Taking a Page from the Playbook of “Stone Butch Blues”

Decades down the line, the tensions between toughness and tenderness in Leslie Feinberg's seminal work still ring true.

“If You Can’t Teach Yourself” is a monthly series in which a young queer woman experiences a cultural artifact beloved by older members of the LGBTQ community, in furtherance of her own queer education. Think of it as a syllabus for Queer Culture 101.

“I love you, Sami. I support you. Just…don’t talk about this online. Okay?”

My mother said these words shortly after the initial shock of me coming out to her wore off. She feared what would happen if I broadcasted my sexual orientation on social media, she told me. She accepted me, but the world out there was tough. Was I prepared to face it if I made myself vulnerable?

It was December 2013, some time in that quiet limbo period between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. As an 18-year-old about to leave home for college, I was in limbo, too. I had one foot on the linoleum floor of my high school and another across the Hudson River at my small college, where I’d soon experience a litany of gay “firsts”—queer poetry slams, drawn-out flirtations, lesbian sex—in the span of a few short weeks. So, instead of heeding my mother’s advice, I tested my “toughness” the only way I’d ever known how: being brutally honest about my strife on the internet.

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“Remember me as a Revolutionary Communist.” – reported last words of Leslie Feinberg . Picture: Leslie Feinberg (Sept. 1, 1949 – Nov. 15, 2014). Photo © Morgan Gwenwald, c/o @lesbianherstoryarchives. . Leslie Feinberg, who died four years ago today, was a pioneering writer and activist who fundamentally altered the discourse about gender and sexuality. . “Stone Butch Blues,” Feinberg’s best-known work, is the partly-autobiographical story of Jess Goldberg, who narrates “into adulthood…and comes to grips with [their] complicated…sexual and gender identity at a time when practicing a so-called alternative lifestyle invited stigma, open discrimination and, in many settings, menacing opprobrium.” With “Transgender Warriors,” Feinberg laid the groundwork for much of the terminology that continues to shape the fight for trans rights; “[t]he struggle of trans people over the centuries,” Feinberg wrote, “is not his-story or her-story. It is our-story.” . Beyond hir (Feinberg’s preferred pronoun) writing, Feinberg also was a lifelong activist: ze organized a 1974 march against racism in Boston, was an early AIDS advocate, and spent much of hir life fighting for reproductive justice. . But it was “Stone Butch Blues,” according to Shauna Miller, that “changed queer history. It changed trans history. It changed dyke history. And how it did that was by honestly telling a brutally real, beautifully vulnerable and messy personal story of a butch lesbian.” . Leslie Feinberg died of complications from tick-borne infections, including chronic Lyme disease, on November 15, 2014; ze was sixty-five. . Feinberg, who was survived by hir spouse, Prof. Minnie Bruce Pratt, attributed hir health crisis to “bigotry, prejudice and lack of science,” issues ze wrote about in “Casualty of an Undeclared War.” #Resist #LeslieFeinberg

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Leslie Feinberg, activist and author of Stone Butch Blues.

I bring up this tension—the pressure to be tough, to be stoic, to protect oneself, and the opposing impulse to be honest, to be vulnerable—because I believe there’s a universality to it. Virtually every queer person grapples with this same struggle: How do I stay true to myself and honest to the world around me in a society that’s designed to oppress me? Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg’s iconic novel following the physically and emotionally tumultuous life of a gender non-conforming butch lesbian in 1970s America, captures this tension in a way that’s both painful to experience and cathartic to see articulated so clearly.

Published in 1993, Stone Butch Blues delves deep into the psyche of protagonist Jess Goldberg, who shares many characteristics and life experiences with Feinberg hirself (according to Feinberg’s official website, the author and activist used she/her and ze/hir pronouns). The thread that ties Jess’ gamut of life experiences together is a tenuous one, and a conflict she identifies early on in Chapter 2, while still a teen:

I was already burning with another question. “Al wants me to be tough. You and Mona and the other femmes are always telling me to stay sweet, stay tender. How can I be both?”

