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Op-ed: How Leslie Feinberg Saved My Life

Op-ed: How Leslie Feinberg Saved My Life

In early 1997 I tried to take my own life by driving a van into the side of a bridge. I instinctively saved myself at the last moment, and in the process of doing so I came to realize that I didn’t really want to die, but I also had no idea of how to begin living the life I wanted. I began seeking answers in earnest, and the first thing I found that spoke to me as a trans person was Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman.

Truthfully, I had no idea what I was looking at when I picked up that neon green and orange book from the gay and lesbian shelf at Barnes and Noble less than two hours after I’d attempted to end my own life. I just knew that a word I’d only ever seen online and on the covers of porno magazines, transgender, was on the cover, and that in some way I was about to discover, this book was about people like me.

The minutes of my lunch hour were ticking away as I all but ran to the checkout area of the store and paid for my newfound treasure. I went back to my car and began reading as I ate my lunch. With just 10 minutes to get back to work, I carefully replaced the book in the bag and hid it under my seat.

For the next couple of weeks, each day at lunchtime I’d buy my lunch from a local deli and then go back to my car and sit in the parking lot as I ate and read. Transgender Warriors brought me back from the brink of suicide as I came to understand that not only was there a vibrant community of people like me out there, but also a long history of transgender expression and identity.

I’d never been one for writing fan letters, but when I’d finished the book, I searched for and found Leslie Feinberg’s website and email address. I wrote hir a heartfelt email in which I told hir how much Transgender Warriors had meant to me and had even inspired me to begin putting my own thoughts and feelings as a trans person into print.

Leslie wrote back almost immediately and encouraged me to seek out the transgender community and to keep writing. I did exactly as ze suggested and within several months had started my own email list called “Becky’s List” where I presented op-eds and commentary I’d written about transgender-relevant politics and issues. I’d even chosen the name Rebecca because I liked the way it looked in print, and I knew by then that I wanted to write my truth and share it with others.

Several years later, I heard that Leslie would be speaking at a local university and I knew I had to be there. After Leslie spoke, I had a chance to meet hir and asked hir to sign my copy of Transgender Warriors. As ze did, ze smiled at me and said, “This book is my heart.” I understood exactly what ze meant.

When I tell people today that reading Transgender Warriors saved my life, many seem to believe that I’m speaking metaphorically, but I’m not. Had I not discovered that book when I did, I’m not sure how much longer I could have continued on without hope, without understanding that who and what I am matters and deserves to be honored and respected.

Most importantly, Leslie Feinberg, through hir writings and the voices of other trans people I began to discover in the pages of Transgender Warriors, taught me that I wasn’t alone, that if I could find it within me to reach out, others like me would reach back and welcome me into their social circles and their lives. Knowing that, more than any other single thing, kept me going long enough to figure out who I really was and how I wanted to live my life.

There are many in the trans community who can properly be defined as heroes, but for me Leslie Feinberg will always be in a special category. Discovering hir work not only gave me hope, but also drove me to write my own truth, so my words would be there for the next trans person who needed to understand that they’re not alone.

Leslie Feinberg has left us now, but hir words, hir heart, will continue to heal and open new doors of understanding for uncounted generations of trans people who will follow. Personally, I can’t imagine a greater or more honorable legacy.

REBECCA JURO is a journalist and radio host of The Rebecca Juro Show, which streams live Thursdays from 7 to 9 p.m. Eastern. Follow Rebecca on Twitter @BeckyJuro.

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