May 27th, 2009—Leslie’s response to the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Pioneer Award:
I thank the Lambda Literary Foundation for this award. It’s especially strengthening at a time when I’m so ill. I was moved to learn that Board members hadn’t known I was ill when they made their decision about this award.
I have several associations with the word “pioneer.” The best, the one you clearly intend, is trail blazing. I’m not the first same-sex-loving, gender-variant novelist, hirstorian, journalist, essayist or poet to make art. And for millenia, art rendered on every continent has explored themes that are described in today’s English-language terms as same-sex love, transsexuality, intersexuality and gender variance—in narratives spoken, rhymed, signed, sung, chanted, acted, danced, smelted, sculpted, drawn, painted, carved, etched, cast and written. In the long, long history of our cooperative human past, story tellers/teachers/hirstorians played a social role, passing on communal knowledge harvested by group labor.
Today in the U.S., an English-language writing career is portrayed like the matchbook-cover offers of my girlhood for bright futures in drawing—the glittering promise of a lottery, a brass ring, fortune and fame, a ticket out. I didn’t write in order to escape the working class. I write for those who have little time to read, for whom reading is difficult, and who don’t expect to find themselves on pages. I write for those behind bars and barbed wire. For those fighting to narrate their own liberation.
I grew up, a masculine girl in a Jewish factory-working family during the anti-communist Cold War. Books were “banned in Boston,” and same-sex love—or any perceived sex or gender difference—was snared in state dragnets as “the Lavender Menace,” while anyone who did not pledge a loyalty oath to the profit-driven capitalist system, and its Jim Crow apartheid, was witch-hunted as the “Red Menace.” The Nazi Party, bankrolled by German capitalists to stave off workers’ revolution, had already torched the archive generated by the German Homosexual Emancipation Movement—10,000 volumes of cross-cultural, cross-historical knowledge which challenged the “Dick and Jane” curricula I was being force fed in school. I didn’t know then that German street sweepers ordered to clean up after the fiery pyre had rescued a few unburnt volumes. Those seeds had not yet traveled on the wind; had not yet taken root in the Cold War climate.
I was propelled to write because I could not find my self in books. But patronized and demonized, ridiculed and menaced by oppression—without a single identification paper to get a public library card—I could never have researched or written this body of work in isolation. It was when I took to the streets against racism, police brutality and Pentagon war, for farm worker rights and liberation of oppressed bodies, lives and loves, that I found my place in social history. When I joined Workers World Party, I found maps of human social evolution, the scientific compass of dialectical materialist change, the road to be paved to liberation, and my voice.
So in accepting an award for my body of work, I thank my Workers World Party comrades of all nationalities, generations, sexualities, sexes, genders and abilities. When I became a founding member of the internal Gay Caucus in 1973, WWP had already taken to the streets and written in defense of transgender and transsexual lives, published a communist theoretical contribution on women’s liberation, and was completing a Marxist germinal work on the historical roots of lesbian and gay oppression—demonstrating that working-class unity is forged in struggle against oppression.
I wrote leaflets, penned political chants and banner slogans, and took it all to the streets. I began writing articles for Workers World newspaper around 1974 and soon after, became editor of the Political Prisoners’ page. As a transgender female, my WW newspaper police press pass was my sole official piece of identification for many, many years. I’ve been a managing editor since 1995. I’ve had opportunity to research and discuss, write and copyedit articles about resistance here and around the world. I had the help of trails already blazed by Marxists about oppression based on sex and sexualities. And I had tools to analyze the history of human economic organization and the science of change. That’s how I was able to unearth the roots of modern trans oppression in the early class division of patriarchal societies—chattel slavery, and later feudalism and capitalism.
My most recent theoretical work is a web-book-in-progress, Lavender & Red—which has run as a series for four years in WW newspaper. Lavender & Red can be read online at workers.org. A segment of the Lavender & Red series has just been published as a book, entitled “Rainbow Solidarity in Defense of Cuba.” I’m proud that this compilation of 25 articles factually takes head-on the highly-capitalized CIA-Hollywood anti-communist narrative demonizing the Cuban Revolution. Today, the Cuban Revolution is blazing trails for the world in transsexual, transgender and same-sex rights, and all Cubans are guaranteed a job, a home, free health care, free education, no loss of job or income due to illness or injury. How could a revolution in 5 decades bring about so much change in ideology institutionalized by 5 centuries of colonial and imperialist rule? The facts demonstrate that revolution is a process, not a single act. That process of solving the problems left by class rule is the forward motion ofrevolutionary change.
An important component of this new book is the central question of self-defense. Revolutionary problem solving is hampered by constant imperialistattack—covert and overt. Today, 5 Cubans are serving long prison sentences in the U.S. merely for trying to stop anti-Cuba terror attacks. Already, more than 1,000 LGBT individuals and groups here and around the world have endorsed a demand for freedom for the Cuban 5 and an end to the U.S. blockade of Cuba—an illegal act of war. Please visit nyfreethefive.org to read more about Rainbow Solidarity for the Cuban 5. I am confident you will take a moment of pride to add your name.
