Transgender Warriors by Leslie Feinberg

As someone who studied history at university, I was greatly looking forward to reading Leslie Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to RuPaul (1997). The book is one part memoir and one part a search for an historical identity of gender variant people.

While Feinberg’s interpretation of history–particularly the details surrounding Joan of Arc’s cross-dressing–is disputable, I appreciated learning about the long history of sex and gender variance, and that before class struggles made trans people the victims of discrimination, we were actually celebrated and honored in some societies. For example, certain native tribes recognized countless gender identities (forty-nine in Navajo cosmology!), and transgendered people were always consulted about important religious and tribal matters.

Feinberg also goes into some details about the Stonewall rebellion, highlighting the fact that the uprising was led by Black and Latina drag queens, but served as the roots of the gay and lesbian liberation movement. S/he discusses the need for solidarity as a guiding light in the fight for GLBT rights–that oppression is the same regardless of the sexual or gender expression of the people facing it.

Learning about trans history was empowering and made me feel proud of the resilience and rebelliousness of the trans spirit. However, I do not share Feinberg’s view of trans people as victims of capitalism. I concede that the rise of class divisions was an instrumental force in the development of trans discrimination, but I think that we as individuals are largely responsible for our own successes and failures, and that we each have the power to choose our futures.

I don’t own property, a business, or a factory, so I don’t live off other people’s labor. I have to work for wages or I’d starve. But since I’m gender-ambiguous, it’s almost impossible for me to get a job. (p. 122)

I take issue with this statement: I do own property and a business, but I don’t live off other people’s labor. I have disbelief about gender variance making it “almost impossible” to find employment. Have there been significant social changes since 1996 when Transgender Warriors was published, or am I being classist? (I’d like to point out that I was on the dole for years before I started my business. I lived in my truck for a time, went to the food bank, and shopped at the Salvation Army. My currently more favorable financial situation is something that I work extremely hard for, putting in 12-16 hour days.) In the end, the assertion that transgender people are victims of an “irrational economic” system perpetuates the notion of “us against them”, as well as “divide and rule,” the very concept that Feinberg thinks we should be struggling against.

I also dispute liberal use of terms such as “struggle” and “fight for reforms,” and even the title of the book, Transgender Warriors. These words hold negative energy, even violence. If we think of ourselves as “at war”, a war is what we’ll get. I’d like to see us frame the development of transgender rights and our community with more positive concepts, such as “liberation” and “freedom.”

As I learned from Feinberg’s book, transgender people have a long history that should be celebrated, and I believe that if this positive past was taught in our history class rooms, we would have an easier case for rights and freedoms. I am reminded of a lesson my driving instructor taught me, and it’s something that when applied to trans rights might actually seem offensive to warriors like Feinberg: the right of way (yielding) is something that is given, not taken. Perhaps if we stopped fighting and focused more on education and compassion, we might find that the cisgendered world’s fear of us would naturally dissolve into acceptance. When applied on a person-to-person scale, I have certainly found this approach to have positive outcomes, and have heard the same sentiment from other transguys as well.

In the end, Transgender Warriors was an important read for me, and I would certainly recommend the book, despite the historical inaccuracies and overt leftist stance.


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