While a Hostile Relative Re-writes My Life
Author: Leslie Feinberg
January 19, 2011
‘Who is, and is not, my family’
In autumn 2010, Knopf published a “transgender” themed young adult novel. The author, Catherine Ryan Hyde, is an estranged relative of mine.
The analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Hyde’s young adult fiction novel will come from those who are living the identities, and oppressions to which she has applied her imagination.
However, as part of the media coverage and publicity tour for the release of the young adult novel, Hyde claims much of her expertise and authority for writing her “transgender”-themed young adult novel as based on my life and identity.
The author is a relative with an axe to grind. When she claims me as kin in order to counter-narrate my life, I am forced to get up out of a sick bed in order to respond in writing.
Since I became acutely ill in October 2007, it has been very hard for me to write, or to speak. So it is opportunistic and unconscionable that a hostile relative would take this opportunity to re-tell my life in a way that changes my sex, mis-describes my gender expression, and closets my sexuality. Hyde also attempts to silence me politically as a revolutionary, reasserts the dominant legal control of the biological family, and ignores and disrespects my chosen family.
My verbal and written request for no further contact has been violated by my relatives numerous times over the last forty years. So I do not rely on them to respect my wishes. Instead, I have clarified and strengthened my legal papers, and I am making this statement public: My living biological relatives—Irving David Feinberg, Betty Vance Hyde, and Catherine Ryan Hyde—are not my family. They do not speak for me.
The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) defines “family” as: “The person(s) who plays a significant role in the individual’s [patient’s] life. This may include a person(s) not legally related to the individual.”
Irving David Feinberg, Betty Vance Hyde, and Catherine Ryan Hyde have not played any significant role in my adult life. I have not seen or spoken to my parents in 40 years. Catherine Ryan Hyde was a child when I left home as a youth, and has only met me a handful of times in her adult lifetime.
Catherine Ryan Hyde’s narrations about my identity and early family life to audiences and media on her young adult novel book tour is not the first time that she or other relatives have narrated hostile accounts of my life–in person and in print.
Who is, and who is not, my ‘family’
My estranged biological relatives know very little about the decades of my adult life. They are strangers, by my choice, because of their history of bigotry and abusive behaviors toward me.
Yet the capitalist state often cedes legal power to blood relatives by default. So, I’ve had to struggle to assert legal independence from the white, patriarchal, heterosexually-modeled nuclear family into which I was born.
For four decades I have been forced to create and revise sets of legal forms for every state in the U.S. in which I’ve lived or sought medical care. These foundational documents state in clear language that I have been legally autonomous from my birth family since I reached the age of legal consent.
My documents state that Irving David Feinberg, Betty Vance Hyde, and Catherine Ryan Hyde have no legal rights in my life.
My legal papers also spell out clearly who does have the right to speak for me if I am unable to speak for myself.
Minnie Bruce Pratt has been my family, legally and in life, since 1992. As lovers, we have shared a home, life and struggle—in sickness and in health. We are domestic partners. We are civil union’d. Yet the state and federal government discriminate against our same-sex economic family unit by denying more than a thousand of the benefits that recognition of same-sex rights as a civil “marriage” certificate would provide.
Because I am female, and in a same-sex relationship, I have to live and travel with legal documents that expressly state who is, and who is not, my family.
Even chosen family members who travel with their legal documents intact can find themselves barred from visiting their loved one in an emergency room, while vindictive relatives who are virtual strangers can proceed to the bedside to make life-and-death decisions.I carry a hospital visitation authorization, the new Medical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (MOLST), my domestic partnership and civil union papers, advanced directives, living will and last will & testament. In addition, I carry a copy of caregivers’ rights, and requests for secular-based care.
I have to legally state in paperwork that Minnie Bruce Pratt is my health care proxy, together with my attorney–who has taught issues of law and transgender. They have my powers of attorney. Based on legal documents that I’ve worked hard to prepare, my chosen family would speak for me if I were unable to advocate for myself.
Minnie Bruce and I both have to carry each other’s documents at all times, as well.
Catherine Ryan Hyde is attempting to undermine all my painstaking documentation of chosen family relationships, by claiming blood ties give her intimate knowledge of my life and identity, and the right to re-write them.
Self-expression of oppressions, Versus bashing counter-narrative
On her author promotional tour, Catherine Ryan Hyde is developing an embryonic biography of my life–fictionalized and unauthorized—to which I give no consent. Her assertions are all easily found on the web in a google search.
“This is totally my story to tell,” Catherine Ryan Hyde publicly maintains. She claims insider knowledge, because, she says, she grew up with a “transgender sibling.”