The ruling ideas of any epoch, Karl Marx explained, are the ideas of the ruling economic class. The hardest struggle is to line up against the bosses’ class interests, not with them. The white settlers known as “pioneers” may have had some admirable individual qualities, but they were pawns in the bloody expansion of capital across North America, pitted against indigenous peoples and their rights to sovereignty and self-determination. The official colonial narrative tried to whiteout even the knowledge that many indigenous societies were still matrilineal and communal, with diverse cultures and organization of sexes/genders/sexualities. Also omitted is the fact that colonialism and imperialism brought anti-“sodomy” laws and Inquisition terror to North America, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Middle East. Today, public relations agencies spin pretexts for economic sanctions and “regime change,” war and occupation, using LGBT lives and loves as human shields. The “Don’t “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Pentagon is armed with sexual and gender humiliation and rape as Inquisition weapons in its science of torture, terror and control—from Abu-Ghraib to Attica to Guantanamo. Yet the war machine is portrayed as a vehicle for LGBT liberation, delivering shock-and-awe “democracy.”
For 10,000 years the caesars, kings and modern emperors of banking and industry have privatized the narrative, literally claiming private ownership of collective knowledge. They’ve claimed individual hereditary deed to the powerful tools of writing, publishing and archiving—all the wealth, the accumulated technique, of laboring generations. Colonialism and latter-day imperialism have violently imposed their lingua franca, and tried to burn other stored knowledge systems to the ground. Their Big Lie silences those it oppresses and represses, disenfranchises and dispossesses.
The words of Frederick Douglass thunder: “Without struggle, there is no progress.” We experienced the power of grassroots protest in April, when tech-savvy bloggers and other writers swiftly sounded the alarm, reporting that computer-generated sales popularity ratings and the ability to search listings for many LGBT authors and books had been deleted on Amazon’s website, driving down visibility, access and distribution. Faced with charges of censorship, loss of customers, petitions and threat of an organized boycott, Amazon book bosses quickly characterized the lost ratings and search access as an apparent computer glitch, and restored many.
Story-tellers, hirstorians, poets, essayists, and others who articulate—and more importantly organize—a challenge to the capitalist narrative face an uphill battle. Yet we can’t march, roll, tap, drive and double-click our way forward to liberation without struggling to open up a widespread grassroots discussion about when and why oppression arose and what it will take to end it once and for all. About why a profit-driven, people-be-damned economic system needs to be abolished, not tinkered with. About what makes revolutions historically necessary, and how a planned economy begins the revolutionary process by removing the material economic incentive for divide-and-conquer oppression, bigotry and competition.
So I salute the Board of the Lambda Literary Foundation for the courage to acknowledge writing that hews to the late Toni Cade Bambara’s imperative to revolutionary writers and artists to “make revolution irresistible.” You’ve dealt a blow to the anti-communist vulgarization that all Marxists speak with one voice, only analyzing class struggle, not oppression. I also recognize the labor of all who worked to publish and distribute my books. And I thank the National Writer’s Union-UAW, which helps authors retain and grieve our electronic and other rights. I’m stickin’ with the union! Thank you to my beloved Minnie Bruce Pratt—a militant communist activist and word-smith—for our lived epic poetry of love and struggle. We’re now living in Syracuse—Abolitionist country—where a multi-racial crowd of 10,000 once helped a man of African descent free himself from the custody of federal agents. Because my illnesses makes writing difficult, I am making political art with photography. I’ll be sharing some of them on my 60th birthday in Syracuse on Sept. 5. You’re all invited. Check back for time and place.
When I first became a political journalist, Pentagon war was still an artificial stimulant for the capitalist economy. Today, economic suffering is widening and deepening because capitalist production, driven for profit, outstrips consumption—cyclical poverty because of abundance. Finance capital is raiding the public treasury, while demanding a blank check for war and military occupation. This contradiction is sharpening the class struggle, and with it an historic ideological battle, generating new consciousness. In times of economic and social crisis, old ideas no longer circulate as good coin. New ideas gain currency. As the revolutionary Lenin observed “Sometimes decades go by and nothing seems to happen, and then weeks go by and decades happen.”
But not without a struggle. I dedicate this award to the undocumented immigrant brothers in U.S. detention who demanded medical care from their captors for transwoman Victoria Arellano and nursed her before her death. No human being is illegal! And I dedicate this award to the Jersey 4: young Black lesbians jailed for self-defense on a Manhattan street. Self defense is the most basic right of individuals and of social movements demanding equality and justice. We have to mobilize to demand freedom—right now—for Renata Hill, the last jailed member of the Jersey 4. Let’s struggle for rights, and let’s not stop until every battle’s won. The next chapter of history is ours to write.