Photo credit: Leslie Feinberg
I’ll always recall what I was thinking of when I heard that Leslie Feinberg had died. Because, coincidentally enough, I was thinking about her partner of 22 years, Minnie Bruce Pratt. I had just finished commenting on a friend’s blog post. A fellow femme, Jen Cross, wrote quite eloquently and brazenly about her “fury around queermasculine privilege” (please go read it and comment!). After commenting, I hopped over to Facebook to share it there. As soon as I hit “post,” I saw the first mention about Leslie’ death in my feed. And within two minutes, ten of my friends had shared the obit that Minnie Bruce and Leslie’s chosen family had so lovingly penned. Thirty seconds later I was closing my laptop. It was too much. I’m not one who enjoys having an internet presence and so I’ve never actually seen something go viral before. I’m usually a few days (or months) late to the party. So it felt overwhelming to watch this tragic news pour in so quickly.
I went outside to rake up rain-soaked leaves from my front yard. Every week I do the same thing this time of year and every week, my yard is covered again the very next day. A thankless and seemingly unending chore that often goes unnoticed, it’s precisely the type of work that I love. I don’t do it because I’m looking to get thanked nor do I need anyone to notice. I do it because it needs to be done. And I enjoy how it gets me out of my head a bit and more into my body while acting as a form of meditation. But that evening I couldn’t get out of my head. Beads of sweat mixed with tears streaming down my cheeks, salting my lips. I couldn’t stop thinking about Minnie Bruce. I had originally been thinking about her because Jen’s blog brought to mind the idea of how femmes often take up thankless and seemingly unending chores that go unnoticed. I thought about how Leslie (rightfully and thankfully) received great notoriety in our communities, but Minnie Bruce’s comparable efforts, though certainly not unsung, have not been held in quite as high of esteem. I questioned why femmes aren’t properly valued, supported, and given the amount of respect they deserve by our communities.
In the few days that have passed since Leslie’s death, I have struggled with writing and rewriting this post. I still feel like I haven’t done justice to what I’m trying to get at, but the time has come to just put it out there in the world. I’ve posed many questions because I see this as an ongoing dialogue — I’m questioning our communities, the world at large, and also myself. So many friends and strangers who are all part of this larger community have shared beautiful tributes to Leslie — they’ve said just about everything I could and so much more that I couldn’t. So instead of focusing primarily on Leslie, I’m choosing to write about hir partner, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and also about the struggle — both being so near and dear to Leslie’s heart (though certainly in very different ways). In the acknowledgements of Stone Butch Blues, Leslie bestowed praise upon the femmes in hir life, stating, “…[I]f I couldn’t take criticism from a femme I wouldn’t be here today telling this story!” Leslie was an activist through and through and I can only imagine that zie would appreciate this slightly different take on an homage, in my desire to honor hir brilliant, proud femme.
Searching the internet, I click on a photo of the two of them, each holding a political banner. Leslie is named. Minnie Bruce is not. I google Lyme, another part of the picture, and I find so much conflicting and often times blatantly wrong information. As I reflect on today being Transgender Day of Remembrance, I can’t even bring myself to search out the number of trans women (the majority of whom are POC) who have been murdered this past year. This post began in my head as a tribute to one of my powerful femme role models. But how can I talk about femme without other bits of intersectionality creeping in? Ablism, racism, transphobia, femmephobia, misogyny…the list goes on and on…and it’s all connected. (It pains me that I can’t do any one of them justice.) If only we could do better by our people. How can we do better by our people? (And, perhaps, people who do not feel like our people, but in actuality really are.) What would a world look like where no one got left behind?
I want to voice something clearly that hasn’t been addressed nearly enough in all the coverage and responses to Leslie’ death. Leslie Feinberg died because of Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. Late stage Lyme is something no one should have to suffer, yet it all too frequently isn’t recognized by the medical community (who, at large, is terribly misinformed about Lyme and other co-infections). Leslie didn’t have to die from these diseases. Zie should have had access to medical care that could’ve helped hir at least fight off infections. Although I do not know the exact details of how Leslie died, I know all too well the stories of how insurance companies across the board deny chronic Lyme even exists in order to not have to shell out money to treat it. Unless one is incredibly wealthy, it is basically impossible to be treated for Lyme in this country. As a chronically ill person myself, I’m quite familiar with how challenging it is to be partnered to someone with chronic illness. I feel that our health care system (or rather, lack thereof) is completely reprehensible and downright shameful, particularly where it concerns (or prefers not to concern itself with) Lyme disease. There also aren’t sufficient outlets and support for those who care for their disabled lovers and who, albeit indirectly, also have to endure the effects.
I’m grateful that Leslie no longer has to endure those pains and I’m deeply saddened that our communities have lost such a commendable soul so unnecessarily early. But most of all, I feel for Minnie Bruce who has lost her partner and, yes, gets to go on living, but with a pain that is unimaginable to most of us. My chest seizes up at the thought. They had been together longer than I have been out of the closet. I’m 36 now and at fifteen, I had come to terms with being queer, but I didn’t know where to look to for role models. I was fortunate enough to have found them in this beautiful couple only a few short years later. Even then, as I grew into my queer identity, I couldn’t have fathomed a queer couple so dedicated to one another. And today I feel consumed by a rising tide of grief when I think of what the loss of Leslie must feel like to Minnie Bruce.
So I’m writing to honor the life of one of our greats by honoring hir femme, one who is still with us, who is still here to fight the good fight. It’s necessary and right to pay our respects to the recently (and not-so-recently) departed. But let’s not forget the living. Let’s honor our femmes. Let’s respect our trans women. Let’s battle racism. Let’s fight for our Lymies. Let’s have an impact on all the isms and phobias everywhere from a local to a global scale. Let’s question why essential members of our communities — trans women, POCs, femmes, and Lymies alike — aren’t getting the airtime they deserve. And then let’s do something out of our ordinary, go out of our way, step outside of our comfort zones, and do our best to right the wrongs both small and significant. Let’s live the example laid forth in both Minnie Bruce and Leslie’s own fierce feminist and activist politics.
