Leslie Feinberg: The FBI and Gender Pronouns

Today’s post is by Dr. Amanda Weimer, Supervisory Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

In 2022, the National Archives’ Special Access and FOIA Program completed a review of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigative case file 100-HQ-480756 on Leslie Dianne Feinberg (September 1, 1949 – November 15, 2014). Feinberg used the gender pronouns zie/hir and was a self-identified “antiracist, white, secular Jewish, working-class, transgender, butch lesbian female.[1]” Feinberg’s writing laid the foundation for much of the current terminology around gender identity, including such concepts as “gender outlaws,” individuals who transgress externally-enforced gender roles, and “transgender liberation,” a movement striving to achieve full civil and human rights for transgendered persons, whom Feinberg felt to be an expressly political and politicized community.

Serial 2, “Photo of Les Feinberg, taken May 10, 1974,” HQ [Washington DC]-100-480756 [Classification-Domestic Security] [Leslie Feinberg] (NAID 16956399) (FOIA Tracking Number RD 66277); Series: Classification 100 (Domestic Security) Headquarters Case Files (Entry P 186); Record Group 65: Records of the Department of Justice. Federal Bureau of Investigation; National Archives at College Park, MD.

The FBI investigated Feinberg between 1974 and 1976 for hir membership in the New York Branch of the Workers World Party (WWP), a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist organization. The file stated that in 1975 Feinberg wrote articles for the Workers World newspaper, and attended meetings of the WWP and the Center for United Labor Action between 1973 and 1976.  In December 1974, Feinberg participated in a demonstration in Boston, Massachusetts, with the “Emergency Committee for National Mobilization Against Racism” in support of school integration. Zie was arrested in September 1975 at a sit-in at the New York offices of Iberia Airlines sponsored by the Youth Against War and Fascism, Vietnam Veterans Against the War/Winter Soldier Organization, and Women United for Action; this demonstration protested “the fiscal policies of New York State Governor HUGH CAREY who was speaking at the hotel on that date….”

Pronouns referring to Feinberg alternately as “he” or “she” appeared within the file as hir gender presentation evolved. As of January 1974, zie presented as masculine, with a beard and mustache, and some documents referred to Feinberg as “he.” Zie was assigned female at birth, and in April 1974 and March 1976, the FBI noted that Feinberg was then “representing herself as a female.” The file even documents how Feinberg referred to hirself at the time:

“As of June, 1974, the subject was overheard to state that she now hopes to be referred to as she and was no longer wearing a beard and mustache.”  Serial 5, HQ [Washington DC]-100-480756 [Classification-Domestic Security] [Leslie Feinberg] (NAID 16956399) (FOIA Tracking Number RD 66277); Series: Classification 100 (Domestic Security) Headquarters Case Files (Entry P 186); Record Group 65: Records of the Department of Justice. Federal Bureau of Investigation; National Archives at College Park, MD.

Feinberg was careful with word choice, seeing language as “a tool to battle bigotry and brutality,”[2] and pronouns were highly contextual for hir. Zie used he/him when in an explicitly transgendered context, but always used she/her when talking about hir long term partner Minnie Bruce Pratt to center their lesbian relationship. In a 2006 interview, Feinberg pointed out, “I like the gender neutral pronoun “zie/hir” because it makes it impossible to hold on to gender/sex/sexuality assumptions about a person….”[3] I have used those pronouns here. After the close of the FBI file in 1976, Feinberg toured the United States in 1983 and 1984 to raise awareness of the HIV and AIDS epidemic, and created a photographic exhibit, “The Screened-In Series,” a “disability-art class-conscious documentary” of hir Hawley-Green neighborhood of Syracuse, New York, to protest prejudice against transgendered persons in medical treatment.[4]

Feinberg is known for hir books Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman (1996); Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue (1999); and Stone Butch Blues (1993), for which zie won a 1994 American Library Association Stonewall Book Award and a 1994 Lambda Literary Award.[5] Feinberg was honored posthumously in 2019 as one of the fifty inaugural names on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument, for hir work in transgender activism.[6]

FBI file HQ [Washington DC]-100-480756 [Classification-Domestic Security] [Leslie Feinberg] (NAID 16956399) is available for viewing in the National Archives Catalog.  Other records of interest on LGBTQIA+ History are available in the National Archives guide to LGBTQIA+ Issues in Records at the National Archives.

[1] Ben Power Alwin, “Feinberg, Leslie,” in The SAGE Encyclopedia of Trans Studies, 2 vols. (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2021), 252–53, https://doi.org/10.4135/9781544393858.

[2] Feinberg, Leslie. “Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come.” New York: World View Forum, 1992.  p. 5.

[3] Tyroler, Jamie (July 28, 2006). “Transmissions – Interview with Leslie Feinberg”. CampCK.com. Archived from the original on November 23, 2014. https://web.archive.org/web/20141123060911/http://www.campkc.com/campkc-content.php?Page_ID=225 (Accessed May 1, 2023).

[4] Feinberg, Leslie. “The Screened-In Series.”  Flickr.com.  https://www.flickr.com/photos/transgenderwarrior/albums/72157627520720784 (Accessed May 1, 2023).

[5] “LESLIE FEINBERG.” https://www.lesliefeinberg.net/ (Accessed May 1, 2023).

[6] Glasses-Baker, Becca (June 27, 2019). “NATIONAL LGBTQ WALL OF HONOR UNVEILED AT HISTORIC STONEWALL INN.” National LGBTQ Task Force. https://www.thetaskforce.org/nationallgbtqwallofhonortobeunveiled/ (Accessed May 1, 2023).

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