I posted something last night here about the death of a woman named Leslie Feinberg, but took it down because I didn’t want to appear to be snarking over someone’s passing [I was snarking over the obituary as a piece of hagiographic writing, but for many readers, this would have been a distinction without a difference, so I took it down]. I’m going to reframe it in this post, because I think there’s something to be learned from her life, but I’m not sure what it is. As you know, I am fascinated by freaks and grotesques, and Leslie Feinberg was certainly that. From the obituary her partner wrote for The Advocate; as a piece of writing, this is near-perfect in its boutique weirdness and sanctimony. Excerpts:
Leslie Feinberg, who identified as an anti-racist white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female, revolutionary communist, died on November 15. She succumbed to complications from multiple tick-borne co-infections, including Lyme disease, babeisiosis, and protomyxzoa rheumatica, after decades of illness.
She died at home in Syracuse, NY, with her partner and spouse of 22 years, Minnie Bruce Pratt, at her side. Her last words were: “Remember me as a revolutionary communist.”
No they weren’t. But it’s interesting that Feinberg wanted people to think those were her last words. More:
She preferred to use the pronouns she/zie and her/hir for herself, but also said: “I care which pronoun is used, but people have been disrespectful to me with the wrong pronoun and respectful with the right one. It matters whether someone is using the pronoun as a bigot, or if they are trying to demonstrate respect.”
A WW journalist since 1974, Feinberg was the editor of the Political Prisoners page of Workers World newspaper for 15 years, and became a managing editor in 1995. She was a member of the National Committee of the Party.
From 2004-2008 Feinberg’s writing on the links between socialism and LGBT history, “Lavender & Red,” ran as a 120-part series in Workers World newspaper. Her most recent book, Rainbow Solidarity in Defense of Cuba, was an edited selection of that series.
She also blamed the Man for the toxic tick bite that killed her.
I actually looked up that “Lavender & Red” series, for the same reason that I sometimes look at the North Korean press agency’s feed. For the person that likes this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like. Check out No. 118, titled “US-Britain gay-bashed Afghanistan,” which is a communist justification for Pashtun pederasty. In No. 22, Feinberg writes of East Germany as a paradise for gays and lesbians. You know where this is going.
Flannery O’Connor once said:
Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.
People like Feinberg are at the far edge of human experience. The lesson I learn from considering her strange life is not the one The Advocate wants me to learn, certainly, but I think we miss an opportunity to reflect on the human condition if we pass by this with a simple roll of our eyes.
What does Feinberg mean as “a figure for our essential displacement”? She wrote a novel called Stone Butch Blues, about a subset of masculine, dominant lesbians (“stone butches”) who do not like to be touched sexually, but who derive satisfaction from pleasuring their partners. She was radically alienated from femininity and from her body as a source of pleasure. She was also, of course, a self-identified revolutionary communist, which meant that she dwelled within an militant ideology that is about the farthest you can go from normal in our society.
How do you go from being a working-class Jewish kid from Buffalo to becoming a sexual and political extremist who defends primitive Pashtun tribesmen sexually exploiting boys as “age-stratified homosexual activity,” and who expresses solidarity with the evil regime in North Korea? And how does the nation’s leading gay magazine give someone who endorses radical evil a respectful obituary written by her own partner — even suspending its editorial policies to accommodate her (see the Editor’s Note)? Is it a “no enemies to the Left” policy?
I think the meaning of Leslie Feinberg’s life, and the reason she is accorded such fulsome treatment by The Advocate, can be summed up by this paragraph from a May 3, 1993 cover story in The Nation (I can’t find it online this morning):
All the crosscurrents of present-day liberation struggles are subsumed in the gay struggle. The gay moment is in some ways similar to the moment that other communities have experienced in the nation’s past, but it is also something more, because sexual identity is in crisis throughout the population, and gay people—at once the most conspicuous subjects and objects of the crisis—have been forced to invent a complete cosmology to grasp it. No one says the changes will come easily. But it’s just possible that a small and despised sexual minority will change America forever.
