Feinberg v. Hyde

Last week, I posted Leslie Feinberg’s open letter regarding Catherine Ryan Hyde and her recent book featuring a transgender character, Jumpstart the World.

I am conflicted because I instinctively take Feinberg’s side. I greatly respect Feinberg and hir writings, and my reaction is always going to be to defend trans folk against attempts to exploit them and appropriate their life stories. I was immediately outraged on behalf of Leslie Feinberg; I thought that what Hydge did was despicable.

At the same time, I recognize that there are two sides to every story (which is not to say that both sides are equally true). I also know myself enough to know that I need to make a conscious effort to not let my emotions rule my mind, so I read Hyde’s response with as open a mind as I could manage.

It seems to me that the crux of the matter is that Feinberg believes Hyde based her book on Feinberg’s life and, in both the book and in interviews regarding the book, misrepresents hir:

Catherine Ryan Hyde appropriates the description of my life in order to contradict my identity. In her commentary, she co-opts my life’s journey, changes my sex, denies my pronoun(s) of choice, mis-describes my gender expression, and closets my declared sexuality.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to make an outside determination about what influences an author. It is, technically, possible that Hyde is simply incredibly misguided and meant well with the book. It is possible that she did actually believe that Feinberg approved of the book (Hyde claims to have sent a draft to Feinberg and presumably took the silence as tacit approval; Feinberg states, “Since I became acutely ill in October 2007, it has been very hard for me to write, or to speak”). I cannot, through mere internet searching, determine whether Hyde meant anything maliciously, though Feinberg assumes that to be the case. In the interests of charity, I would like to believe that Hyde simply doesn’t realize what she’s doing.

It is as though there are two separate sets of Feinberg and Hyde. Hyde writes, “Nearly 20 years after Leslie left home, I initiated contact.  For about two decades, we had what I felt was a loving relationship.” Feinberg writes,

After 20 years of respecting my request for no contact, Catherine Ryan Hyde called me and asked to meet. At that time, I thought she accurately narrated the prejudices articulated through group scapegoating in the nuclear family of my birth. But when I agreed to meet with her several times over the most recent two decades, she just delivered more “family” horror stories . . . . If Catherine Ryan Hyde, the willing messenger, answered the bigotries, she did not relate that to me.

Hyde blames Feinberg for the break in their relationship, saying,

At Leslie’s birthday, I noted that I was writing a book about Rwanda.  Leslie was horrified, and attacked my right to do so, and my motivations for doing so.  I attempted to defend myself for about 20 minutes, then we went to the party.

Feinberg’s account of the same event:

Catherine Ryan Hyde dominated my weekend when she argued with me for hours that the story of the Tutsi people in Rwanda is hers to tell. Her statements about the peoples of Rwanda were so racist, so apologetic for colonialism and imperialism, that I informed Hyde at that time that she was no political kin to me.

Furthermore, Hyde claims that her interest in issues of gender identity come from the fact that she “grew up with a transgender sibling [presumably Leslie Feinberg],” although she claims in her response to Feinberg’s open letter that “Being someone who loves and supports a person in [her] life who is transgender is totally [her] story to tell” because of her friend Doug, explicitly stating that it is not because of Feinberg.

Feinberg contends that Hyde did not, in fact, “grow up with a transgender sibling,” both because Hyde did not grow up with hir, and because ze did not identify as transgender at the time. Feinberg writes,

Catherine Ryan Hyde was a child when I left home as a youth, and has only met me a handful of times in her adult lifetime. . . .

Hyde was only about 7 years old when I was 13, and I had to ask my parents to sign working papers, so that I could get a job after high school and not have to come home until it was time to go to bed. . . .

I later moved out of my parents’ home before the legal age of consent, despite the fact that I was still their legal ward. After years of living independently, I had to return shortly before my 21st birthday, in order to ask my parents to sign permission for me to begin taking hormones. I did not self-identify as transgender at that time.

Several years later, when I told my parents that I was going to stop taking hormones, my biological father ridiculed me and my biological mother sat silently in another room, her back towards me as I left. Catherine Ryan Hyde was nowhere to be seen.

My biological parents reportedly debated, for the second time in my young life, whether they should sign legal papers that would forcibly confine me to a psychiatric institution. I did not self-identify as transgender at that time in my life, either.

