Thunder and Yearning: Thoughts on the passing of Leslie Feinberg

I remember the first time I ever read Stone Butch Blues. I was nine years old, full of awkward self-consciousness, and preferred the company of books to the company of other children. I was reading far beyond my reading level and liked to swipe my parents’ books from the bookshelf because the books aimed at my demographic didn’t hold my interest.

So one day, I pulled Stone Butch Blues down because I wanted to understand the title. I started reading and became instantly enthralled, although much of the story went over my head. I was interested in understanding sexuality in the ways that my family didn’t talk about- the feelings, the trauma, the fears and the wonders of adult sexuality that mirrored my own internal stirrings. I finished the book and sat quietly for a moment, picked it back up, and started reading it again. It was one of those books.

I remember the feelings. The understanding of a world that I felt connected to and, at the same time, didn’t know that I could claim. The complicated landscapes of gender and sexual desire, my own internal fear of the police that I couldn’t seem to articulate and justify, the grit of a world I was far too young to understand and still felt, in some ways, like I was reading my own history and catching glimpses of my future. That book changed my life.

I think that, and yet, I have nothing to compare it to. I only know that I learned about sex in a different way than I had ever heard it talked about: I felt intimately connected to the yearnings of that character, and I felt a similar battering against the walls of my own shame, even if my understanding of what that meant wasn’t fully developed. I’m still not sure that it is.

I learned about the humanity of people this world seeks to dehumanize: sex workers, drag queens, stone bulls. I developed a respect for the people this society wants to throw away as worthless and failures; I came to develop my own social analysis that grew from my own instincts. I felt seen, yes; more than that, though, I felt as though my eyes were trained to see the world in new ways. I learned about heartache and humanity, danger and safety, instinct and hardship, love, lust, desire. But most of all, yearning. I learned what it meant, what it felt like, to yearn.

From Stone Butch Blues:

“‘Frankie, I’ve got no words for the feelings that are tearing me apart. What would our words sound like?’ I looked up at the sky. ‘Like thunder, maybe.’

Frankie pressed her lips against my hair. ‘Yeah, like thunder. And yearning.’

I smiled and kissed the hard muscle of her biceps. ‘Yearning,’ I repeated softly. ‘What a beautiful word to hear a butch say out loud.’”

Last summer, when I was in Chicago, I fell in love with a leather jacket at a thrift store. It was half-off, and I brought it home. As I put it on that first time, felt the heavy weight settle around my shoulders and relaxed against the well-worn leather, I found myself thinking of that book.

“‘There’s only one thing Rocco had that you don’t have. Armor!” Edna handed me a heavy black motorcycle jacket gleaming with silver zippers. I took it in my hands. It was soft with wear. … ‘She called this her second skin.’”

I had been looking for that jacket, for that armor, for that second skin since I was 9 years old. 15 years later, I found it waiting for me in a Chicago thrift store. I put it on today, brace against the cold, and I remember. I remember a giant and a pioneer, a transgender warrior and a gentle heart, a lion’s voice against a world that told hir to be quiet. Today, I wear my own armor on my back and I honor hir memory.

My heart goes out to hir partner, Minnie Bruce Pratt. I stand in solidarity with those who grieve the loss of Leslie Feinberg, both the icon and the person behind the name. I send my heart to those who walk similar paths, celebrate the lives saved by her writing, honor her work and commitment to all forms of social justice.

If I could whisper my feelings into words, they would echo against the earth, a murmur like thunder and the soft whispers of yearning.

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