“Complex,” “groundbreaking,” “fascinating,” “amazing” and “transformative” are just a handful of the adjectives emblazoned across the back cover of Transgender Warriors. “Nobody will remain unaffected by this book,” predicts critic Heather Findlay. Although this all sounds like promotional hyperbole, I was also urged by a New York Radical Women comrade to read the book. I was certainly not disappointed.
It was refreshing to read a recently published book without first having to scrape away a thick crust of academic verbiage or reclaim points of interest from the seemingly mandatory postmodern analysis.
The book is beautifully produced, and the hundreds of photographs highlighting transgender expression throughout history complement the text brilliantly. Each photo has a detailed caption. For example, the caption accompanying an image of a strong person of colour dressed in a suit makes me hungry to know more. It reads:
“Luisa Capetillo, a cross-dressed Puerto Rican socialist, trade union leader, author, and feminist, circa 1914, in Havana, Cuba. She never married, and had three children. Capetillo was arrested in Cuba on cross-dressing charges. On her island home, she is remembered in a popular song that says: ‘Dona Luisa Capetillo, intentionally or not, has created a tremendous uproar because of her cullottes.’”
Transgender Warriors weaves a history of transgender freedom fighters, a materialist analysis of transgender oppression and the voices and images of contemporary transgender activists, together with the author’s own story, to produce an innovative and accessible work which breaks new theoretical ground.
Leslie Feinberg was born in 1949 into a blue collar Jewish family. S/he grew up as a masculine girl, acutely conscious of a being a gender outlaw. As a young worker, Leslie easily secured factory work. But the end of the post-war boom brought unemployment. Unable to get work, Leslie began passing as a man. S/he lived in daily fear of exposure. Leslie now identifies as neither male nor female but as proudly transgendered. S/he defines “transgender” as biological sex and gender expression not matching or being ambiguous.
Transgender Warriors takes us step by step through Leslie’s journey, from isolated child to feisty transgender theorist and activist. Autobiography is a device used to provide insights into Feinberg’s unfolding consciousness and historical discoveries. S/he makes the work’s methodology transparent by incorporating the barrage of questions s/he asked throughout the two-decade research process. The key questions Feinberg sets out to answer are: “Have we always existed? Have we always been so hated? Have we always fought back?”
Leslie’s journey of discovery started at the Museum of the American Indian in New York. Here s/he found evidence of transgendered expression in pre-colonial Native American society. The French invaders imposed the derogatory term berdache to describe what to them was the mystifying phenomenon of transgendered people who had a high status role and were fully integrated into the society. An activist organisation, Gay American Indians, has uncovered dozens of respectful words used by Indigenous nations to describe transgendered members of their tribes and prefer the term “two spirit people” to the word imposed by the colonisers.
Feinberg recognises that “language is forged collectively in the fiery heat of living struggle.” S/he acknowledges that “transgender” is itself a relatively new term, but one which may quickly become outdated as the emerging movement continues to develop and define itself.
The attitude of traditional Native American societies to transgendered expression is not unique. Feinberg’s research revealed that cross-gendered expression and cross-dressing had once been a part of many religious rituals and festivals in all parts of the world, and numerous societies held transgendered members in very high esteem.
So why the change?
The oppression of women and the outlawing and persecution of transgendered people and same-sex relationships were all the outcome of the triumph of class-based patriarchy over communal matriarchy. Feinberg traces the long campaign to stamp out transgendered expression and all the other remnants of society that pre-dated private property — equality, free sexuality and matriarchy. The earliest examples of transgendered oppression emerged in Europe. This was because the pace of emerging class society was developing fastest there.
The remnants of pre-patriarchal society were remarkably resilient. Feinberg documents how the vicious oppression frequently sparked resistance. Joan of Arc is widely known as a military strategist who led a mass peasant army against the invading British nobility. What the school textbooks ignore is that in 1431 Joan of Arc, aged 19, was burned at the stake by the Inquisition of the Catholic Church for refusing to stop cross-dressing. Feinberg argues that part of Joan of Arc’s mass appeal can be explained by the residue of respect for transgendered expression. The Grand Inquistors condemned Joan of Arc for cross-dressing and paganism. Feinberg is clear about their motives: “The Church was waging war against peasants who resisted patriarchal theology and still held on to some of the old pre-Christian religious beliefs and matriarchal traditions.”
Feinberg’s work of recovering the suppressed story of transgender struggle puts the contemporary movement into context. S/he points to the key role transgenders played in forging the modern gay and lesbian movement. The role of drag queens of colour and butch dykes who fought back when the police raided the Stonewall Inn is now legend.
But the sexuality of transpeople can’t be easily categorised. Feinberg shares how s/he has long pondered the connections between sexuality and gender expression and stresses that the two are not the same thing. Although Feinberg identifies as a lesbian transgender, s/he explains that the majority of transpeople are not gay, lesbian or bisexual. Despite this, the coalition between lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders makes sense. Feinberg says, “To those fuelled by hatred of diversity, anyone who cross-dresses or changes their sex is ‘queer.’ As a result of the fact that masculine women and feminine men are assumed by bigots to be lesbian and gay, the oppressions have overlapped. And this has been true for many centuries.”
Feinberg powerfully shows the connections between the oppression of women, people of colour, gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders and workers. Any socialist feminist who reads this book — even if they have never thought about the issue of transgender oppression before — cannot help but embrace the cause of transgender liberation.
As I read this fresh and challenging book, I was reminded of the common and simplistic slur that Marxism is a nineteenth century dogma well past its use-by date. Feinberg is a transgendered Jewish Marxist feminist lesbian — and proud! Of her politics s/he says, “Like many among the generations of working class Jews before me, I discovered that Marxism was a valuable science, not a religion.” Transgender Warriors is beautifully crafted. It makes its dialectical materialist methodology clear and accessible and shows how Marxist feminism is the crucial tool for analysing the burning issues of the ‘90s.