Although it is not largely my personal experience, I bear witness to (and am weighed down by) the historical fact that more feminine-presenting folks have lived in the shadows of their more masculine-presenting counterparts and partners. Which is not to say that femmes haven’t ever achieved success or fame — of course they have — just not across the board or even individually to the extent that butches have. In my own community, on a much smaller level, I see how events supporting more masculine-presenting folks are more well-attended than those supporting feminine-presenting folks. With the one great exception being at burlesque-type shows where femmes take their clothes off. And I wonder, what’s this all about? What are we doing if we’re not supporting our own locally? If we’re not taking care of our own locally, how can we possibly put efforts toward effecting change on a global scale?
My heart keeps returning to Minnie Bruce. This femme, this living legend, this strong woman whose efforts have been life-changing for me. While Stone Butch Blues opened my eyes to another world, Minnie Bruce’s S/HE broke my own world wide open. The way Minnie Bruce wrote about femme, having lived it, breathing it into reality, she was the first I ever read that made femme make sense for me. She survives the death of her partner and she has survived so much. In the tellings of her tales, she thwarts misogyny, she brings light to the notion that femmeness deserves to be revered, and she offers so many of us another way. Minnie Bruce teaches us that there is something sacred in our re-owning of femininity, in queering it and turning it on its head. She weaves poetry and erotica into her prose. Her poetry reads like a squeezing inside my chest. I cannot tell you how many femme hands (and those of a few good butches) have turned the pages of my well-worn copies of her works, committing lines to memory that I underlined with my pink pencil back in the 90s.
I first read Stone Butch Blues in my late teens, just after having read S/HE for the first time — my favorite book of Minnie Bruce’s to which I have returned again and again through the years. I had barely begun to inch my way towards my femme identity. Hadn’t yet quite realized that queered masculinity was the epitome of my sexual desire. Yet both books resonated deeply with me. And when I heard Leslie would be speaking at my then girlfriend’s university, I was there, with my book in hand. Only once I spotted Minnie Bruce in the crowd did my heart sink — I had left my copy of S/HE at home, not having thought of the possibility of her being there. I was too shy to go up to her. Had I had my book, I could’ve hid behind wanting an autograph, though I longed to glean so much more from her. The femme I’ve grown into today wouldn’t dare miss such an opportunity, no matter how much my hands would shake and voice quiver. But I watched her quietly from the sidelines.
That evening I witnessed how Minnie Bruce supported her partner as zie was bathed in limelight. She watched on lovingly as the young queers all surrounded Leslie, butches-in-training longing for a firm handshake, baby femmes just wanting to be near hir, the rest of us looking for an autograph or a word of advice that would make the senselessness of a cruel world all make sense. Or at least make it more tolerable. It wasn’t until the throngs began to skim down that Minnie Bruce took her rightful place at Leslie’s side. And I took them in. The subtlety of their interactions that would be my root for butch/femme dynamics. I so deeply respected how Leslie sang Minnie Bruce’s praises, even though everyone was there to see hir. But I don’t claim to know what their everyday life was like, how misogyny affected them, how each of them felt about the fact that Leslie’s works received more attention than Minnie Bruce’s. I keep wondering if perhaps Minnie Bruce is much like me — introverted to the point of being uncomfortable in even the slightest shimmer of limelight and someone who prefers to play a supporting role — but somehow I doubt that’s the whole story. I keep coming back to her literary career. Why aren’t her books as well read in our communities?
I like to think that our much treasured fallen hero, Leslie Feinberg, is smiling at the fact that I’m paying homage to hir by honoring the femme who stood so proudly by her side, the equally heroic Minnie Bruce Pratt. A brilliant writer whose works still have yet to receive the laurels they deserve, an activist whose efforts haven’t been heralded, a femme whose chores are often thankless, go unnoticed, and are unending. The partner to Leslie who, in ways little and large, made it possible for Leslie to be the writer and activist we all hold in such high regard.
There’s this beautiful line in S/HE likening butch/femme lovers to a pestle grinding against mortar that I wish I could quote but, naturally, my copy is loaned out to my femmily and I’ve had no luck with googling it. So instead I’ll share a quote from the book that I found on Minnie Bruce’s webpage that she calls “Kisses (for Leslie)”: “I have waited years for you who wants to flaunt me on her arm, my face radiant with desire, as if I’d put my face deep into a lily, heavy with pollen, and raised it to you, smeared and smelly with butter yellow, sated but not yet satisfied, our meal not yet finished as I cling to you in the aisle of the dilapidated diner.”
Here’s to unfinished meals.
Photo credit: Robert Giard
Minnie Bruce, I see you, I pay tribute to all you’ve accomplished and continue to accomplish in this lifetime, and I’m grateful. Thank you for teaching me how to handle myself with well-meaning strangers when they misgender my lovers. Thank you for your examples of love between femmes and loving ourselves as femme so that we could love our butches more thoroughly. Thank you for being a role model of not only powerful femme, but also successful butch/femme relationships. Thank you for paving the way for all the femmes who have followed, and will continue to follow, in your high heeled footsteps. (Until we ditch the heels and just go barefoot.) We were in desperate need of you back then and we continue to look to you today, more confident in our own femmeness because of the beautiful femme you are.
Leslie, may you rest in power and in peace. Thank you for all you gave us in an exemplary life that was cut much too short. Minnie Bruce, may you live and thrive and grieve and heal and continue to flourish as an inspiration to us all.