I will never forget the first time I saw Leslie Feinberg speak – New York City, 1996. The auditorium was full of young people like me who had read Stone Butch Blues and wanted to hear about gender and queerness. Leslie spoke about those things, but also about war and labor struggles and racism and U.S. militarism, refusing to deliver the narrow single-issue politics that the mainstreaming gay rights discourse had trained us to expect. It blew my mind and transformed what I thought was possible to say and be. I still think of Leslie every time I give a speech, hoping to build connections like the ones I saw Leslie build.
I read Stone Butch Blues not long after I moved to New York City in 1995. The scenes from that book – scenes of violence as well as scenes of love and finding connection to resistance movements – were burned in my brain, shaping how I understood the city. I still think of scenes from that book each time I enter certain subway stations or walk certain streets. In so many ways, Leslie made maps for queer and trans Left activists that we all continue to use to navigate, whether we know it or not.
Leslie was the opposite of a single-issue activist. Hir experiences of poverty, exploitation and violence fueled a deeply lived understanding of how harmful systems of meaning and control co-constitute each other. Leslie showed us what it looks like to understand our own identities in their complexity – ze participated in resistance movements as someone who was both a targeted person under capitalism and heteropatriarchy, and as someone who took up a position of solidarity as a white Jewish activist dedicated to dismantling white supremacy and standing in solidarity with Palestinians against settler colonialism and apartheid. Leslie showed us throughout hir whole life what it is to be a queer, trans fighter for justice.
My feelings about Leslie’s death, my gratefulness for hir life and the gifts of hir writing and activism, are also deeply wound up with rage about the ravages complex tick-borne diseases have wrought in our communities. So many loved ones have experienced the harms that come from the inadequate research, misdiagnosis, denial of coverage for care, and refusal to treat these diseases. I hope that in our grief we can all rededicate ourselves to fighting for free, accessible health care for all people, and increasing research about Lyme and other tick-borne diseases, and supporting people living with these diseases.
Dean Spade is a professor at Seattle University School of Law, a member of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and author of Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law.
(Editor’s note: If you are unfamiliar with the gender-neutral pronouns used in this post, you can learn more here.)