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News :: GLBT/Queer
Leslie Feinberg: 'We have to struggle!'
28 Apr 2005
The following is Leslie Feinberg's speech to the April 21, 2005, Fort Collins, Colorado "Take Back the Night" rally.
***For more information about Leslie Feinberg see:***

Leslie Feinberg speaks out to Take Back the Night

[The following is Leslie Feinberg's speech to the April 21, 2005, Fort Collins, Colorado "Take Back the Night" rally.]


On April 26, 2001, librarians at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library discovered a copy of my book, "Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue," stuffed under the stacks. Someone had used a knife or razor blade to mutilate the photo of me on the front cover, gouging out my eyes and my mouth. The inside pages of the book were deeply slashed.

The staff found other books that had been badly damaged as well. Almost all of them were books that speak out about women's sexuality and self-representation, lesbian and gay lives, and the AIDS epidemic. Rather than throw the books away, the staff librarian and manager of the Gay and Lesbian Center, and a local book artist, issued a public call to create works of art from what was left of the books.

Artist Percy Wise chose my book. He transformed the sightless, voiceless photo of me on the cover of "Trans Liberation," and the deeply sliced pages, into a work of painfully strong art that inspires resistance and healing. He sewed the pages back together with colorful tiny yarn hand stitches. Percy Wise explained, "It was not my intent to try to cover up the vandalism, but to mend certain parts and keep alive the haunted aspect that hate crimes produce."

Rape and beatings have left me as deeply wounded as my book. I am a survivor of sexual/gender violence. And the razor-edged threat of that violence continues to follow me wherever I go. So the question for me, as for every other individual here who is a survivor of sexual/gender violence, or racist violence, or beatings because we are lesbian, gay, bi or trans, or immigrant bashing, or police violence is how to heal those wounds and still keep alive and visible and audible our struggles against this brutality.

Uniting, as we are here tonight, is the first step in overcoming fear. And, by coming together, we see that what we've endured is not our own individual problem, no matter how many people have tried to put the burden of guilt on us in an attempt to "blame the victim." This widespread violence driven by bigotry is a social problem that requires a large-scale, collective solution.

And, as the late African-American warrior Audre Lorde wrote so eloquently, "When we dare to use our strength in the service of our vision, it matters less and less whether we are afraid."

So it is a great honor for me that the Colorado Feminist Alliance invited me to keynote this year's Take Back the Night.

The theme of the event -- "From the Personal to the Political: Strengthening Our Efforts to End Sexual and Physical Violence in Our Communities, Our Culture, and the World" -- speaks to every nerve and fiber of my struggle against the violence aimed at women, at people of color, at queer lives, at immigrant lives, at the lives of women and men around the world who will not knuckle under to the imperial empire.

On the CFA website, the talk I was scheduled to deliver last night was described as follows: "Zhe will speak about the concepts of transgender, the relationship of groups who are oppressed and discriminated against to each other, and where trans liberation and ending sexual assault fit in the overall political climate and progressive movement
we face today."

However, as many of you here know, it took a struggle for me to get here.

I had to stand up to the Colorado State University administration. They tried to compel me, a survivor of violence, to agree contractually that I was legally and financially responsible for any injuries or damages at this event. They said I had to have $1 million worth of liability insurance. They said they'd only waive the liability insurance if I told them in advance what I was going to speak about, and if I offered a list of other campuses at which I'd spoken.

When I said no, the University not only refused to pay my honorarium, they would not pay for my airfare. I had to buy my own plane ticket to travel thousands of miles to get here tonight in order to speak out in my own clear, strong voice.

I am here speaking out in Coors country.

I am speaking out in the state that passed the vicious anti-LGBT Amendment 2 legislation.

I am speaking out in Fort Collins, where right-wing fraternity bigots on a homecoming parade float mocked Matthew Shepard's lynching while Matthew lay dying in a nearby hospital room.

But because I dare to use my strength in the service of my political vision, I am not afraid to speak out tonight to remind all who are listening, friend and foe alike, that we organized a tenacious Coors boycott that forced the patriarchs of that beer empire to come to the table and negotiate with their unionized workers. After Amendment 2 passed, we joined you all in building a national boycott of Colorado tourism that hurt the profits of big business here so deeply that their courts overturned the hated legislation.

And together with hundreds of thousands of people of all nationalities and walks of life and ages and sexes and genders and abilities, we raised Matthew Shepard's life, and death, to international attention.

Matthew, you will never be forgotten.

When we unite we are a powerful force.

We are strong here tonight because we would not be intimidated about speaking out about sexual/gender violence.

And I have here in my hands messages of support to the Colorado Feminist Alliance and to me and to all of you tonight from people across the United States, from Canada, Hawaii, Australia and Italy. People all over the world are listening carefully to this rally tonight.

They are determined that I will not be silenced.

They are determined that each of you will not be silenced.

I am speaking out in the state where undocumented workers -- women and men -- are silenced by being driven underground by the imposition of an illegal status, and by racist "English only" bills. The so-called "Real ID Act" now facing passage in Congress will have a chilling impact on immigrant lives, on trans lives and on domestic abuse survivors. The legislation will strip immigrants of their driver's license which allows them to drive, to have the ID necessary to buy a train ticket or fly on a plane, to cash a check.

