Reading ‘Stone Butch Blues’ on the First Anniversary of Leslie Feinberg’s Death
Author: Julie R. Enszer
December 15, 2015
Once being a lesbian was, for me, more bibliographic that experiential. Before my fingers, my mouth, my lips, my tongue entered a woman, my mind came to lesbianism through books; my eyes dwelled on lesbians on the printed page. I thought I could join the lesbian people through books. If the deed itself proved elusive, the word would bring me into the fold. During this period, I first encountered Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues.
Stone Butch Blues taught me is about queer life outside of urban centers. Feinberg mapped queer lives that originate outside of big cities. From my Midwestern perch, Buffalo seemed like a city I knew. A city where unions once thrived and people worked with dignity, a city where labor created an economy that served a wide range of people. Certainly navigating the terrain of this location was difficult, particularly for people who transgressed the norms of sexuality and gender, but life was still possible. Escape was not the only option. Friendships could be forged, and within the camaraderie of union life existed possibilities for all kinds of people. One of Feinberg’s gifts in Stone Butch Blues is envisioning many kinds of lives and many forms of sociality for queers.
Just as Feinberg imagines possibilities for queers in cities and towns outside the usual queer imaginary, ze also orchestrates travel between rural, urban, and metropolitan spaces. Jess and the other characters of Stone Butch Blues are mobile. They move around in the spaces that they occupy and assert their presence in the world, wherever they are. Stone Butch Blues imagines how queer people negotiating geographic spaces and demonstrates the challenges and successes of these negotiations. As a young reader, many LGBT narratives seemed to involve flight: characters were born in a small town or a medium-sized city (like me) and then escaped the oppressive, homophobic conditions of that location for a gay mecca in a large urban center. Queer narratives were both coming out narratives and travel narratives. While Stone Butch Blues is a travel narrative, Jess moves around, sometimes abruptly fleeing threatened violence, sometimes on her own volition, it is also a story about the importance of struggles to assert and demand one’s space in the world.
Socialism and Feinberg’s vision of socialism are the most compelling aspects of Stone Butch Blues. Feinberg joins a long tradition of women, particular Jewish women, writing about class struggle and considering the roles of Jewish identity, feminism, and sexuality in their writing. While readers recognize Stone Butch Blues as exemplary as a transgender novel, it continues the narrative traditions of Jo Sinclair in The Wasteland, Tess Slesinger’s The Unpossessed, Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, among others.
Collective action is clearly an important solution to the problems that Jess and the other characters face in the novel. Stone Butch Blues animates the struggles of working people and the power of unions, organizing, and direct action. In addition, Feinberg offers a vision of happiness for working class people. Feinberg’s vision is not a utopian one, like what Genevieve Taggard offers in her poem, “Long View.” Here, a selection of Taggard’s vision:
Their laughter was peace. I never heard happier.
Their children large and beautiful. Like us, but new-born.
This was in the mountains in the west.
They were resting. They knew each other well.
The trees and rivers are on the map, but the time
Is not yet. I listened again. Their talk was ours
With many favorite words. I heard us all speaking.
But they spoke of better things, soberly. They were wise.
And learned. They sang not only of us.
They remembered thousands, and many countries, far away.
One poet who sat there with them began to talk of the future.
Then they were silent again. And they looked at the sky.
And then in the light of the stars they banked their fire as we do.
Scuffing the ground, and said goodnight.
This poem I bring back to you
Knowing that you wonder often, that you want
Word of these people.
Taggard offers readers a vision of a socialist future that they can live inside. Feinberg’s vision is much more tentative and partial. It is a vision that is only achieved through struggle; it is a vision that must accommodate the realities of defeat. Taggard offers a contemplative, naturalistic scene of a future utopia; Feinberg offers fleeting moments of domestic tranquility that suggest the possibilities of happiness. In Stone Butch Blues, Jess describes Ruth back at home at her mother’s house, “She looked happier and more relaxed than when I’d last seen her.” This is Feinberg’s vision of life and happiness for Jess and by extension for other queer and transgender people.
Feinberg refuses to offer an easy happiness or a redemption narrative in Stone Butch Blues. Life is about struggle both for Jess as a butch but also for all working people. The struggle is the excitement and energy of the book. Struggle invites readers into a broader political vision for change, not only for gender deviant people, but for working people, for women, and, yes, for LGBT people. Amid this struggle, Feinberg illuminates glimmers of happiness, the promise of life post-revolution. She, like Taggard, knows we “want word of these people.”
Reading Stone Butch Blues for the first time in 1993, I was trying to discern: did I want to be Jess Goldberg or did I want her to fuck me? I recognized desire early in the pages. Feinberg writes of her first visit to a gay bar,
What I saw there released tears I’d held back for years: strong, burly women, wearing ties and suit coats. Their hair was slicked back in perfect DA’s. They were the handsomest women I’d ever seen. Some of them were wrapped in slow motion dances with women in tight dresses and high heels who touched them tenderly. Just watching made me ache with need.
In Stone Butch Blues, Feinberg explained the meaning of “stone butch” and mapped the contours of lesbian, feminist, and queer desires. All manner of women and men appear in the pages of Stone Butch Blues, and they experience intimacy, desire, love, affection, violence, pain, and revulsion. Sex, sexuality, and desire infuse these pages as embodied, human experiences.
