To Butch Voices LA conference by Leslie Feinberg

To Butch Voices LA conference

by Leslie Feinberg on Sunday, October 10, 2010 at 5:28am

By Leslie Feinberg

Oct. 8, 2010


[NOTE: This talk can be quoted and reproduced under Creative Commons copyright requiring attribution, no derivatives, and no commercial use.]

I sincerely thank you for recognizing my activist work and writing for the first Butch Voices Lifetime Achievement award at this Southwest regional conference.

As merely one activist in a world of struggle, I dedicate this award to all those who are fighting for economic and social justice–from Phoenix, to Oakland, to the West Bank in historic Palestine–since liberation cannot be won without collective struggle, cemented with unity.

By recognizing a lifetime of work by a revolutionary communist, Butch Voices demonstrates the kind of courage this historical period of economic and social crisis demands.

But before I comment more on this, I want to say something about how illness has affected my own butch voice.

I am very ill right now, from a 30-year undiagnosed Lyme infections and other tick-borne co-infections, which I contracted in the U.S. I’ve been home in a darkened room for most of the last three years.

I’m also in the midst of a very debilitating treatment, which makes writing and reading even more difficult.

I have been able to write group messages: short public updates in cyberspace about how ill I am and why. These personal messages were to let you know that I’m too sick to travel or write or to follow e-mail. I have worked with many activists in the U.S., here and around the world, and I wanted to let them know that a lack of response from me was a sign of disability, not disrespect.

As I’ve written these messages about my individual health, however, I have tried since my 60th birthday last year to write a public statement, in my own voice, about the medical politics surrounding this epidemic, and how those who are oppressed are affected.

But these tick-borne illnesses make analytical reading and writing in the English language an actually painful work space in the brain for me–like writing with symptoms of a severe migraine. Language-driven work is difficult and largely unproductive for me right now.

I have moved much of my work and memory to a different area of the brain: making, developing and printing photographs–narrative images, grouped for greater context. My photos are my personal gift to you, up on flickr.

But weeks ago, in the midst of trying to get work done and preparing to go into this treatment, I awoke during the night and thought: If I don’t write something in my own voice now, then when? I’ve already experienced dramatic loss of abilities, suddenly and gradually, from the illness and the treatments.

If I don’t research and write up something in my own butch voice, then the voice of the bigots and bullies who claim to be experts on my body and my oppression will narrate my life.

This last planned written political statement is entitled, “Casualty of an undeclared war.” I’ll begin serializing it online to share with you all. I hope to begin posting it to MySpace and Facebook soon. Then it will go up on my website.

You can find all my web connections at:

If you introduced me as she or ze, either is correct.  I don’t claim the pronoun he.

I do claim the pronoun “she.” My body is the site of oppression and resistance as female and as a butch lesbian.  There are no borders in my embattled body between the fight against women’s oppression, sexual oppression and trans oppressions.

Taking me out of the category of female skews understanding of the spectra of gender expressions and weakens the struggle for women’s liberation, as well as trans liberation and lesbian/gay/poly sexual liberation.

My life has been shaped by the apparent contradiction between my birth sex and my gender expression. And I’ve been shaped by being a masculine lesbian female who found community, or perhaps more accurately: communities, plural, and together against a common enemy.

I don’t want to romanticize anything about bar life in the pre-Stonewall bars: exploitation by organized crime, police raids, groups of bashers, oceans of alcohol and fights.

I remember one bar and party game in particular: rating butches from 1 to 10 on the aspect of their gender expression that was considered masculine. I do recall how those who played rated the same butch differently, showing difference in individual perceptions about gender expression. I also recall some butches protesting the rating they received, showing that individuals often perceive themselves differently than those around them do.

But mostly, I look back and think about how the game made gender expression a contest over who was the most masculine, like so-called beauty pageants award the most feminine.

Let no one say that anyone is “too masculine” or “not masculine enough” or criticize anyone else’s gender expression. No one’s gender expression is liberated yet.

