Nancy Willow, State University of New York at Delhi
Every now and then we are fortunate enough to find ourselves reading the right book at the right time. Such was the case for me when I picked up Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues during the joyful and tumultuous period of identifying and coming out as queer. Feinberg—author, activist, and self-proclaimed “revolutionary communist”—passed away on November 17, 2014. I am forever grateful for her* passionate human rights and social justice work, liberation activism, and most especially her writing which influenced my life so deeply (Pratt, 2014).
Long before I understood the word queer to be anything other than a standard-issue schoolyard taunt, I knew I was in trouble when it came to gender. As Andrea Gibson (2006) explains,
It’s not that I thought I’d grow up to be a man
I just never thought I’d grow up to be a woman either
From what I could tell neither of those categories fit me
But believe me
I knew from a very young age never to say
Hey Dad, this Adam or Eve thing isn’t really working for me
I mean what about all the kinds of people in between?
I didn’t have the vocabulary as a young person, and still struggle today to find suitable language to describe and talk about gender. Feinberg helped me understand I didn’t have to grow up to be a woman or a man; I didn’t have to fit into that binary. Rather, she introduced me to a community of people in between. In Stone Butch Blues, she writes, “You're more than just neither, honey. There's other ways to be than either-or. It's not so simple. Otherwise there wouldn't be so many people who don't fit” (Feinberg, 1993, p. 218).
Feinberg has much to teach us about the limitations of binary thinking and the importance of questioning our entrenched thought processes. When she writes, “I defend my right to be complex,” she invites us to dive into the complexities of identity and community (Feinberg, 1999, p. 70). Feinberg challenges us to look beyond the binary—not only in terms gender, but also in terms race, class, and culture. Her insights complicate our understandings of both self and others while imploring us to create communities where people can feel secure, acknowledged, and free.
In our work with students, it is important to recognize our own patterns of thinking and to examine the binaries we take for granted. How do we label and categorize people? How does this affect the way we view and interact with others? How can we break down our own binary thinking while helping students do the same?
Our advisees are likely working through core identity issues having to do with gender, race, and culture, while simultaneously working through issues of student identity and college culture as well. Below are just a few examples of binaries our advisees may be carrying with them:
- I am either a 4.0 student or I am a failure.
- I am either an immigrant or I am an American.
- I can either major in a subject I am passionate about or I can have a job that pays well.
- I am either gay or I am straight.
- I can either do what makes me happy or I can meet my family’s expectations.
- I am either religious or I am an atheist.
These types of either/or statements limit the range of possibility for our students. As advisors, we can help our advisees identify binary thinking and encourage them to think outside of their self- and culturally-prescribed boxes. In doing so, we can become what Terrell Strayhorn (2014) refers to as “cultural navigators.”
In his keynote address at the 2014 NACADA Annual Conference, Strayhorn (2014) frames higher education as a “clash of cultures,” particularly for minority and first-generation college students. He notes that these students often come from cultures of origin which value collaboration, so they may feel lost and isolated within college cultures which center on individual effort. While Strayhorn doesn’t use the term binary, what he describes is certainly an example of either/or thinking: I either value my home culture or I value the college culture. As advisors, we can help students expand their thinking in a way which honors all cultures and allows students to create an identity which transcends the binary.
Strayhorn (2014) also talks about the importance of belonging, noting that students need to feel, act, and think like they belong in order to successfully navigate the college environment. He argues that belonging is a fundamental need, one that “takes on a heightened importance when one feels isolated.” As advisors, we need to be aware that when we encourage students to conform to the college culture, our intentions may also make them feel ignored or devalued if we have inadvertently ignored their culture of origin. We need to develop the ability to work beyond this binary to help students form their own identities and find the resources and community they need in their new environment.
Our work as advisors does not stop with individual students; we must also continue working to transform our institutions into welcoming spaces for all students. Arnsperger Selzer and Rouse (2013) encourage advisors to “speak up and challenge institutional barriers, such as inequitable policies and practices that unfairly affect students” and to “engage students in difficult conversations” about inequality, power, and privilege (para. 3). These are not easy tasks, and it can be intimidating to tackle these types of challenging issues at the institutional level. However, Feinberg (1993) reminds us, “Everybody’s scared. But if you don’t let your fears stop you, that’s bravery” (p. 95).
Feinberg spent her one brave life fighting for freedom, standing up for the marginalized and the oppressed, and challenging us to work across cultures and identities for the common cause of human rights. We honor her legacy in our everyday lives by choosing to be brave, to engage in difficult conversations, to question our binary ways of thinking, and to create and sustain diverse and welcoming communities within our institutions and larger communities. As Arnsperger Selzer and Rouse (2013) assert, “Now is the time for advisors and academic systems to institute a contemporary approach to advising where a commitment to social justice is deeply embedded, acknowledged, implemented and lived in daily practice” (para. 6).
In other words, now is the time to be brave.
School of Nursing
State University of New York at Delhi
*In a 2006 interview with Camp, Feinberg addresses preferred pronouns:
For me, pronouns are always placed within context. I am female-bodied, I am a butch lesbian, a transgender lesbian—referring to me as "she/her" is appropriate, particularly in a non-trans setting in which referring to me as "he" would appear to resolve the social contradiction between my birth sex and gender expression and render my transgender expression invisible. I like the gender neutral pronoun "ze/hir" because it makes it impossible to hold on to gender/sex/sexuality assumptions about a person you're about to meet or you've just met. And in an all trans setting, referring to me as "he/him" honors my gender expression in the same way that referring to my sister drag queens as "she/her" does. (Tyroler, 2006)
Based on this interview and the example set forth by Feinberg’s wife in writing Feinberg’s obituary, I chose to use feminine pronouns when referring to Feinberg throughout this article.
Arnsperger Selzer, R. & Ellis Rouse, J. (2013, September). Integrating social justice and academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 36(3). Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Integrating-Social-Justice-and-Academic-Advising.aspx
Feinberg, L. (1993). Stone butch blues. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books.
Feinberg, L. (1999). Trans liberation: Beyond pink or blue. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Gibson, A. (2006). Andrew. On When the bough breaks [CD]. Raven Studios.
Pratt, M.B. (2014). Transgender pioneer and Stone Butch Blues author Leslie Feinberg has died. Advocate. Retrieved from http://www.advocate.com/arts-entertainment/books/2014/11/17/transgender-pioneer-leslie-feinberg-stone-butch-blues-has-died
Strayhorn, T. (2014, October). Keynote address [Lecture notes]. Conference presentation at the NACADA Annual Conference conducted at the Minneapolis Convention Center, Minneapolis, MN.
Tyroler, J. (2006, July 28). Transmissions – Interview with Leslie Feinberg. Camp. Retrieved from http://www.campkc.com/campkc-content.php?Page_ID=225
Cite this article using APA style as: Willow, N. (2015, March). On binaries, belonging, and bravery: Honoring the legacy of Leslie Feinberg. Academic Advising Today, 38(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]