From Bashed to Behind Bars: How Les Feinberg Helped One Trans Woman Fight Back

The activist and author died on Saturday but left behind a powerful legacy of hope.

Les Feinberg. (Photo: Wikipedia/Creative Commons)


Nov 20, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

In the right corner of the photo, taken in April 2012, two palms press against each other, one on either side of a thick piece of prison glass. Facing the camera, on the far side of the glass, is CeCe McDonald, a 23-year-old black transgender woman in an orange jumpsuit. The other hand belongs to Les Feinberg, a 62-year-old trans activist and author. Feinberg took the photo. McDonald flashes a warm smile. Her other hand is held over her heart. Feinberg, who died on Saturday due to complications from late-stage Lyme disease and who preferred the pronouns ze and hir, was one of McDonald's most fervent supporters during her time in jail.

CeCe McDonald (Photo:

At the time the photo was taken, the story of how McDonald ended up in the Hennepin County Public Safety Facility in downtown Minneapolis was just gaining mainstream attention.

At around midnight on June 5, 2011, McDonald and four of her friends were on their way to the store when a group of older white people drinking and smoking cigarettes outside a bar shouted “faggots” as they walked by. "Look at that boy dressed as a girl, tucking his dick in!" one of the women said.

"Excuse me. We are people, and you need to respect us," McDonald yelled back. The yelling turned to fighting and one of the women hit McDonald across the face with a glass. The brawl was bloody and wild, and could have been a scene from Feinberg's 1993 semi-autobiographical novel Stone Butch Blues, which documented numerous chilling episodes of gay bashing.

When McDonald hurried across the street, blood running down her face, the boyfriend of the woman who'd hit her, a man named Dean Schmitz, followed. McDonald pulled a pair of scissors from her purse, and as he lunged toward her, she stabbed him in the chest.

Schmitz died from the wound, and McDonald was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. The following year, she pled guilty to manslaughter, and was sentenced to 41 months in prison. But local activists were adamant, McDonald had been put "on trial for surviving a hate crime."

Countless other transgender people have been attacked or threatened the way McDonald was that night, but many didn't survive. Thursday is Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day that honors the memory of trans people killed in hate crimes. In the past year, 12 trans women have been murdered in the United States. Four were killed in Ohio in the past four months alone. Their killers are rarely caught and the crimes often go unpunished.

McDonald, a popular community activist, had been jumped and beaten up in the street before. She knew just how common and deadly these attacks were when she pulled the scissors out of her bag.

The connection between McDonald, a black transgender woman from Minneapolis, and Feinberg, a middle-aged, Jewish, working-class butch from Buffalo, New York, has roots in decades of solidarity, activism, and organizing among trans people who are targets and victims of violence. Feinberg described these lives for more than 20 years. Stone Butch Blues is the story of a butch named Jess who was forced to wear dresses as a child, but longed for a Davy Crockett hat or a suit and tie.

Jess is brutally punished for her identity from an early age. Throughout the book, which follows her into adulthood, she is sexually assaulted by classmates, arrested and abused by police for wearing men’s clothing, and bashed by a group of men on a New York City subway platform.

But the book also chronicles the joys of butch-femme romance, and the pleasure and sweetness of friendship in the gay and trans community. Factory workers from different backgrounds become unlikely allies and identities shift and evolve throughout characters’ lives. In Stone Butch Blues, Feinberg had written a personal story about common but unsung queer experiences. With gratitude and humility, ze described this driving force behind hir work and life in the novel’s acknowledgements:

A special thanks to the butches, passing women, drag kings and drag queens, FTM brothers and MTF sisters—transsexual and transvestite—who urged me to keep writing, even if one sketch can’t illustrate every life. In loving memory to you, Marsha ‘Pay It No Mind’ Johnson—found floating in the Hudson River on July 4, 1992—and the other Stonewall combatants who gave birth to the modern lesbian and gay movement, and to the many other transgendered human beings whose lives ended in violence.

Stone Butch Blues won the Lambda Literary Prize in 1994. By this time, Feinberg had been a dedicated antiwar and antiracist activist for decades. A strongly identified communist, ze wrote for the Workers World newspaper and became the managing editor there in 1995. Feinberg documented hir changing ideas about gender and identity in two later nonfiction books, Transgender Warriors: Making History and Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue. In an obituary in the Workers World, hir wife, Minnie Bruce Pratt, wrote that Feinberg’s final words were, “Remember me as a revolutionary communist.”

Feinberg dedicated the 20th-anniversary edition of Stone Butch Blues to McDonald. The day before McDonald was scheduled to be transferred from Hennepin County Public Safety Facility to a men’s state prison, where she’d be housed for the remaining 19 months of her sentence, Feinberg was there, joining other protesters outside the jail. During demonstrations, the crowd made enough noise that McDonald could hear them inside as they shouted "Free CeCe" and sang Rihanna’s “We Found Love in a Hopeless Place.”

That night Feinberg was arrested and charged with destruction of property for spray painting "Free CeCe" on the wall of the jail.

Hir statement after the arrest drew clear lines between McDonald’s experience, Trayvon Martin’s death, and an antiblack hate-crime spree in Tulsa, Oklahoma:

As a white, working-class, Jewish, transgender lesbian revolutionary I will not be silent as this injustice continues! I know from the lessons of histories what it means when the state—in a period of capitalist economic crisis—enacts apartheid passbook laws, bounds up and deports immigrant works, and gives a green light to white supremacists, fascist attacks on Black peoples—from Sanford, Florida, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to a courtroom in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The way Feinberg describes it, what happened to McDonald wasn’t random bigotry. The physical violence some transgender people face because of bias or hate is compounded by other dangers—being kicked out of school or home while transitioning, not getting a job because an ID doesn't reflect the correct gender, resorting to sex work for survival, being profiled by police.

Racism, misogyny, colonialism, poverty, and trans- and homophobia are all connected, as Feinberg went to great lengths to point out. But inequality, injustice, and exploitation can unite as often as they divide.

Thanks to the work of dedicated local activists and leaders like Feinberg, actor Laverne Cox, and writer Janet Mock, McDonald's story garnered worldwide attention—graffiti in Brooklyn, banners in Paris, and T-shirts in Chicago demanded that the criminal justice system “Free CeCe.” She was released from prison last January with time served.

When Feinberg showed up in Minneapolis to support McDonald, ze did so knowing how harshly the world punishes difference. And in telling stories of this violence, ze showed how a community, united in art and action, could begin to heal.

“There were times, surrounded by bashers, when I thought I would not live long enough to explain my own life. There were moments when I feared I would not be allowed to live long enough to finish writing this book,” Feinberg wrote of Stone Butch Blues. “But I have. History take note: I did not stand alone!”