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.