Last edited: February 27, 2005

Activists Share New Perspectives

The Quad, February 21, 2005
West Chester University of Pennsylvania

By Faith Kirk

Celebrated writers and activists Minnie Bruce Pratt and Leslie Feinberg came to West Chester to speak to students about the history of oppression in the United States and the possibilities for progressive social change in the final presentation for Civility Day last Monday.

Pratt is an accomplished poet and activist for civil rights, women?s rights and the transgender movement. Her most recent collection, “The Dirt She Ate,” won the 2003 Lambda Literary Award for poetry.

Leslie Feinberg is a transgender activist, grassroots historian and writer, whose influential book, “Stone Butch Blues,” won an American Library Association Award for Gay and Lesbian Literature and a 1994 Lambda Literary Award.

Both Pratt and Feinberg spoke about the history of domination over oppressed people in U.S. history in relation to the war in Iraq. Pratt, who was raised in the segregated South, said that the current war reminds her of her childhood experiences in a segregated culture. She said that while people outside the South were witness to the terrors of that time, “we never heard anything about the dissenters,” and in the current political culture, “we don?t hear anything but the most mocking reference to rejectors of war.”

Pratt asked the audience to consider what U.S. culture would look like from an outside perspective. She said the racist targeting of Muslims, the suppression of information, the Patriot Act and the sense that discussions about war are im-polite are all reminiscent of her southern childhood. “Politeness was a mask for what was really going on,” she said. “The politeness covered up what that kind of oppression did to people.” Feinberg said that the interests of transgendered people are not separate from international political concerns. “If a movement cannot stand up against a war of this character...against a blatantly racist war for empire, then what can it stand up against?” Feinberg asked.

They also spoke about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights and issues. Pratt said when she made the decision to come out as a lesbian in 1975, she was married and had two young sons. As a result of that decision, she lost custody of her children under the crime against nature laws which have only recently been overturned by the Supreme Court. At one time, she also became a political target for conservatives and lost funding from the National Endowment for the Arts because she identified as a lesbian. “At that time, you could not be gay or lesbian in this country and be fully human,” Pratt said.

Feinberg spoke about the limitations of “the system of sex and gender and desire...that many of us have been force fed along with our Wheaties or our grits.” Like many transgender activists, Feinberg advocates rethinking traditional concepts of gender. “I feel challenged to find a model of reorganizing in which no one?s rights are subsumed,” she said.

Pratt said that while she does not identify as transgender, she is a part of the transgender community. “I want there to be a world in which people can experience their relationship to their gender identity and to their body that has complexity,” she said. Pratt credits the transgender movement with expanding the definition of “what can be included in the circle of humanity,” and said that along with the civil rights movement and women ?s liberation, the transgender movement has had a profound influence on her life.

Pratt and Feinberg both said they were honored to speak during Black History Month, and emphasized the connection between struggles of many oppressed groups. Feinberg said all people should strive “to be the best fighters against one another ?s see that my destiny is tied with yours.”

Both speakers urged students to challenge the status quo and to seek out ways to affect positive social change. Pratt and Feinberg emphasized the role of peaceful protest in activism and talked about an upcoming antiwar demonstration that they will be attending in New York City?s Central Park on the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq on March 19. Demonstrations are important, said Pratt, because “it breaks through the isolation and that is why you see the coverage mocking it. We raise our consciousness marching shoulder to shoulder,” she said.

Pratt and Feinberg also spoke about their personal relationship. They met at a lecture Feinberg was giving in Washington, D.C. on transgender issues and have been a couple for 13 years. Both speakers were brought to West Chester through the efforts of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Association (LGBTA), LGBT Services and various women?s groups on campus.

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