life in the movements for change. As a result, I have many allies in many different communities who stand up for me, just as I stand up for them. So I have known many victories, and I enjoy respect and affection from many who I also care a great deal about. I have a wonderful personal life--including friends and family--and particularly I have the day-in and day-out love and support of my wife and best friend, Minnie Bruce Pratt.
JulieMany transgendered put a huge amount of energy into passing, being invisible to avoid vilefication, discrimination and violence; some feminists crticise the transgendered for reinforcing gender stereotypes; passing, being invisible denies us a voice; is it healthy to pass?
LeslieIt's a terrible loss to an individual and to society when each person is not able to live openly as who they are. The unique stories of how each person's path led them to who they are is lost to all. That person's remarkable insights are silenced. Having to lie about who we are in order to avoid violence and condemnation means living like an outlaw. Every person should be able to be live open and proud of their identity. But the reality is that many can't. The dangers are too great.
JulieIt would be great to be able to live openly without fear. A little earlier you mentioned you were involved in "movements for change". Are you involved in Union organising? Is there a political future for unions in the USA?
LeslieI am a socialist activist and have been a trade unionist for my entire working life. I am currently a member of the National Writer's Union local of the United Auto Workers. I was one of the founding members of the Lesbian and Gay Labor Network in New York City, and put a great deal of energy into the boycott of Coors Beer--an attempt to stop it's most blatant anti-union, homophobic, right-wing activities and funding.
The working class here has faced an all-out anti-labor offensive, signalled by President Ronald Reagan's mass firing of the PATCO air traffic control workers. Rather than one employer taking on one group of workers, the ruling strategy has turned towards united assaults on unions by the employer--backed by the entire industry, banks, Wall Street, courts, cops, etc.--to break a strike or a union. We sure need a similar working class-wide solidarity in support of striking workers.
Union organizing is making an upturn here. And the working class here has
changed dramatically. The working class has become more Third World, more
female, gayer, younger. That shifts the potential for leadership to a more
oppressed strata. The rumblings from below in the workforce are seen by some
of the more progressive developments at the top leadership of the trade
JulieOne point you emphasize in Transgender Warrior is that in communal societies, where individuals are valued, gender oppression is minimal. Do you believe that extended communalism is necessary before oppression is eliminated? And who needs to be included in that community? And should that community include the plants, animals and earth? And what's the first step?
LeslieRecently there have been widely reported studies that the greatest polarization of wealth and poverty exists in the U.S. By the most conservative reports, 1% of the population controls 40% of the wealth produced by all. Millions in the U.S. live on street corners, or under bridges, or in subway tunnels. Many more millions go to bed starving. What small safety net existed for people here is being taken away. It's irrational that this exists in a society that could easily technologically produce enough to meet the needs of all. Everything in the economy is geared to profit. This injustice could no longer continue if the vast majority in this country were not continually being pitted against each other. This economic system necessitates division--it's very life depends on it. Everything is subjugated to this drive for profit--including the earth and oceans and all the life they sustain. Event space is being exploited for NASA's Star Wars projects.
All of our earliest ancestors lived and worked cooperatively. That way of life produced a very different way of people relating to each other. Modern-day capitalism is hailed as the only way to organize human production. Actually, in history there have been many revolutions that have ushered in new economic systems. That's why we're not all chained together, or forced to hoe the land for a landlord.
But today, anyone who even questions why production has to be geared to profits for a handful of wealthy families, instead of meeting the needs of everyone, is labeled The Enemy.
In a society where economics are planned, the material basis for pitting people against each other is removed. Feeding and clothing and housing people doesn't require ravaging the earth and everything that moves on it.
But such a society inherits all the bigotry and prejudices that have been
woven into human things and relations like a tapestry for centuries. All the
tools of education and culture need to be opened up to everyone to examine
and discuss. A revolution is not a single act, it is a process.
JulieWould gender exist in a healthy society? Would gender exist in your Utopian Society?
LeslieWell, I have no crystal ball. But I do show a whole lot of evidence in Transgender Warriors that gender and sex variance have existed in many, many healthy societies, before the advent of oppression. So there's no reason not to believe that greater freedoms in society--economic and social justice--will lead to increased expression and visibility of sex and gender diversity.
JulieWould "I dream therefore I am" describe how many traditional cultures see gender?
LeslieI can't really say. I know that in Transgender Warriors, Chrystos talks about dreams as one road that people found their destinies on, and those paths were respected. But certainly many cooperative cultures allowed for many more complex individual choices in life than the modern Ozzie and Harriet categories.
JulieThank you very much again for your time. I feel really energised speaking to one who is so similar and yet so different. You'll be pleased to know that Transgender Warriors has really lifted my pride in our transhistory, and it's selling well over here.
LeslieI really appreciate the time and care and energy you're taking with this project. And it means a great deal to me that TgW is lifting your trans pride. What you think of the book matters to me a lot. I look forward to reading the review of the book--I hope it is as meaningful as your response to it. There are many communities under the umbrella *trans.* We have the potential of being great allies for each other!
(Julie Peters is a Melbourne based transgender activist, Writer, Director of Photography and is a member of the State Executive of the Australian Democrats.)
© Copyright Julie Peters 1996