In addition to a malleable framework for sexuality, Feinberg presented me with one of the most important moral questions of my life. Ze writes about a confrontation with another Butch, Grant. Jess asks, “How much of yourself are you willing to give up in order to distance yourself from me?” That question, a touchstone for finding and holding my own humanity.
In Jess Goldberg, Feinberg created a character that allows readers to imaginatively travel through a system of gender and, through that journey, to analyze it critically. The power of Goldberg’s narrative and the ability of many to identify with the journey is part of why this book is so meaningful. I can read Stone Butch Blues as a cisgender lesbian and identify with Jess and her lovers in particular ways. When I read Stone Butch Blues alongside undergraduate readers, they identify with Jess and her lovers in different ways. The novel invites us all into an imaginative space where gender is a site of analysis and investigation in vibrant conversation with class struggle. Perhaps most importantly, Feinberg refuses to provide easy answers about gender while pressing us as readers to create our own answers. Stone Butch Blues is a book that demands with each reading new imaginative possibilities for how to live with and revolt against sex and gender in our world.
Still, Stone Butch Blues frustrates some students. They live in a world today where gender is defined differently; they live in a world where transgender has particular meanings, where experiences in and around the gender system are explained, concretized, even calcified. These students want Jess Goldberg to share their analysis of gender; they want Jess to be a contemporary FTM transgender person. Jess’s refusals to be gender determined, Jess’s refusals to be unchanging, frustrate some readers. They even anger. Jess insists on always being emergent, of evolving, of constantly negotiating. I understand the frustrations and empathize with the desire for solidity, for something firm in which we can believe. I also appreciate Feinberg’s insistence that with struggle as readers with the characters and as people with the conditions of our lives.
Other students recognize Stone Butch Blues as an explication of life before. Before language expresses experience. Before categories emerge. Before boundaries appear. Before flashpoints and skirmishes of who is in and who is out and how someone can be in or out and even both in and out. These students recognize Stone Butch Blues as a novel of process, a novel that values the process of how we come to language and consciousness to name, explicate, and live our lives. They recognize that Feinberg through Jess and the novel nudges all of us to engage in this kind of critical consciousness making.
Though Feinberg would not to valorize consciousness to the exclusion of political action. Such a reading would defame Feinberg and ze’s work. To the end, Feinberg was a person of principle and action, evidenced by her solidarity work with CeCe McDonald near the end of ze’s life. The emergence of consciousness is one part of my understanding of Stone Butch Blues; political action is another part.
The publishing history of Stone Butch Blues binds it intimately to Feinberg’s communities of care and embodies the concatenation of Feinberg’s theories and actions. Firebrand Books, the extraordinarily influential feminist publishing house run by Nancy Bereano, first published Stone Butch Blues in 1993. Stone Butch Blues joined a number of other books on the Firebrand list that defined feminist and lesbian literature, including work by Beth Brant, Cheryl Clarke, Mab Segrest, and Dorothy Allison. Stone Butch Blues was a success for Firebrand and catapulted Feinberg’s reputation in LGBT communities as a key theorist and public intellectual.
Feinberg publish two subsequent books with Beacon, Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman (1996) and Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink and Blue (1999). In 2003, Alyson Books released a ten-year anniversary edition of Stone Butch Blues. In 2006, Seal Press published Feinberg’s Drag King Dreams, a novel that continues to explore the themes of gender transgression and liberation. In 2009, World View Forum published Feinberg’s Rainbow Solidarity in Defense of Cuba. Feinberg’s work found publishing homes with feminist, queer, and progressive publishers, and these publishers enabled the books to reach eager readers.
Until recently, Stone Butch Blues was out of print. These two iconic publishers of feminist and queer literature, Firebrand and Alyson, both out of business, leaving the best-selling, intellectually important, and beloved book out of print. One of Feinberg’s final visions was of a free, accessible edition of Stone Butch Blues. With her lover Minnie Bruce Pratt, Feinberg researched how to create and publish an ebook edition of Stone Butch Blues. Now, one year after Feinberg’s death, Stone Butch Blues is available to readers for free as a PDF on her website and as a bound paperback book that can be printed AT COST through print on demand. Of course, teachers can herald this development—here is a classic queer text available to students for free. These new editions typify Feinberg’s commitments both in the text of Stone Butch Blues and in her life: making material available to the people who need it the most. Feinberg once again is at the forefront of a revolution, this time in digital publishing and the reimagination of how authors use their intellectual property.
Feinberg’s last words were, “Remember me as a revolutionary communist.” The actions surrounding her life and work continue to be a tribute to Feinberg’s final words.
In the Jewish tradition, there is a prayer for mourning, the Kaddish. Mourners recite it in community at proscribed times, marking the phases of mourning and the anniversary of a beloved’s death. While Feinberg was not religious (and I suspect viewed religion skeptically if not derisively as a Marxist), I find comfort in a reenvisioned Kaddish to mark her death, one that affirms Feinberg’s life calls all of us to continue ze’s work. I invite you to read and remember:
May justice and peace grow exalted and sanctified
in the world where we live and love.
May truth reign in our lifetime and in our days,
and in the lifetimes of all humanity
swift and soon. Now say:
Revolution. May our lives be blessed forever and ever.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled,
mighty, upraised, and lauded be our humanity.
Blessed are we all.
Beyond any blessing and song,
praise and consolation are uttered in the world. Now say:
May there be abundant peace
and life upon us all. Now say:
All make peace of the highest order.
May all make peace
upon us and upon all humanity. Now say: