Interview: How Leslie Feinberg’s Personal Research Library came to The SMA

Two months before Leslie Feinberg passed away, she wrote to Ben Power Alwin in an email that she wanted to donate her personal research library to the Sexual Minorities Archive.

In addition, according to a note hanging in the room that now houses Feinberg’s collection, Leslie wrote:

“In the almost half century I’ve spent as an adult, I have never had a single library card. I never had the identification papers necessary in order to get one. I had no access to university libraries.

I sought out books, magazines and other materials. This library was my only access. And so whenever I had to move from one apartment to another – which was frequent in some periods – I sometimes left behind lamps or dishes, but I always took my books.”

We sat down with our executive director and curator of the SMA to learn more about Leslie and the story of how her personal research library arrived at the archive.

When did you first meet Leslie and what was your relationship like with her?

I met Leslie in 1995. Leslie was speaking at Amherst College prior to publication of Transgender Warriors. She was there to give a lecture about transgender history in this big auditorium of about 800 people and almost every seat was filled. I came in dressed in a three piece suit and tie. I was very proud to be dressed like this, going to see Leslie Feinberg for the first time.

The front of the auditorium was very low and Leslie was at the microphone attached to the podium. Since I was late, I was up front trying to find a seat. Leslie stopped her lecture and said to me “Welcome brother. Don’t you look handsome in that suit.” The majority of the audience was cisgender, gay or a lesbian. There was maybe a handful of students there that I could identify as trans folk.

So, that was the first word spoken at me from the person and I never forgot that. I took my seat and listened to this lecture about all these figures in trans history. After the lecture, I went up to the podium because people were meeting Leslie, shaking hands and stuff like that. I introduced myself as the curator of the SMA and Leslie said, “Oh, I know who you are. You belong in my book. I’ll be contacting you very soon about it.” Leslie told me I belonged in history. I had never been recognized like that before.

This was all pre-internet, so we were corresponding via some emails but mostly letters. After going back and forth about the book, I suggested that Leslie come and do a book signing at the SMA when the book comes out. Leslie and Minnie Bruce came, in 1996 when the SMA was located in Northampton, and did readings. Minnie Bruce read some poetry and Leslie read from [Transgender Warriors], Stone Butch Blues and Trans Liberation. We had a spaghetti dinner – just a real cheap thing to pull off since it was a fundraiser for the SMA. That day, in and out over a 6 hour period, I’d estimate we hosted about 300 people.

What pronouns did Leslie use?

There was a selective use of pronouns. Leslie told me that within the trans community, meaning if there was a communication within the trans community or if Leslie was at a conference for trans people or speaking/socializing with trans people then he/him/his was Leslie’s preference. However, most of the time, Leslie was speaking in more public settings like at the Workers World Party, big demonstrations in Washington D.C., to the media etc. In that context, the pronoun preference was “she”, because Leslie did not want to hide the fact that she was assigned female at birth and had that body.

In the general context of speaking to straight people, cisgender people, The Worker’s World party (those larger circles of society where Leslie was present), Leslie didn’t want to pass as a man. Leslie wanted those folks to know.

I had this conversation with Minnie Bruce Pratt after she brought the books when Leslie passed away, about how we should refer to Leslie, and Minnie Bruce said “she/her” traditional spelling. I also think it’s not objectionable to Minnie Bruce or the SMA to spell it “s/he” because that’s the way Minnie Bruce published her book, that’s the title of the book. I also don’t think there’d be any objection in spelling it as “hir” either.

What do you think is an overlooked contribution Leslie has made?

Leslie was on the forefront of organizing allies for people of color, particularly trans people of color. For example, standing with CECE McDonald and being imprisoned near the end of her life when she was less than 100 pounds and very ill. However, she was very quiet about that. She did not want to be in leadership in those efforts but was a fierce ally.

Her contributions could be overlooked, but that needs to be positioned in its proper perspective. Leslie would always, appropriately, say that she’s not here to be in leadership or in a decision-making position in those struggles. Before what is now so well articulated by the Black Lives Matter movement, the process of establishing roles of while ally’s as being listeners, taking instruction, and orders from people of color and black leadership, Leslie was practicing that intuitively and, in my opinion, positioned herself in a very humble way and would often correct people.

I remember one time Minnie-Bruce corrected me because I was going on and on and bragging about how Leslie was on the forefront of supporting freedom of CECE McDonald and Minnie-Bruce said something like  – oh, that wasn’t Leslie. That was people of color.

What is also overlooked about Leslie’s was the genius she had – intellectual genius. She was a self-taught intellectual and, in history, should be looked at as one of the foremost transgender intellectuals. I don’t believe we think in terms of categorizing people as transgender intellectuals yet in the same way we think about gay intellectuals, black intellectuals or, to a lesser extend, lesbian intellectuals.

Leslie described herself as an, “anti-racist, white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female, revolutionary communist.” How would you describe her?

All the above, but I would also add historian, novelist, journalist and honestly, a brother – a trans brother. She was very supportive and loving. Leslie’s whole life was devoted to serving others in the spirit of love, comradeship and solidarity with any people who were oppressed. Leslie was not limiting any of her energy or activism to one community.

What was the most challenging thing about moving Leslie’s personal research Library to the SMA?

I was not so challenging for us as for Minnie Bruce because, after Leslie died, she had to the sorting out and packing up of books. There’s also about 1500 other pieces here. Minnie-Bruce even categorized things very broadly, about a dozen categories, for us when she put everything in boxes. All that took over a year after Leslie passed. In addition, there was the loading up and physical drive out here with over 60 boxes. Physically, I imagine it was challenging and emotionally it must have been challenging for Minnie-Bruce, to handle the books and see all the objects and personal items in the books. I don’t want to speak for her, but I imagine part of the process grieving and remembering Leslie might have been handling the books and delivering them here.

Do you have a favorite book or piece of ephemera from the research library

They’re all really wonderful. The ones that are marked up and have multiple items used as bookmarks are great. About 80% of the books here are like that.

There’s a lesbian anthology of writing that has photographs in it of Leslie Feinberg with Lea DeLaria, shot sometime in the 1990s. The author signed copies are amazing because there’s some giants of queer and trans history who signed books and gave them to Leslie like Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin and others.

Why was the archive donated to the SMA?

This story is important because it’s not that she was dying and thinking – oh where am I going to put my items after I die. In the case of an author, activist or public figure as big as Leslie was, so huge in the imagination and awareness of people, she could have put it in a university library or somewhere like that. I really believe donating her books to the SMA was likely one of the last activism acts that Leslie carried out before her death. And I say that because Leslie wrote to us about why.