Leslie Feinberg, a writer and activist whose 1993 novel, “Stone Butch Blues,” is considered a landmark in the contemporary literature of gender complexity, died on Nov. 15 at her home in Syracuse. She was 65.
Her death was confirmed by her spouse, Minnie Bruce Pratt, who said in a statement that the cause was “complications from multiple tick-borne co-infections, including Lyme disease.”
Feinberg, who resisted being called Ms. or any other gender-specific honorific, wrote fiercely and furiously on behalf of those she saw as oppressed because of their sexual, ethnic, racial or other identities. A longtime member of theWorkers World Party, a Marxist-Leninist group, and a prolific journalist for its newspaper, she wrote a 120-part series, from 2004 to 2008, explicating the role of socialism in the history of gender politics.
Feinberg was an advocate for minorities and for the poor, as well as for gay men and lesbians and others who identified as transgender — an umbrella term, distinct from transsexual, that describes people whose life experience straddles the line between male and female and between masculine and feminine.
She herself was biologically a woman but presented outwardly as male — and sometimes passed as a man for reasons of safety, a friend, Julie Enszer, said in an interview. Feinberg, in referring to herself, used the pronouns ze (for she) and hir (for her), though she often said pronoun usage was frequently a matter of 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,” she explained in a 2006 interview with Camp, a publication in Kansas City, Mo., aimed at gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and their supporters.
“I like the gender neutral pronoun ‘ze/hir,’ ” she continued, “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.”
Feinberg’s books included two nonfiction studies of gender issues, “Transgender Warriors: Making History From Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman” and “Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue,” and a second novel, “Drag King.”
But her best-known and most influential work was “Stone Butch Blues,” a coming-of-age novel, drawn at least partly from her own life, about a young person, born female, who grows into adulthood at odds with her own family and comes to grips with her complicated, unconventional sexual and gender identity at a time when practicing a so-called alternative lifestyle invited stigma, open discrimination and, in many settings, menacing opprobrium.
“They cuffed my hands so tight I almost cried out,” the protagonist, Jess Goldberg, writes in a letter to a former lover, describing a night the police raided a club they were in together. “Then the cop unzipped his pants real slow, with a smirk on his face, and ordered me down on my knees. First I thought to myself, I can’t! Then I said out loud to myself and to you and to him, I won’t! I never told you this before but something changed inside of me at that moment. I learned the difference between what I can’t do and what I refuse to do.”
Leslie Feinberg was born on Sept. 1, 1949, in Kansas City and grew up in Buffalo. Her family was hostile to her sexuality and gender expression, and she left home as a teenager, rejecting them as well.
According to a biographical statement supplied by her spouse, Feinberg earned a living mostly in temporary low-wage jobs, including washing dishes, working in a book bindery, cleaning out ship cargo holds and interpreting sign language.
In addition to writing, she pursued many causes as an activist. In 1974, she organized a march against racism in Boston after white supremacists had attacked blacks there. She helped rally support for AIDS patients and those at risk in the early days of the disease. A longtime advocate for women’s reproductive rights, she returned to Buffalo to work for that cause in 1998, after an abortion provider, Dr. Barnett Slepian, was murdered in his home near there.
In addition to Pratt, a poet and an activist, Feinberg is survived by “an extended family of choice,” according to the statement provided by her spouse. She “identified as an antiracist white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female revolutionary communist,” the statement said.
In an essay after Feinberg’s death, Shauna Miller, a writer and editor who contributes to The Atlantic, wrote on the magazine’s website that “Stone Butch Blues” was “the heartbreaking holy grail of butch perspective,” a book that was instrumental in her coming to terms with her own sexual and gender identity. The novel, which has been translated into several languages including Chinese and Slovenian, “changed queer history,” she wrote.
“It changed trans history. It changed dyke history. And how it did that was by honestly telling a brutally real, beautifully vulnerable and messy personal story of a butch lesbian.”