To Hyde’s statement, “I grew up with a transgender sibling. When I was about 13 or 14, I had to learn to call my sister my brother and switch from ‘she’ to ‘he,'” Feinberg responds, “Hyde erases my chosen family, in order to return me, inaccurately, as her ‘brother,’ back as a 20-year-old still under the legal control of the father-dominated, heterosexual, nuclear family.”

Although Hyde may imply a great deal, she is careful about what she explicitly states regarding Feinberg and their childhoods. I cannot speak to Hyde’s intentions. Feinberg and Hyde have diametrically opposing perspectives on their lives, and as much as I would like to agree with Feinberg that Hyde has clearly, deliberately, and maliciously co-opted hir life in order to promote her own literary career, I cannot do so in a logical, evidence-based fashion. This does not mean that Feinberg is incorrect, merely that I cannot prove the veracity of hir statements. Regardless whether Feinberg is “right” about anything regarding Hyde, Feinberg’s pain and anger is real and cannot be discounted or dismissed.

3 responses to “Feinberg v. Hyde

  1. The intentions of Hyde are less important than the effects of her actions on Feinberg. It’s disappointing that you have chosen to focus your response on intentions rather than looking at the ways that these individuals fit into the larger power structures–oppression by cis people against trans people doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and regardless of intentions, Hyde’s position as a cis person, as a writer backed by a major publishing house, as a person with a huge platform and the ability to state her side more easily and more pervasively than Feinberg, whose disability means that written language is less accessible–that’s about institutional oppression. “But I didn’t mean to be oppressive” doesn’t excuse anyone from perpetuating oppression.

    • I am sorry that you are disappointed by my post. I was in no way trying to argue that Hyde’s intentions were more important than how her words and actions affected Feinberg, although it may have come off otherwise. I was trying to be objective, given that my first reaction was that Hyde’s actions are unforgivable.

      I agree that oppression against trans people doesn’t happen in a vacuum; I have said something similar numerous times before. Your statement about Hyde is also very clearly stated — nicely done. I had intended to write about how institutional oppression affects the power dynamics of this particular interaction/series of interactions. However, I couldn’t find the words I wanted, and, as I had a lot going on in my personal life at the time, I decided to cut the post short. I realized long ago that if I waited until I was fully satisfied with every post I wrote, I would never post anything. Institutionalized oppression is something I will cover in my blog, and I may return again to the Feinberg and Hyde — just because I have posted something about a topic does not mean that I am done with it.

      I agree that “I didn’t meant to” isn’t an excuse for perpetuating oppression. However, I do believe that there is a difference between who deliberately and intentionally contribute to oppression and people who do not do so intentionally. I cannot say for certain which Hyde is. Additionally, my hope for the blog post had been to have a form of common ground — a place that did not make either of them out to be despicable because that basically ends any conversation before it can even start. It may not have worked — and it may not have been a good idea — but it was what I was attempting.

      Lastly, I find it disappointing that you would hide behind anonymity. You are clearly intelligent and have a strong opinion about what I have written. Perhaps it’s Bryn Mawr’s influence on me, but I believe that if you were going to confront me, you should have do so in a way that would have left me a way to respond — something other than posting a comment on my blog and hoping that you revisit it one day. I had thought that the settings on my blog were such that people could only post if they left an email address; apparently, I was incorrect.

  2. I recently reread some of the references to CRH and came across this opinion piece. I’d like to respectively disagree, and perhaps inject a little bit of mercy into the conversation. I don’t think Catherine is a malicious, exploitative person — it just doesn’t fit.

    As an author, would it be exploitative for me to say “I grew up….” and the experience later triggered something I wrote? But in the internet day an age “one sentence” can appear in an interview and become the focus of the entire conversation, in this case about “growing up with a transgender sibling….” At some point I will write a book about divorce recovery. Many of the lessons learned are from what I went through. Is it exploitative to say “this is part of my history?” I don’t know. I struggle with it. Knowing some of Catherine Ryan Hyde’s way of thinking, and having read practically all of her published works. I think she does a remarkably good job letting her characters tell the stories and not as “thinly veiled” whatever anyone else wants to call it.

    I sincerely hope that as the years roll by that wounded hearts heal, and a passionate brother and a passionate sister who are both voices in their own right can learn to be at least gentle acquaintances, and maybe before the sunsets draw to a close, even friends.

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