She also claims that because I have written and spoken publicly about my own oppressions and life’s struggles, my life is now public domain for her imagination. This argument draws an equal sign between the right of oppressed individuals to self-expression, and the bigoted “voice-over” that contradicts and denies those oppressed identities and life experiences.
Hyde claims she learned acceptance from an early age because she “grew up” with a “transgender sibling.” However, she must admit she is either a virtual stranger to my life, or is maliciously re-writing my identity—or both.
Catherine Ryan Hyde appropriates the description of my life in order to contradict my identity. In her commentary, she co-opts my life’s journey, changes my sex, denies my pronoun(s) of choice, mis-describes my gender expression, and closets my declared sexuality.
I can say with certainty that if anyone claims “insider” knowledge of my life based on patriarchal blood relations–or claims to have been a long-lost “good friend,” or to have “dated” me long ago—in order to deny and obfuscate my life’s struggles, then I can guarantee you that the “love” is not mutual.
When a basher narrates my bio
The only authority any of my biological relatives, including Catherine Ryan Hyde, can muster to justify talking about my early life is that they were “there. “
But, those who take part in group beatings and gang rape of oppressed individuals are also “there” during assaults. That doesn’t give those bigots the right to “own” or re-write the biographies of those who survived their attacks.
Nor do bigots and bullies have the right to rewrite their violence against an oppressed individual as “loving” and “consensual.” Such actions are a continuation of the violent and prejudiced abuse; it’s trying to take over another person’s life; it’s attempting to control and define someone else, against their will.
“As some of you may know already, I grew up with a transgender sibling,” Hyde states–assigning a later 20th-century identity to my mid-20th-century birth.
“A transgender person is someone who is born with a type of birth defect, for lack of a better phrase,” she asserts.
Hyde makes this pronouncement as someone who is not self-identified as “transgender.”
Hyde narrowly defines her use of the term “transgender” for her young adult novel character when she says that he has “not transitioned yet.” [My emphasis]
My own life’s journey and oppressions are different than those of her protagonist. To state or imply that my life’s identity is the same as Hyde’s leading “transgender” character pits my life and identity and oppressions against those of others.
See my writings for how I’ve defined my life’s journey, my sex, gender expression, sexuality, and politics.
So in having based herself as an authority on my life, is Hyde proclaiming my sex, my gender expression or my sexuality as biological “birth defects?”
In any case, she wasn’t around for my birth. As the youngest of three daughters, I was already about 6 years old when she was born.
Hyde was only about 7 years old when I was 13, and I had to ask my parents to sign working papers, so that I could get a job after high school and not have to come home until it was time to go to bed.
Outside my parents’ home, and beyond high school corridors and classrooms, I was able to find wage work during the Vietnam War, and loving relationships. I found communities, struggle, my voice and pride.
What happened, in Hyde’s publicity-tour narrative of my life, to my out-and-proud butch lesbian life in communities and struggles in Buffalo, Albany, and Rochester, New York; Erie, Pennsylvania; St. Catherine’s and Toronto, Ontario—at a time when same-sex love was illegal and subject to raids by police and groups of bashers?
I later moved out of my parents’ home before the legal age of consent, despite the fact that I was still their legal ward. After years of living independently, I had to return shortly before my 21st birthday, in order to ask my parents to sign permission for me to begin taking hormones. I did not self-identify as transgender at that time.
Several years later, when I told my parents that I was going to stop taking hormones, my biological father ridiculed me and my biological mother sat silently in another room, her back towards me as I left. Catherine Ryan Hyde was nowhere to be seen.
My biological parents reportedly debated, for the second time in my young life, whether they should sign legal papers that would forcibly confine me to a psychiatric institution. I did not self-identify as transgender at that time in my life, either.
By suddenly publicly claiming me as kin, and implying that familial knowledge is a foundation for her young adult novel, Hyde erases my chosen family, in order to return me, inaccurately, as her “brother,” back as a 20-year-old still under the legal control of the father-dominated, heterosexual, nuclear family.
I am not a daughter or a son to Irving David Feinberg and B. Vance Hyde; I am not a sister or a brother to Catherine Ryan Hyde. I could not be forced into those legal categories or those violent dynamics of group bigotry with these three relatives, even at gunpoint: metaphorically or literally.
Burying my life in fiction, while I’m still living the non-fiction
After 20 years of respecting my request for no contact, Catherine Ryan Hyde called me and asked to meet. At that time, I thought she accurately narrated the prejudices articulated through group scapegoating in the nuclear family of my birth.
But when I agreed to meet with her several times over the most recent two decades, she just delivered more “family” horror stories: an earlier account of parents debating whether to permanently institutionalize me when I was a young teen; family members actually speculating, as adults, whether I might have been possessed by an evil spirit at birth; the patriarch of the family disowning me in his will; the fear of a family member that I might kill her children if I knew of their existence.
