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Leslie Feinberg is the author of five books about transgender lives and an activist in the Workers World Party for more than three decades. Hir first book, the groundbreaking novel Stone Butch Blues, won the American Library Association Gay & Lesbian Book Award and the Lambda Literary Award in 1994 and has been translated into six languages. Hir nonfiction books include Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman and Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue. Michele Spring-Moore recently interviewed Feinberg via e-mail about his latest novel, Drag King Dreams.
Q: Unlike your other books, Drag King Dreams seems to require a more advanced knowledge beyond “Transgender for Beginners.” Did you aim the book at trans or queer, or Left or progressive, communities?
A: I write first and foremost for working-class readers. I don’t really aim my writing at any particular audience within the working class as a whole. I wrote this novel so that it could be read on a lot of levels, including by people who have no experience with gender diversity.
Q: Why did you open with a non-verbal assault and follow with a murder? Were you ever afraid of scaring away readers?
A: I didn’t make any early decisions as a writer about where to open the novel. I just developed the characters and their interrelationships. I found two of them – Max and Vickie – on the platform of the PATH train at Journal Square in Jersey City at dawn.
Violence is an ever-present characteristic in gender-variant lives. But violence is something that also impacts on the lives of people of color, women, lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals, and so many other people. So while it’s important for me that violence not be sensationalized or gratuitous, it can’t be avoided. I am not afraid of scaring away readers by telling the truth. But I do think about how hard it is for so many of us who are so scarred by violence to read about it. So in this novel, readers will notice that the violence takes place off the page. However, it is a real part of the story.
Q: Did you model Max after yourself or anyone you know, or is ze a composite?
A: While I create all the characters in my fiction, they are not me or anyone I know. I try to let characters take shape in my head. By the end of the novel they are like new friends from whom I regret having to part.
Q: DKD is politically ambitious, and so much about survival—getting beaten up on the street or in jail, dealing with the murder of a friend, disappearance at the hands of the government, losing kids in a custody battle, being mistreated in the hospital, losing jobs—in ways that used to be relevant to the gay and lesbian movements until recently. How does it feel to be writing about these situations in an era when the mainstream, middle-class, mostly white gay movement has focused on assimilation and inclusion in institutions like the military and legal marriage?
A: I hope readers will discover for themselves that this book is also about survival—friends and co-workers and neighbors extending helping hands to each other, struggling to find new jobs together, chipping in for health care, protesting to defend each other against police brutality and racism. The struggles in this novel are relevant to many in the LGBT movement today. But these issues are not always being raised by those in leading organizations today.
I don’t think of the right to same-sex marriage or the struggle against the internal war against LGBT soldiers within the military as assimilation or inclusion in those institutions. I think of them as struggles against discrimination and brutality against the state. I believe that the real question is how these struggles are posed and who leads them. Will same-sex marriage be the “end” of the struggle for equality, or one more important battle, one of many, that needs to be won? Are we fighting the Pentagon’s policies to expose the character of the U.S. military and build the anti-war movement, or to open rallies with patriotic color-guards and argue that “You don’t have to be straight to shoot straight?”
Q: Without stereotyping, you let readers know who the characters are, but you don’t spell it out on page two. Some writers have handled race by telling readers which characters are white, because it’s always the “invisible” racial identity, just as heterosexuality is the assumed sexual orientation. And how do you portray characters who are Deaf, are HIV positive, or have another disability, without stereotyping?
A: I made a decision with Stone Butch Blues and Drag King Dreams to allow the nationalities, abilities, ages, sexes, genders, and sexualities of the characters to be expressed through interaction. I have also seen how often white writers use the metaphor of “darkness” or “night” as bad and “whiteness” or “light” as good. Drag King Dreams does just the opposite.
Q: For years we’ve heard about the change from an industrial to a “service sector” in the “Global North,” because corporations have set up factories in countries where they can abuse workers and pay them virtually nothing. Most people in wealthier classes in this country probably have a vague picture of people working at McDonalds because the local factory is gone, but very few have any idea how this plays out in the life of a transperson like Max, who has to have a job where ze can use the bathroom and not be harassed or attacked. As the economy goes up and down, is this difficulty in finding work something you’ve seen in your friends’ lives?
A: Unlike some books in which the characters are working class but there is no larger economic context, Drag King Dreams takes place in the heat of the struggle between the two major economic classes in society. Because these trans workers are so marginalized, we see this historic battle taking place as part of the imperial war for empire in the Middle East–an openly brutal form of capitalist “globalization”–in the lives of these low-paid workers who have no health care and no job security, in the lives of immigrant workers trying to scrape together a living, and many other ways that are woven into the story.
These aspects of the class struggle aren’t inserted into the novel; they are an integral part of the lives of these workers, my life, and the lives of all of us. The outsourcing of jobs to countries in which people are paid far less and under much worse conditions is also an integral part of this novel. In Drag King Dreams, I also see the basis for solidarity between people from around the world–not only immigrant workers in the U.S.–that the “war on terror” is trying to tear asunder.
Q: Max becomes friends with two Muslim men in hir neighborhood, one of whom is arrested while defending a group of Latin@ young people from police harassment. What connection were you making between transpeople like Max, who is “used to people staring, but not to being seen,” and Muslims in the U.S. today? Max also comments on the urban landscape– that soldiers aren’t patrolling as they were after 9/11, that Times Square has been “cleaned up.” Were you drawing an analogy between the removal of night people like Max from the “new” Times Square and the U.S. government imprisoning Muslim and Middle Eastern men without charges?
A: In my own work, I don’t make analogies. I find that they often tend to blur the distinct differences that we need to understand about each other’s oppressions in order to build genuine unity. I hope readers of Drag King Dreams will find themselves in a world not unlike their own, in which lived realities reveal their own interconnectedness.