Stone Butch Blues is a novel by activist and author Leslie Feinberg and tells the story of Jess Goldberg, a Jewish girl growing up in 1960s Buffalo, NY. From a young age, Jess is confronted with the question, “boy or girl?” from peers, teachers, and (rude) strangers because she does not present her gender in a traditionally feminine way. The novel follows Jess’s quest to understand and accept herself, to find others that accept and love her (her parents send her to a sanatorium), and ultimately to find a community where she feels safe.
Jess’s journey is primarily about self-exploration, identity, and growth, but her narrative occurs in the political context of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. The Vietnam anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, and the feminist and gay liberation movements occur both peripherally and centrally to Jess’s own. The dynamic of Jess’s relationship with femmes—or the women who present their gender as traditionally feminine—comes under question when her girlfriend Theresa begins to absorb the message of the feminist movement:
“Honey? You know how sometimes you say ‘I’ll never understand women’? Well, think about it, sweetheart—you are a woman. So what are you really saying? It’s sort of like a gun with a barrel that’s open on both ends. When you shoot it, you end up wounding yourself at the same time.” (139)
Stone Butch Blues is an absolutely gripping novel, alternately devastating and uplifting. Feinberg writes of intimate moments between lovers and friends with beautiful insight, never veiling her characters’ vulnerability and need. In her explanation of Jess’s life as a butch, she describes how acts that appear so simple on the surface—using a public restroom, for example—become excruciating or even impossible. In detailing Jess’s time taking male hormones and passing as a man, the hypocrisy and absurdity of our society’s assumptions and pressures regarding gender presentation become painfully apparent. Merely existing as butch woman puts Jess’s life in danger constantly, but as soon as the male hormones make her voice drop (and she undergoes surgery to have her breasts removed) everyone accepts her as a man. “At first,” Feinberg writes of Jess’s experience passing as a man, “everything was fun.
The world stopped feeling like a gauntlet I had to run through. But very quickly I discovered that passing didn’t just mean slipping below the surface, it meant being buried alive. I was still me on the inside, trapped in there with all my wounds and fears. But I was no longer me on the outside. (173)
One of the most climactic and moving scenes happens at the end of the novel, when Jess goes back to Buffalo to see old friends and settle old scores (apologize to some, say goodbye to others). She finds herself at a bar with old friends, the atmosphere awkward and tense. One of her old friends, prone to offensive remarks, tells her she is glad she herself never went on male hormones. When Jess asks why, her friend Grant replies, “Well you’re sort of stuck now, aren’t you? I mean you’re not a butch or a guy. You look like a guy.” Everyone around them stiffens, unsure of what to do or say. “Be careful, Grant,” Jess says, “You’re looking at your own reflection.” Grant retorts that she’s different, because she never used male hormones.
My anger was greater than the situation called for. I could taste it, bitter on my tongue. I leaned forward. Everyone held their breath. My voice was low and menacing. “How far are you willing to go, Grant? How much of yourself are you willing to give up in order to distance yourself from me?” (283)
This scene struck me as incredibly powerful: how Jess has come to understand the power of otherness, but also the incredibly eloquent way she expresses this knowledge. She realizes, from experience, that when a person is constantly made to feel less-than, they may come to see this as the only form of protection: othering those who threaten them, just as they have been outcast by the mainstream.
I would highly recommend this novel. Theory is important, but individual stories of gender presentation, exploration, and transformation convey a wealth of knowledge and emotion otherwise lost.
Feinberg is the author of two other books, Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman and Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue. Her website is transgenderwarrior.org.