It is instructive to read Richard John Neuhaus’s lengthy criticism of that cover story, to see what Neuhaus accurately predicted, and to see what he got badly wrong. For example:
There are only so many people who can sustain a relentless interest in a phenomenon so inescapably marginal. As the media can and must move on to other things, so it is conceivable that in time institutions such as universities and churches too will put this behind them. It is conceivable, but not without great difficulty. An ancient subculture, the homosexual world, has come out and conquered important social territory. The question is whether this means the transformation of the culture or simply the expansion of a subculture. Our hunch is that the Times and its myriad allies in the culture wars have misread the signs of the times. Placing themselves under the banner of cultural revolution, they have turned themselves into creatures of a subculture. At the same time, the line between culture and subculture becomes ever more indistinct. Andrew Sullivan of The New Republic says that we all live in subcultures now, the homosexual world being simply one among many. That, we expect, is wishful thinking on his part.
That’s how it looked to Father Neuhaus 21 years ago. He was thinking wishfully, as we now know. The Nation was a lot closer to right than First Things was.
Leslie Feinberg, as an icon of our essential displacement, is also an icon the radical loss of a sense of the gender and sexual norms in our post-Christian society. It’s interesting to consider that her lasting radical work was serving the Sexual Revolution. As the Human Rights Campaign fondly remembers Feinberg:
According to loved ones, Leslie Feinberg’s final words were, “Remember me as a revolutionary communist.” And we will remember Leslie as such – but also as revolutionary when it came to issues of gender, race, class, sexuality and identity.
Not one word of criticism about the radically evil regimes she passionately defended. No enemies to the Left. She advanced the revolution the Human Rights Campaign and The Advocate care about. That’s what matters.
When conservatives talk about “cultural Marxism,” Leslie Feinberg is what they mean. Yes, it’s a smear term in vulgar right-wing discourse, but it is also a real thing, having to do with dismantling the traditional superstructure of our society, so it can be remade in the revolution’s image. To do so, you have to destroy what a culture considers to be a “whole man.” The Nation saw it coming in 1993, and cheered for it. Leslie Feinberg lived it. She was a freak for most of her life. She is much less of one now. If that’s not revolutionary, the word has no meaning.
(In your commentary, avoid snark. Leslie Feinberg may have been an extreme figure, ridiculous to many of us, but she is a figure that deserves to be taken seriously.)
UPDATE: Great comment by Eve Tushnet:
I think “the reason she was accorded such fulsome [hmm] treatment from ‘The Advocate’” is probably that most of the writers there had read “Stone Butch Blues.” Feinberg made her name on that book because it is an extremely powerful piece of writing. People care about her death because they cried over her first book.
It’s also very weird to read discussions of Feinberg’s life and the ways she struggled to make sense of it which have no reference to the brutal punishments she received for her nonconformity. Feinberg didn’t live in a vague “post-Christian” fog; she lived in a time and place where law and society were ferocious in their attacks (literally) on women who dressed like men and went to gay bars. Some of the most memorable passages in her heavily-autobiographical first novel are about the arrests, assaults, and humiliation she suffered, and the ways she strove to understand herself as a human being with dignity in spite of how others treated her.
I bring this up partly because the specifics are really important in understanding where Feinberg was coming from, if that’s a thing someone wants to do. And also because other people’s response to “grotesques” and outcasts often reveals–I think Flannery O’Connor would agree–a deeper and horrifying grotesqueness. Leaving that out of the discussion seems shallow: “Let’s learn what these freaks have to say about our lostness, they are just exaggerated versions of us… except that we beat them up.”
UPDATE.2: Great points by Steve S.:
My first response is to pray for her eternal rest and that she comes to know the peace of Christ. As others have said, she seems to have been terribly wounded and unhappy.
In some way, Leslie was like an unintentional “holy fool” of sorts. In her freakishness (according to O’Connor’s definition that Rod has repeatedly explained) Leslie was an incarnation of the incoherence of so many Leftist ideas. As others already pointed out, “mainstream” gay culture wants and needs to ignore all of the nonsense that she proclaimed because a lot of it gives the lie to the (il)logical foundation of their movement. When Fred Phelps died, many on this blog and elsewhere essentially gave thanks for his outrageous words and behavior because he did more than almost any single person to drive people away from “Christianity” and into support for the gay political agenda. Well then, similarly, Leslie’s own life and political activism would have undoubtedly driven many back in the other direction. The difference, of course, is that the Phelps clan got all sorts of non-stop press, while most on this comment thread have admitted their complete ignorance of Leslie before this blog post. Many, many Americans still think that Fred Phelps equals Christianity, but do they equate “gay” with “pederasty-celebrating, North Korea-extolling, pronoun-abolishing stone butch communist”? Methinks not.