In the 1960s many thought that being a masculine female was synonymous with being lesbian. That was the societal assumption. So it seemed that the masculine women we worked with in the factories, orchards and fields, who had male-bodied husbands, just hadn’t come out yet.

That underlying assumption skewed understanding about gender variance and sexuality. Gender expression doesn’t determine who you are sexually attracted to or what feels sexually pleasurable for your body.

The assumption on which the game rested, however, was also that being a butch lesbian was a shared identity and had a quality of experience that could be quantitatively measured with the same ruler. The rating helped perpetuate the idea that some peoples’ gender expression was “more” and others’ were “less.”

The real lesson of the game was missed: The 1 to 10 scale didn’t rate “high” and “low,” “more” or “less.” instead, the exercise invited us to examine gender expressions that were considered the same gender expression, and find many degrees of variation.

The assumption of the game implied that gender expression is an essential characteristic that rises above class lines, national boundaries, above the struggle of oppressor and oppressed nations.

It ignored the experiences that were not shared, including racism, male chauvinism, unemployment, disability, and differences between urban and rural tolerance, and class divisions.

Racist segregation was the law of the land in the U.S. at that time, not just in the South. Buffalo, where I lived then, was apartheid segregated–still is. East Buffalo was community to those of African descent–and the banks and politicians used red-lining to create all-white neighborhoods west of Main Street.

Those who came out to the working-class lesbian and gay drag bars defied the racist segregation in public facilities. Although those who came out to the bars were predominantly white, there were also Black, Haudenosaunee, Latino/a workers of all sexes together in the same bars, united against a common enemy who could come through the door at any moment.

Many of butches of different nationalities also worked together all week long at factories, or stood in line at dawn–summer heat or winter cold–talking as we waited for day work outside the temporary labor offices.

The movement grew as we organized resistance to police raids and took up the cry: “Out of the bars and into the streets.” As that fightback intensified, it sparked consciousness and militancy, and forged pride and greater unity.

You honor and continue the coalition character of the struggle with the sensitivity and inclusion you bring to the language of your mission statement, a statement which could only have been hammered out with group labor, and the thought and discussion that work generates.

You describe BUTCH Voices as a social justice organization that is race and gender inclusive, prowomanist and feminist.

Your mission statement explains: “Our mission is to enhance and sustain the well-being of all women, female-bodied, and trans-identified individuals who are masculine of center. We achieve this by providing programs that build community, positive visibility and empower us to advocate for our whole selves inclusive of and beyond our gender identity and sexual orientation. We recognize our diversity as having a foundation rooted in butch heritage. We welcome the on-going development of movements intentionally and critically inclusive of our gender variant community.”

I read with great care and appreciation that you welcome to this conference: “[A]ll who identify as Butch, boi, genderqueer, tomboy, stud, butcha, dragking, jock, dyke, two-spirit, FtM, trans-masculine, androgynous-with-a-butch-twist.”

“Connect with the power of our diverse, many-cultured communities of lesbians, Queer, feminist, womanist … whatever kind of butch you are.”

And you include femmes and other allies in your welcome.

I send you my deepest solidarity in your organizing efforts. This is a time to be bold and bodacious and to act, not to be immobilized by fear.

There are many things that have been won in decades of struggle, but as the experience of Nazi Germany demonstrated, those gains can be quickly wiped out. Bankers and industrialists in Germany funded the rise of fascism as a last ditch effort to save their capitalist system from a workers’ revolution.

Today, neo-fascist organizing by the Tea Party forces is on the rise. Arizona and other states are re-imposing apartheid segregation. ICE agents carry out Gestapo-like raids on undocumented workers, demanding passbooks and tagging workers and families by skin color for interrogation and deportation.

This is racist scapegoating to divert attention from the capitalist economic crisis, in which the rich are getting richer. Immigrant workers don’t steal jobs. There’s no set limit of jobs in a society. Every working person creates the need for more goods and services.

