Leslie Feinberg, celebrated transgender author and inspiration to thousands of young queer individuals including myself, was arrested June 4 after protesting the prison sentence handed down to Chrishuan "CeCe" McDonald, a transgender woman of color. Feinberg marched with hundreds of other protesters but was the only person detained by the police. Zhe (Feinberg prefers the pronouns "zhe" and "hir" to "he," "she," "him," and "her") is being held on charges of property damage.
Supporters of McDonald, including Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon, accuse the justice system of prejudice based on gender identity, despite the transgender woman's guilty plea. McDonald evidently pulled out a pair of scissors and defended herself against a man sporting a Swastika and spewing racial and gendered slurs. The man died in hospital due to a wound in his chest.
Feinberg's first novel, Stone Butch Blues, was published in 1993, and won the Stonewall Book Award in 1994. The book was soon hailed as a groundbreaking work on gender and entered the mainstream, being widely taught at colleges and universities. The novel is fictional, but realistically portrays life as a young butch in the 1970s and 80s. Depicted events include transgender persons being hauled out of a bar by police simply because of their gender-queer clothes and behavior.
I read Stone Butch Blues in my late teens and found in Jess, the transgender subject, a character with whom I could deeply sympathize. The gender confusion, the journey toward self-awareness, and the struggle against public hate and bigotry were all eerily familiar. But the parts about police brutality were horrifying to me. The authorities who should have protected someone like Jess and allowed her to live freely in whatever form of gender she chose were instead threatening and harassing her.
I have a few older transgender friends who are utterly terrified of any contact with the police. They'd rather bleed to death than call 911 for help. Sometimes this attitude backfired with fear leading to suspicion and aggression on all sides when police did become involved. I, on the other hand, had always felt grateful for the comparatively progressive decade in which I was born. I transitioned in 2008, at the age of 23, from female to male, and had a baby as a transgender man last year. I breastfeed my boy when he needs it in public, mostly without incident. I try to watch out for potentially dangerous situations but I don't worry too much, and I usually keep my cell phone handy in case I do need help. I assume that someone will answer the call.
And now I'm seeing that I shouldn't be so naive. McDonald's experience seems to show that being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time can somehow turn someone who very much appears to be a black, transgender victim and survivor of a hate crime into a criminal. Leslie Feinberg, whose life as an activist and author has given me such strength and courage, is suddenly living scenes from hir own book for lending hir support. I can only hope that the more the public hears of these cases of injustice, the sooner things will change for the better.