Leslie Feinberg’s Country

Leslie Feinberg is a monumental figure in trans liberation. Ze was, in fact, the person who wrote the book Transgender Liberation, and also Transgender Warriors, and then Trans Liberation, a little later on; the very notion of people being transgender as opposed to transsexual, of having complex gender identities they express through presentation, rather than binary “sexes” that can be conferred or “reassigned” by medicine alone, can largely be traced back to Feinberg’s work.

Hir novel Stone Butch Blues, about a trans butch living in pre-Stonewall New York, is a cornerstone of the canon. Quotes float around social media every few months, all eerily prescient about the gender debates of the day.

I had no idea how to be trans upstate, but the fact of Feinberg proved that my life was possible.

Ze was a good neighbor to have, especially when I realized — as I did, a few months into isolation — that my feelings of being disconnected from binary gender, which I had disguised as political critiques for most of my life, might be a lot more personal and physical than I wanted to admit. I had no idea how to be trans upstate, and no local community to reach out to, but the fact of Feinberg proved that my life was possible. In the first jittery months of transition, when every trip to Wegman’s felt like an invitation for someone to run me over with a mid-sized sedan in the parking lot, it felt massively important to know that Leslie Feinberg had walked over this blacktop and survived.

But ze didn’t. Feinberg’s photos of Syracuse went on display last week at ArtRage, a local gallery. The exhibit, put together by Feinberg’s spouse Minnie Bruce Pratt, is available online — everything has to be, these days — and the subject, as you learn immediately, is the isolation of long illness. Feinberg was extremely sick with complications from Lyme disease while in Syracuse, and lived here only six years before dying in 2014. Though hir photos document the life of the city — evictions, construction workers, some poor bastard trying to make it to Walgreens through an Arctic landscape — the first thing you notice is that they’re all taken from above, through the screened window of an apartment.

Feinberg felt dislocated in Syracuse, too. Ze moved here to be with Pratt, who taught at the University of Syracuse, and ze did it only after concluding that ze was unable to live alone. Feinberg had lived in or around New York City for nearly thirty years, and leaving involved a deeper-than-usual kind of grief. In one of the notes appended to the exhibit, Feinberg explains that ze had aphantasia, an inability to create mental pictures or form visual memories. Leaving the city meant forgetting what it looked like — never seeing home again.

I have a copy of New York in my head, even when I can’t visit. I know the way the skyline looked from the ferry as I drank bad beer with an ex-boyfriend, or the way fallen cherry blossoms paved the sidewalks at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, like a landfill made of cotton candy. I remember the moment I saw my first waterbug, scuttling across the linoleum floor of my Queens apartment, so big that I saw daylight between its belly and the floor. For Feinberg, the loss of the city was total, “like an impending hard drive crash.” When ze left home, that home disappeared.

Feinberg was too sick to write, for much of hir time in Syracuse, and left the house only once or twice a week, for brief walks. Ze worked with what ze had: Hir home with Pratt, and a camera, and a determination to create new visual memories. It’s a scenario that feels equal parts bedridden Proust and Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window.

My first reaction to learning all this was panic. I had premised my entire ability to exist in this town on Feinberg’s thriving. If it turned out that ze hated it here, then I was fucked. The selfishness of that reaction became more obvious the longer I sat with it. Sure, my fantasy of Leslie Feinberg was off-base, but my reality — sitting at home, in a town I didn’t know, limited and constrained by sickness, looking for a community I didn’t know how to reach — was evidently pretty close to the experience of Syracuse that Leslie Feinberg had.

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