The State Department, Pentagon and pro-war media are trying to create pro-war sentiment in the  LGBT communities, aimed at formerly colonized countries that assert their right to sovereignty, self-determination, and/or a break with the profit-driven capitalist world market.

Meanwhile, the CIA and other U.S. experts in the development of the science of torture have included rape and other forms of violence and attempts at humiliation and assassination of personhood, using prisoners’ sexuality, gender expression and sex, as well as racism. Some of the guards at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo learned their interrogation and torture techniques as guards in prisons in the U.S., where sexual, gender and sex humiliation–like racism–is rampant.

Now, maybe the Pentagon generals and admirals will even drop their “don’t ask, don’t tell” witch hunt long enough to marshal fresh troops to send out to kill other working and oppressed people, or be killed. The Pentagon has no right to so brutally and violently discriminate against GI’s. But that doesn’t mean that the Pentagon is a kinder, gentler killing machine and therefore we should join.

“Big firms get rich, GI’s die.” That’s the first protest message I ever raised my voice to chant.

The left wing of the early LGBT liberation movement in the U.S. during the late 1960s and early 1970s expressed solidarity with all who were struggling against capitalist and imperialist oppression and domination around the world, including in the U.S.

There’s a big economic difference between the period I came out into, in the 1960s, and today.

Then, war for empire was still a boon to capitalist big business. The FBI carried out a covert domestic war of frame-ups and disinformation in an attempt to isolate and break up the struggles for national liberation, the organizing against the Pentagon war in Vietnam, and those uniting to demand women’s and LGBT liberation.

But today, Wall Street and the banks are making a fortune in profit off workers’ labor, while millions are hungry, johless and homeless. Where are the safety-net social programs? Where’s the WPA jobs program? Where’s the neighborhood clinics and food banks?

We’re told there’s no money for life-and-death social programs, but there’s a blank check for endless wars for profit. Yet, today, imperialist war is no longer able to artificially pull the capitalists out of economic crisis, and those who are at ground zero for “shock and awe” invasions, and brutal occupations, are resisting by any means necessary.

The tinder is dry, and sparks of resistance will ignite a conflagration. As the union song demands an answer from each of us: Which side are you on?

Today, I dedicate this award and my solidarity to all who are protesting and organizing–through speech, signing, marching, rolling, tapping, and clicking the send button on an online petition:

–in the struggle for jobs, health care as a right, housing, education,

–to those battling white supremacist ideology–the nationalist ideology of the oppressor nation; to those demanding: stop imperialist wars for profit, and bring all the troops home, now!

–to those defending Muslim, Arab and South Asia immigrants being rounded up, tortured and deported; to those working to stop the racist war against undocumented immigrants and to boycott Arizona.

–to those protesting police occupations of oppressed communities, and the racist police brutality and killings–from 7-year-old Aiyana Jones in Detroit to Oscar Grant in an Oakland BART station.

–to those organizing in defense of anti-war and internationalist solidarity activists who are being harassed by the FBI and are now facing subpoenas to appear before grand juries.

–to those battling misogyny, trans-bashing, gender-phobia and other forms of sex, gender and sexual oppression in a patriarchal-dominated capitalist society, to all those on the front lines in defense of reproductive justice

–to the youth who are struggling for life and consciousness against right-wing  white supremacist, LGBT-bashing, anti-immigrant, woman-hating, and anti-disabled bullying in schools

–to all those struggling to remove obstacles to social and economic access that create disability

–to those who have the courage to refuse to kneel in surrender and pledge an oath of anti-communism to prove loyalty to the emperors of banking and industry and their imperial wars.

–and to the anti-capitalist Abolitionists, revolutionists who work to overturn this profit-driven, divide-and-conquer system of private ownership of all that collective labor has built over millennia, and to replace capitalism–in which abundance creates widespread poverty–with collective ownership of production and a planned economy in which people can contribute to society what they are able, and receive in return what they need and want.

Many battles lie between us and liberation. I am with you at every barricade, at every front line.


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