In 1996 Leslie Feinberg, an American Marxist and transgender activist, published the groundbreaking book – ‘Transgender Warriors: Making history from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman.
Feinberg, who often writes using gender-neutral pronouns (“hir/sie”), is the author of two novels – Stone Butch Blues and Drag King Dreams – as well the non-fiction book Trans-Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue. But it is Transgender Warriors which had the most profound effect on me. It was the first book, and remains almost unique in this respect, to adopt an accessible international and class perspective on the universality of gender variant individuals, groups and roles.
The book identified a defining moment in the drive for LGBT unity in the last decade of the 20th century. It became a rallying cry for transgender rights and for trans people to recognise and reclaim our history and understand the nature and causes of our oppression.
Above all, hir book celebrated the resistance to transphobia and a vision of trans liberation articulated from the perspective of class struggle. It understood that no liberation from transphobia or any of the divisive and violent oppressions in class society is possible without the transformation of capitalism into socialism.
Transgender Warriors is a tour de force, in which Feinberg presents a fascinating canvas of the roles transgender people have played in the front ranks of resistance to religious intolerance, social injustice, and class exploitation – indeed, in merely trying to live their lives authentically.
Sie writes, “If I had known about these heroic struggles, I might have imagined as a child that cross-dressed workers could lead their trade union sisters and brothers on picket lines or that trans housing activists could inspire tenants to keep the rent strike going. I might have pictured myself in those ranks.”
Indeed Feinberg has led an extraordinary life. An opponent of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, Feinberg came of age fighting anti-Semitism in the playground and attempts to stop hir cross-dressing behaviour at home.
Later, coming out as a young, butch, working class lesbian in the factories and gay bars of Buffalo, New York, hir identification with struggles against oppression intensified. This was the era when the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in New York ignited the gay liberation movement.
Since then sie has been a grassroots activist and journalist, known internationally in the LGBT movement but also known as a socialist activist in the US labour movement. In capitalism the penalties for transgressing gender expectations and tightly defined roles remain potentially life threatening.
What Feinberg shows in Transgender Warriors is that transgender liberation can best be achieved through unity with other oppressed groups, and through identification with trade union and socialist resistance. The bonds forged in common struggles can become the heart of the socialist movement that can destroy capitalism and foster the liberation not just of trans people but of all oppressed groups and the working class as a whole.
Transgender Warriors was first published in 1996