If Catherine Ryan Hyde, the willing messenger, answered the bigotries, she did not relate that to me.
I last met Hyde when she came to my 60th birthday party. I had hoped to spend one-on-one time with many loved ones that weekend, on the eve of treatment for long-untreated Lyme plus serious co-infections.
Catherine Ryan Hyde dominated my weekend when she argued with me for hours that the story of the Tutsi people in Rwanda is hers to tell. Her statements about the peoples of Rwanda were so racist, so apologetic for colonialism and imperialism, that I informed Hyde at that time that she was no political kin to me.
She continued to press by e-mail argument. At that time, I restated my request for no further contact from these living biological relatives.
Now Catherine Ryan Hyde is appropriating my life and voice in order to try counter-narrate it. Hyde, a coward who is emboldened with Knopf’s power and money behind her, is trying to bury my life in fiction, while I’m still living my non-fiction journey and struggles.
‘Crossing the street to start trouble’
In a web interview traveling the Internet, Hyde writes that she created a “transgender” character because: “I was so outraged by the violence and abuse faced by transgender people. The way someone will cross over from the other side of the street to start trouble. To get in their faces, push them.”
The fact is, however, that’s exactly what this biological relative is doing to me.
Hyde’s counter-narration of my life attempts to silence my adult lifetime of revolutionary anti-capitalist political writing and activism. She replaces my message of collective struggle and liberation with her timid appeal for “tolerance.”
Catherine Ryan Hyde’s story of my life and her relationship to it omit this real-life fact: She and her parents are not welcome in her “transgender sibling’s” home.
The only way Irving David Feinberg, Betty Vance Hyde, and Catherine Ryan Hyde can prove they’ve learned a lesson in acceptance is to respect my stated and written requests to stay out of my life–and the lives of my chosen family.
However, based on past experiences, I do not expect any of the three to respect my requests. And in this case, the bully pulpit of the public relations speaking tour is paid for and promoted by a major industry publisher, with money and media power.
As public relations, repeated over and over in publicity, on the web, and before audiences, this co-optation of my own life’s narrative is a form of identity theft.
I can only write this public message one time. I have suffered a serious medical setback during the time and effort it took me to write and post this.
I thank each person who has asked me if there’s any way they could help lift a burden from me in time of illness. I ask your help in circulating this statement from me into the public record.
I ask for help in circulating this message from workers in the publishing, and other media industries–from media for LGBT communities to Publisher’s Weekly—from legal and library and medical workers, those who work as secretaries and researchers, bloggers and journalists, those who defend the rights of youth and elders, revolutionaries and all who fight for social and economic justice, my literary agency Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc., and my labor union–the National Writers’ Union, UAW Local 1981.
I ask you to aid delivery of this message—on flat typography and raised Braille, in signed languages and spoken languages. As an internationalist and anti-imperialist I am sorry to be posting a message that I hope will be read around the world, and yet, I am only able to post my statement in the English language—the lingua franca of imperialism.
I ask help from some of the skilled and thoughtful translators I’ve worked with around the world in translating this statement.
Message to my chosen family:
I have had a very low quality of life since October 2007; however, I treasure the love in my life—the only riches I desire.
To my chosen family: I can feel the strength of your love and caring and support—even when there are so few words in the English-language that recognize the power of our bonds.
We are all unique. We don’t all share the same ideas. Instead, as chosen family, we are defined by our loving, mutually supportive relations. Our chosen family bonds are built on principles that aren’t for sale, including mutual respect, and a process of understanding through increasingly clear communication.
My caring circle extends across the U.S. and around the world, and each member of my chosen family can recognize a bashing, whether the verbal delivery is hard-knuckled or honey-smooth.
So I take this opportunity to publicly thank you for your support. And I’d like to also honor two of my relatives, who I do think of as family.
After rejecting mean-spirited family gossip about my sister Christie, I went to visit her in a nursing home on her birthday, shortly before her death. Because I will not co-opt her voice in life, or after death. I will only say that I talked to her about the way I felt that violent family dynamics pitted me against her. I learned a lot that day about how she felt about the role she’d been put in as a child, as well.
When we said our goodbyes, I hugged her as a sister.
I also want to honor one of my grandfathers; I never met either one.
I honor my grandfather who labored all winter long without a paycheck during the last Great Depression in order to stoke the furnace at the “poor house.” I’ve been told that when he later died, his funeral drew more people from the town than that of its mayor.
I have never taken off my hat for a cop, a boss or a foreman. But as my grandfather’s communist grandchild, I take my place in that gathering of respect–hat in my hands–to honor this worker, who demonstrated with his labor, his consciousness of the class truth that the union movement is built on: An injury to one is an injury to all!