Why is there prejudice against trans and gender nonconforming people? When did it start? Where did it start? How did it start? These are questions Leslie Feinberg sets out to answer in Transgender Warriors: From Joan of Arc to RuPaul in a world that largely takes sexism, cissexism, heterosexism, transphobia, homophobia, and similar forms of institutional subjection for granted.
For the purposes of this analysis Feinberg utilizes the broadest definition of transgender possible in embracing the word as an umbrella term that covers anyone who transgresses gender lines. This includes groups as diverse as, “transsexuals, transgenders, transvestites, transgenderists, bidgenders, drag queen, drag kings, cross-dresser, masculine women, feminine men, intersexuals (people referred to in the past as “hermaphrodites”), androgynes, cross-genders, shape-shifters, passing women, passing men, gender-benders, gender-blenders, bearded women, and women bodybuilders who have crossed the line of what is considered socially acceptable for a female body.” Some of these words have gone largely out of use, others have been redefined, and entirely new words have been added since Transgender Warriors was written in 1996. Many of the aforementioned terms, including intersex, have even experienced contested belongings under any of kind trans umbrella whatsoever in recent decades. While these rapid language shifts may be confusing at times, these changes are actually a positive sign. The fact our language on gender is changing at all means people are actually talking about these issues and it is having an impact. Plus Feinberg’s technique of using the term transgender in the most inclusive possible can still be useful for emphasizing how the issues gender transgressors from drag queens to intersexuals face on a daily basis are interconnected. After all none of us are free until all of us are free.
Feinberg also makes a significant contribution to anti-imperialist struggles with a compelling examination the connections between the rise of class divided societies, patriarchy, and the rise of European imperialism. Coming from an explicitly anti-racist, Marxist position, Feinberg avoids analyzing cultures they do not belong to and instead focuses on the central role the emergence of class divided societies and European colonialism have had in the development of prejudice against trans people. An example of this can be found in how colonizers forced their binary gender system on native cultures who recognized more than two genders. In fact not only were gender variant people not oppressed, they were revered and played important roles in their communities. There is also evidence this was also the case in Europe at one time in the far distant past. However all of that changed in the transition from matrilineal, egalitarian, communal societies in which resources are shared to patrilineal, class divided societies in which the majority of the wealth is consolidated among small groups of powerful men through means of inheritance from fathers to sons, private land ownership, and exploitative rent collecting practices that serve to direct wealth away from the lower classes. Such a system also necessitated a rigid gender divide and eventually evolved into the forms of patriarchy, racism, classism, imperialism, homophobia, and transphobia that we know today. This new way of viewing history also implications for how live and seek change in the present.
In the interest of praxis Feinberg and connecting theory to lived experience Feinberg also makes connections between the historical research and her own lived experiences as a “anti-racist white, working class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female revolutionary communist.” These insights help to ground all of the historical theories covered in their meanings for the present context and brings the reader into Feinberg’s vision for a future free of oppression, a future in which everyone has access to their own history and is honored in their gender.
In the end I would recommend this well-crafted and well-researched book for anyone interested in trans history and social justice. In particular I would recommend to anyone who is gender transgressive and wrestling with the questions Feinberg poses. There is nothing as powerful as knowing one’s own history. Once any subjugated people realizes their marginalization is not an inevitable, ahistorical fact of life that has existed for all times and in all places, and can actually be changed in the present there is no going back.