Leslie Feinberg

Activist, Writer
1949 – 2014
by Sasha T. Goldberg

Leslie Feinberg.

Courtesy of Marilyn Humphreys.

I was in an alleyway in Chicago the first time someone told me about Stone Butch Blues. “You’ve got to read this book,” she said. “Stone Butch Blues.” The “she” in question was an older Femme (they always were), and the name of the book got right under my skin. I can remember the feeling: My ears perked up, head tilted back, eyes focused. Stone Butch Blues, I thought. Ok. I was sixteen years old, had been out since I was fourteen, and had been a tomboy all my life. The word and identity of “Butch” made inherent sense to me, and partially explained why my masculine, old soul self, always temporally geared backwards in era and well beyond my actual years in age, didn’t exactly fit in with the contemporary gender expressions of middle of the road andro-dykes and most other women at large. And then there was Leslie Feinberg.

Leslie, who came from a blue-collar background, spent her early life working in factories and later as a journalist and editor for Worker’s World, but her lifelong work was her commitment to activism for gay and transgender rights. Her writing has been lauded and taught in both U.S. and international academic circles, and she was, rightly, the opening speaker at the Stonewall 25th anniversary rally. But it was her fiction, and particularly Stone Butch Blues, that affected me—and so many others—on a profound level.

It’s not just that the main character in Stone Butch Blues had the same Jewish last name as me, or that an old organizing photo of Leslie’s beautiful, handsome, Semitic good looks graced the back cover; it’s that finally someone was writing about how I felt. Her words were my words, her passions my passions, her frustrations my frustrations, her alienations and joys my alienations and joys. Nearly eighteen years after I first read Stone Butch Blues, I can look back and see myself in my teenage bedroom, shutting the book and being unable to proceed, the first time, after Leslie describes “a Butch so stone she showered with a raincoat on.” It’s a reference, even now, that I do not need to look up to remember: The Butch hangs herself after the cops force her to strip in a bar. I identified so strongly with her words that it was like someone had written every devastation of my teenage heart and put it down on paper for the whole world to see. It undid me.

Is it too grandiose, then, too twilight, too hindsight to say that Leslie Feinberg saved my life? To say that reading her words about buzz cuts, white T-shirts, and sweet, caring Femmes gave me hope for my entire future? What masculine girl-child does not know the pain and cruelty of not seeing anyone who looks like an adult version of how she, herself, looks and feels? The first time I saw the updated cover of Stone Butch Blues, I was taking the long route home from school; school and home were both hard, at the time. I passed by the window of a neighborhood bookstore, and there was Leslie. Her strong, stunning face took up the whole cover—defiant, proud, warrior eyes—looking directly into the camera. Right in the front window. It was cold out, the Fall was passing, and there I stood, staring. I couldn’t stop looking. And in the reflection of the glass, finally, literally and metaphorically, I could see myself, and Leslie, at once. I think I started to understand what I could be in that moment, that I belonged to a proud tradition of Butch women. That there was a place for me in this world. That I could grow up. For the first time, I understood that I was looking at who and what I would become as an adult. It was breathtaking.

I had the pleasure of seeing Leslie speak at Northwestern University when I was seventeen, met and took a photo with her. Meeting her made me feel like I had Butch family. I felt like I had met a forever friend. Years later, I saw her speak at Mills College. It’s not that there was so much contact, it’s just that Leslie and her life were never far from my mind, or my kishkes. That’s guts in Yiddish, of course—it’s to the very core. I felt that I had a soul-knowing, or at least was a known soul, myself, with Leslie in the world.

When I read that Leslie Feinberg died, I cried for the first time in a very, very long time. Crying is never my first instinct, despite understanding how healthy it is to “get it out”—really, I’m just quicker to anger, or critical thinking. But the sadness was so overwhelming that I cried sharply and suddenly, like a wounded animal. It feels like a piece of my sixteen-year-old heart is so broken, so totally shattered, that, at thirty-three, I can’t stop the childhood tears from running down my face. It’s coupled with the tears of adult consciousness, too. In a world where I feel like I still fight tooth, nail, and often my own communities for space as a Butch woman, I am just so sad for this loss. The world is somehow instantly and ferociously more lonely without her in it.

It’s not that I always agreed with Leslie, her politics, her read on historical identities, or that we knew each other in some ongoing mutual way; it’s that I carried her with me for almost twenty years, and I’m not ready to let her go. It’s that I miss her already. It’s that she made my life possible—and probably yours, too. It’s that I am endlessly indebted, endlessly grateful, and endlessly located in the pages and words of her book. It’s that I feel I am burying my Butch woman father.

The last reported words to grace Leslie’s lips were, “Remember me as a radical communist.” And I shall. But I will also remember Leslie as a lover, a fighter, a Jew, and a gender warrior who fought her whole life for a place in this world. Many have suggested the very fitting blessing of “Rest in power,” but Leslie, I want to wish you peace. You have been powerful enough, dayenu, it would have been enough. It is enough. At long last, may you relax your shoulders, let down your guard, and lay down your weapons of will, and heart, struggle, and strife. May you exhale, and may you rest in the deep peace of exhausted Stone Butch Heroes.

From one Jewish Butch to another: I will remember you. I will say kaddish for you. I will keep you in my mind, and in the meditations of my heart. As you yourself have written to the Butches who came before: This is my Butch love letter to you. Thank you, Leslie. Now and evermore. For all of the ways in which we are different, and all of the ways in which we are alike, I am proud to be of your blood. Thank you for loving us enough to write about our lives. We will love and cherish you always. Your memory and your work are our outrageous luck, and our outrageous blessing.

1 Comment

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Sasha: your words here, as always, are powerful and graceful. thanks for sharing this deeply personal piece.


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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Leslie Feinberg, 1949 - 2014." (Viewed on May 28, 2024) <http://jwa.org/weremember/feinberg-leslie>.