by Leslie Feinberg
EN LESLIE FEINBERG WAS BORN, the doctor declared confidently, “It’s a girl!” According to Feinberg, that was the last time anyone was so sure. A transgender-rights activist who grew up as a butch “drag king” in the factories and gay bars of Buffalo, New York, Feinberg has spent much of his/her life uncovering the subculture described in Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to RuPaul. With clarity and passion, Transgender Warriors weaves Feinberg’s personal history with that of transgender people from around the world.
Feinberg is careful to explain the origins and usage of such terms as crossgender, cross-dressing, transvestite, drag, transsexual, and intersexual. Although double-gender personal pronouns (like s/he) are kept to a minimum, they do underscore (for the sometimes startled reader) what Feinberg calls “a crisis of language and an apparent social contradiction.” To get with the worldview of Transgender Warriors, one would probably be well advised to let go of the bipolar terms “male” and “female” altogether. “There are no pronouns in the English language as complex as I am,” Feinberg explains.
FEINBERG FIRST BECAME AWARE OF other transgender people when s/he heard about famed ’50s transsexual Christine Jorgensen. While the rest of the world joked and sniggered about this “freak,” a young butch in Buffalo exhaled. Jorgensen’s dignity and courage was a lifeline, and Feinberg became determined to find others who were similarly not acceptable to society.
S/he found evidence of multigendered peoples throughout the world, but it was the native societies of this continent that gave Feinberg the first clue. The Two-Spirit tradition was, and still is, honored in native culture. The struggle to resist colonization and genocide included resistance to the colonizer’s efforts to outlaw, punish, and slaughter the TwoSpirits. Feinberg cites Chrystos, the Two-Spirit poet of the Menominee Nation, as well as Wesley Thomas, of the Navajo Nation, who told Feinberg that when he placed gender on a continuum – with female at one end and male at the other – he could identify 49 different genders in between.
Feinberg was fascinated with Joan of Arc. It was Joan’s cross-gender expression, Feinberg contends, not just her cross-dressing, that was so threatening to the Grand Inquisitors. Joan’s crossdressing was rooted in her identity. She may have put on armor to fight the foes of France; but, she declared, “for nothing in the world will I swear not to arm myself and put on a man’s dress.” Two hundred years after Joan, a young Basque, Catalina de Erauso, cross-dressed and accompanied the conquistadors, taking part in the slaughter of many native peoples. De Erauso sought, and won, the pope’s blessing to continue cross-dressing. Of course de Erauso fought on the side of colonialism; so his/her fate was very different from that of Joan, who, although fighting for the French King, was a cross-gendered peasant and, as such, posed a threat to the French ruling class.
Class plays a large part in transgender history and how transgendered people are perceived. Evidence suggests that multigendered societies were communal, based on what Feinberg calls “matrilineal communalism.” Feinberg found that wherever the ruling classes became stronger and wherever class antagonisms deepened, so too did hostility toward transgender, sex-change, intersexu- ality, women, and same-sex love. Before the rise of patriarchy, historical evidence points not just to tolerance but to reverence for those who were different.
The Stonewall Riot in New York of 1969 – when drag queens and queers, many of color, took to the streets to protest constant hassling by police – is but one in a long line of rebellions by transgender folk. Rebecca and Her Daughters were 19th-century peasants in Wales, men dressed as women, who smashed toll gates and barriers collecting money from the poor. At Dijon in 1576, Mere Folle and Her Children, again men dressed as women, humiliated the king’s grand master of streams and forests in Burgundy both for bearing his wife and for destroying, for profit, the forests he was supposed to protect.
“Captain” Alice Clark, a woman, headed a crowd of female and male weavers, dressed as women, in a grain riot, and the Molly Maguires, males dressed as women, dispensed popular justice in Ireland around 1843. This militant peasant tradition resisted and withstood the rise of the church and patriarchal, classbased society. Of course, members of the ruling classes could always expect much less punishment than peasants. Social privilege has always been just that. Queen Christina of Sweden abdicated in 1654 and renamed herself “Count Dohna,” while Henry III of France dressed as an Amazon and encouraged his courtiers to do likewise.
Why, Feinberg asks, is the adoption of men’s clothing by Joan of Arc sometimes dismissed as perfectly natural, since Joan was at war? What did it mean, then, when men donned women’s clothing during the many peasant rebellions? The reader feels Feinberg’s frustration with historians’ unquestioning acceptance of contradictory evidence that buries the legacy of transgender.
FEINBERG HAS A CLEAR UNDERSTANDING of the need of oppressed groups to become allies. S/he has stood arm-inarm with abortion-clinic defenders and recognizes the right of women to have control over their own bodies. Feinberg has had surgery in the past, “reserves the right to do so again,” and makes a compelling argument for the right of transgendered people to transform themselves surgically. I would have welcomed more discussion about the question of altering oneself to fit society’s view of what is beautiful or acceptable. What, I wondered, would happen in a society where there was no gendered appearance standard whatsoever? How would that affect transgender people who wanted to change their sexual expression? There is also no discussion of the very real dangers of some surgery.
Feinberg rejects outright any suggestion that transgender might be a product of oppression. Being forced to pass as someone else is the product of oppression, s/he believes, and the historical evidence of acceptance in many societies around the world appears to back Feinberg up. And while gender studies is often now a part of academic curricula, transpeople have been shunned by many gays, lesbians, and feminists. Femaleborn women (sometimes calling themselves women-born-women) are puzzled, uncomfortable, and sometimes downright enraged by the transgender community. The issues, when they arise, revolve around women’s space, which transpeople are seen as invading; around dress, which is seen as extreme bordering on ridicule; and the fact that a maleto-female cannot possibly know the oppression of being a woman. These are complex issues, and Feinberg, as a feminist, understands where they come from. S/he asks us to imagine why men, in a patriarchal society, might want to submit themselves voluntarily to the ridicule and violence inflicted on women. S/he asks us to examine our concept of women’s space. Is it the way people look that oppresses us or their behavior? Why are some of us unwilling to struggle with transgender folk when we are willing to struggle with racism, anti-Semitism, classism, homophobia, and internalized woman-hating among women? And Feinberg asks that we embrace the transgender community in its entirety. “A timid denial that ‘we’re not all like that’ only serves to weaken the entire fightback movement,” s/he writes. “We can never throw enough people overboard to win approval from our enemies.”
Transgender Warriors is a fascinating history of a people with whom femaleborn women have a lot in common. Feinberg challenges feminism to examine the history of the modern trans movement, to recognize the overlapping populations and goals, and to commit to a unity of purpose that opposes all forms of sex and gender oppression.
|Bending Genders, Blurring Boundaries|
Thousands of women long for August when they can trek out to Michigan and escape the oppression of our male society. The annual Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival offers great music and the opportunity to be free of men and masculine values. For 10 days, women walk around the land naked if they want to and feel perfectly safe. But in this idyllic getaway there have been contradictions. The sexual expression of some lesbian visitors involves the (consensual) use of power and pain. After hot debate, an S&M tent and area was created away from the rest of the festival where such activities might not intrude on other women’s feelings of safety. And some women, it has been noted, walk around the site with dildoes strapped to their naked bodies. A dildo is usually made out of plastic and replicates an erect penis. For several years the transgender community has been demonstrating for inclusion in this scene. The festival operators insisted that only “womyn-born-womyn” were allowed on the land. The trans community persisted, camping outside the main entrance asking for admittance. In August 1995 that permission was granted.