My life is connected with a thousand threads to the struggle of immigrant workers. If, for example, the "Real ID Act" passes successfully, then I as a trans person will also lose my driver's license because the sex on my Social Security card doesn't match the sex on my current license, a discrepancy punishable by jail time, as well and so will many other trans people.

For survivors of domestic abuse, the new identification means that their batterers would be able to find them more easily, because the new identification requires the listing of primary residence.

But remember the struggle of South African women and men, girls and boys, who fought the passbook laws under apartheid they fought and they won. Together, so can we. The links between our struggles are so eloquently described in the many letters of support for my speaking at this event.

One email reports that University of Colorado administrators and the state attorney's office have consulted about dismissing court cases of rape by members of the school's football team. Yet, the message points out, at the same time it is Professor Ward Churchill, also at the U of C, who faces loss of his job. And, the message concludes, guess who is a major donor of the university? Coors.

I am speaking in the state in which young women at the Air Force Academy have charged that the brass have covered up widespread sexual violence there.

At the same time, we are asked to accept that the liberation of women is the objective of Pentagon-led wars for empire, which are bringing violence and death and injury and destruction to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Pentagon is no force for women's liberation. It is a weapon for violent domination.

That is why sexual and gender violence is rampant at Abu Ghraib and other U.S. prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. That is why rapes by U.S. troops of Iraqi women and men, girls and boys, have come to light. That is why we are hearing reports of how many rapes of women GIs by other U.S. troops are taking place, as well.

I do not believe that we can end violence by talking about it in the abstract. Nor do I equate the brutality of the oppressor with the resistance of the oppressed.

The fist of the rapist is violence, and the fist of the person fighting for their life is self-defense.

The imperial occupation of Iraq and theft of its wealth is violence, and the fist of the insurgent movement supported by the women and men of Iraq to oust the colonizers -- is self-defense and self-determination.

And to those who say, "Don't you care about the troops?" I say "Yes, those of us who care about them are the ones who are demanding, 'Bring the troops home, now!'"

Not every woman is on the same side of the issue of violence.

This is a historical moment in which the new would-be emperors include women, like Madeleine Albright, another recent visitor speaking here in Colorado. Albright has said publicly that the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi children as a result of the violent U.S.-led economic strangulation of Iraq were "worth it."

During the Vietnam War, I was not on the campuses. I was working as a young butch lesbian in the factories. But I know that there were bans on speech imposed on the campuses. Those bans did not stop the war hawks from speaking out. The bans were put in place to silence the anti-war movement.

However, the 1960s Berkeley Free Speech movement was a spark that helped ignite the anti-Vietnam War movement.

Today, the war rages in Iraq. And a growing movement is mobilizing on campuses to speak out against the war and to counter Pentagon recruitment. Police recently brutalized New York City students who showed up to demonstrate against recruiters on campus.

This is our struggle as women against violence, too.

The mechanism for a mass military conscription, "the draft," is almost in place. The dragnet of the draft will dragoon women and men into a military machine in which many will be given only two choices: kill or be killed.

Just as we cannot end violence by talking about it in the abstract, we cannot end attempts to silence us by talking in generalities about "free speech."

The right-wing is trying to use that slogan as a banner to whip up racism, to attack women's reproductive rights, to threaten LGBT student lives and to silence any dissent against the war and occupation.

We have to be able to say, "Whose freedom of speech are we struggling for?"

The war lords who rule, from the White House to the Congress, don't need to fight to be heard. They have Fox News and CNN and print media and radio. It's the anti-war movement that has to struggle to be heard. In a misogynist society it is not the women haters who have to struggle to be heard. It is women. In a sex-binary society in which there are only two doors, labeled with stick figures of male and female, it is trans and intersexual voices that struggle to be heard.

When Arab and Muslim and South Asian people are being rounded up, it's not those who are disappearing them who have to fight to be heard. It's those who are being interned without lawyers and without rights.

The Klan argues that their terror organization, hooded death squads with a history of white supremacist lynchings, deserves full freedom of speech. But this is a society in which racism already rules. It is those who are battling racism who have to struggle to be heard.

We need to defend progressive speech as part of defending our lives. We need to defend radical dissent and organizing. We need events like this Take Back the Night that are independent of the power structure that seeks to silence us.

We need to take to the streets and the quads and raise our voices together to be heard.

And it is the voices of the most downtrodden, the most disenfranchised and the most tyrannized that will provide great leadership.

We cannot build the movement for the liberation of women, lesbians and gays, bisexual, transsexual, transgender and intersexual people in isolation.

Just as we are strengthening ourselves by gathering here tonight to unite together, we will be stronger when we unite with others who are up against institutionalized violence like poverty, sexual inequality, racism, war, political repression.

We have to struggle. There's no way around that.

The great advocate of women's rights, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, summed it up so beautifully and so succinctly in 1857 that his words ring clear and true to us today:

"If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess freedom and yet deprecate agitation are people who want crops without plowing the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will."

Together, in struggle, we don't have to live our lives in fear.

Together, we can take back the night -- and the day!

-- 30 --

Leslie Feinberg is an activist and author, managing Editor for Workers World newspaper ( and a member of the National Writers Union-UAW, ( See for more information about Feinberg.

-- END --
See also:

This work is in the public domain
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