The beauty of Stone Butch Blues, and perhaps the reason the book is cited as the origin of the modern movement for transgender rights, is that Feinberg’s writing offers no easy answer to this question.

The novel opens in an epistolary form, with Jess penning a letter to her ex-lover, a femme named Theresa. “When did we get separated in life, sweet warrior woman?” she writes, meditating on how the world began to change for better and worse when being gay became both a lifestyle and a political identity.

While this introduction to Jess’ character paints her in a softer, more vulnerable light, readers quickly get a front-row seat to her intensely traumatic life. Familial rejection, heartbreak, forced institutionalization, poverty, police brutality, multiple violent rapes—Jess endures all of this and more, all the while learning from her “butch elders” how to build the life she wants and find the love and community she desperately needs.

Eventually, Jess has a dream of her presenting as a man that sparks a gender-related epiphany: she’s a “he-she,” not a woman or a man. Jess’ journey to self-actualization isn’t an easy or linear process by any means, but she navigates it all—bliss while pleasuring femme lovers; physical and emotional agony at the hands of brutal men; trauma that makes Jess a “stone” butch, who’s averse to sexual touch from other women—with aplomb.

As a queer woman reading Stone Butch Blues in 2019, it would be easy for me run a fine-toothed comb through the language Jess uses to explain herself and the world around her. In fact, it would be too easy. Stone Butch Blues is a snapshot of an era before concepts like “transgender” and “gender non-conforming” were commonly articulated, let alone recognized or accepted. “Strange to be exiled from your own sex,” Feinberg writes, “to borders that will never be home.” Jess defies categorization. The novel itself defies categorization.

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. • #lesliefeinberg LESLIE FEINBERG (September 1, 1949 – November 15, 2014) was an American butch lesbian, transgender activist, and author. Feinberg authored "Stone Butch Blues" in 1993. • Her writing, notably "Stone Butch Blues" and her pioneering non-fiction book, "1996's Transgender Warriors," laid the groundwork for much of the terminology and awareness around gender studies and was instrumental in bringing these issues to a more mainstream audience. •••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• Feinberg is one of the 10 influential people behind the plywood portraits created by Silky Shoemaker for our upcoming exhibition, QUEER ICONS. • You are cordially invited to the opening reception on QUEER ICONS on Saturday, May 18 from 6-7 pm. @artyardcenter • This event will be followed by a concert with Alexis P. Suter (#alexispsuter) at 7:30 pm. Tickets for the concert are available on our website. Link in profile. • We look forward to seeing you on May 18th! • @pigpenhaulin #queericons •

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As Julie R. Enszer writes for Lambda Literary, Feinberg’s seminal work “frustrates some students. … Other students recognize Stone Butch Blues as an explication of life before. Before language expresses experience. Before categories emerge. Before boundaries appear. … 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.”

Feinberg died in November 2014 at the age of 65. Before hir death, Feinberg went on to write five more books, including 1997’s Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman, another pivotal work in the canon of LGBTQ writing. Hir work inspired the likes of Alison Bechdel (Fun Home, Dykes to Watch Out For), another prolific butch writer and creative who helped pave the way for generations of queer women and gender non-conforming people to come. In the spirit of Feinberg’s Marxist beliefs, a PDF of Stone Butch Blues in its entirety was made available for free online after Feinberg’s death, including an introduction for the novel’s 20th anniversary in 2013. (Hir author’s note dedicated the book to CeCe McDonald, a black trans woman and prison reform advocate.)

Feinberg’s last words were, “Remember me as a revolutionary communist.” Not a butch lesbian, nor a transgender activist; not a woman, nor a man; not tough, nor tender. Above all, Feinberg wanted to the world to remember hir as a disruptor, a catalyst for a queer revolution.

I don’t profess to have all the answers, but I do believe this to be true: Strength and vulnerability are two sides of the same coin. Maybe there’s toughness to be found in being tender after all.

Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.
@_sammanzella