Leslie Feinberg died Nov. 15. Almost all of the obits mentioned Feinberg’s politics as well as her writing.* “Author and transgender activist Leslie Feinberg is dead at 65,” announced LA Weekly. “Pioneer Trans Activist Leslie Feinberg Has Passed Away at 65,” said Jezebel. These announcements imply that her career as an activist was more important than her work as a writer.
In some ways, this is just as it should be. Feinberg was so devout a radical that Minnie Bruce Pratt, her partner of 22 years, reported that her last words were “Remember me as a revolutionary communist.” That’s some hard-core self-styling, deserving of history’s notice. Besides being a revolutionary Communist, Feinberg was also committed to “anti-racist white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, [and] female” identifications. By all means, let’s remember Feinberg the human being that way.
Still, I worry that Feinberg’s literary reputation is being inscribed in the record of culture as “genre” writing, relevant only to queer readers or to those researching the history of queerness. This does the canon of American fiction a grave disservice, because Feinberg’s 1993 novel Stone Butch Blues, the cornerstone of her career, is a very good book by any measure. Leslie Feinberg the writer needs no qualifying adjectives placed before her name.
Stone Butch Blues tells the story of Jess Goldberg, a baby butch growing into a new identity in defiance of the horrific institutional violence of pre-Stonewall America. Defining human beings is always unsatisfyingly reductive, but, in short, stone butches are lesbians (though many are trans, many are not) who top their partners and don’t like to be touched. It is a rich subculture, complete with great clothes and a storied history; Stone Butch Blues is a key part of it.
At its core, Jess’ story is about the difficult fact that the self is a created thing, formed both voluntarily and involuntarily. Jess knows what she wants to be—a butch who commands respect, knows the love of a good femme, lives a true and authentic life—but she has no idea how to get there. With the help of the queer community and an indomitable determination to exist, Jess embarks on a transformation that eludes definition. Her journey is active, self-motivated, exploratory, and affirmative.
As a teenager and as an adult, however, Jess is irrevocably shaped by passive experiences of violence and marginalization. Jess is raped, beaten up by cops, set up to be injured by a factory floor manager, and spoken to by doctors as if she were subhuman. Jess’ character is in large part forged by terrific external pressure exerted upon it by more powerful people, usually men. The voluntary and the involuntary forces shaping Jess’ identity therefore exist in vibratingly difficult tension throughout Stone Butch Blues, lending the frisson of complexity that every literary Bildungsroman must possess in order to be good.
Take for example the following excerpt, describing Jess’ first experience of being rounded up and thrown in jail by homophobic cops:
The drag queens were in the large cell next to ours. Mona and I smiled at each other. At that moment three cops ordered her out of the cell. Her body pulled back slightly. She had tears in her eyes. Then she walked forward with them, rather than be dragged out.
I waited. What was happening?
About an hour later the cops brought Mona back. My heart broke when I saw her. Two cops were dragging her; she could barely stand. Her hair was wet and stuck to her face. Her makeup was smeared. There was blood running down the back of her seamless stockings. They threw her in the cell next to mine. She stayed where she fell. I could hardly breathe. I spoke to her in a whisper. “Honey, you want a cigarette? Want to smoke? C’mere, over by me.”
She looked dazed, unwilling to move. Finally she slid over to the bars beside me. I lit a cigarette and handed it to her. As she smoked, I slid my arm through the bars and touched her hair gently, then rested my hand on her shoulder. I spoke to her quietly. She didn’t seem to hear me for a long time. Finally, she leaned her forehead against the bars and I put both my arms around her.
“It changes you,” she said. “What they do to you in here, the shit you take every day on the streets—it changes you, you know?” I listened. She smiled. “I can’t remember if I was ever as sweet as you are when I was your age.” Her smile faded. “I don’t want to see you change. I don’t want to see you after you’ve hardened up.”
OK, so the dialogue is a little bit hokey. “It changes you” is not a very subtle way of describing what police violence does to a transgender person, although it is certainly true.
But the rest of the passage is writing of extraordinary quality. Feinberg sets up the space of the scene first: two smiles locking with each other, two cells beside one another. A line of sight connects the two queers. Bars keep them apart, alone, enclosed. Then, another dualism. Mona walks in order not to be dragged. Her body is “pulled back” a little at the same time that it moves forward. We have the sense of doubled motion, of the possible and impossible happening at the same time. It feels surreal, like trauma. Alone in a paragraph that lasts for an hour, Jess waits.
Mona returns utterly passive. She does not walk back, she is “brought” by the cops, who are “dragging her.” Her body is neither pulled back nor is it walking forward. It is a battered thing moving unidirectionally: dragged then dropped. Mona becomes an object without its own force of motion. “She stayed where she fell.”
The detail of the “blood running down the back of her seamless stockings” is heartbreaking and note-perfect. What could be more of a “seam” than a line of blood? The illusion of the stocking remains, the leg itself stays beautiful and real, but the blood that runs down it reveals the body within to be not just vulnerable but also under an attack that seeks to destroy it. A carefully chosen stocking is a repository for and symbol of Mona’s chosen self. The line of blood has been drawn for her by cops, her very being rent and spoiled. On the inside and on the outside, this human being has been restyled. The police will not allow her to live seamlessly.
The cigarette-sharing passage is equally good. The straightforward prose knocks at the heart: “Finally, she leaned her forehead against the bars and I put both my arms around her.” Jess is, we learn, capable of real tenderness. Mona knows that this will not last, that the brutality of homophobic violence will knock the sweet corners off Jess’ personality, until she doesn’t know how to be nice anymore. Living an authentic life will cause Jess to suffer and to change.
This is the thematic paradox at the heart of Stone Butch Blues, and every detail of police assault and buying suits and dancing with femmes and needing to love but not wanting to be touched pours meaning into it. Jess will become an authentic being through a process of outward self-expression, but that self will inevitably be bricked in behind a wall of toughness, because that’s what stone butch-ness means. Feinberg’s book is an ode to a way of being that is characterized by contradictions but which is, nonetheless, beautiful and true. If that’s not a brilliant subject for a book, I don’t know what is.
June Thomas wrote last week that “On the rare occasions when people have unironically handed me a book and declared that it changed, or perhaps even saved, their life, it has almost always been a dog-eared copy of Stone Butch Blues.” This wasn’t the case for me—I only got around to reading it at the ripe old age of 27, by which time I had many years of queer living under my belt. I had the privilege of growing up largely free of the threat of homophobic violence, but Stone Butch Blues blew my mind anyway. So, there you have it—a blithely complacent literary queer like me read it and loved it without reserve, so you can, too. Read it if you’re gay. Read it if you’re straight. Read it if you’re middle-aged or elderly or a teen who hasn’t yet decided what to grow up to be. Just remember: Great art is for everyone, not just the gays.
*As Feinberg’s partner of 22 years, Minnie Bruce Pratt, noted in the obituary she wrote for Workers World: “She preferred to use the pronouns she/zie and her/hir for herself, but also said: “I care which pronoun is used, but people have been respectful to me with the wrong pronoun and disrespectful with the right one. It matters whether someone is using the pronoun as a bigot, or if they are trying to demonstrate respect.’ ” Outward has chosen to follow Pratt’s pronoun usage.
Correction, Nov. 25, 2014: This post originally quoted Leslie Feinberg’s obituary from the Advocate. The Advocate quote contained a typo. The post has been updated with a corrected quote from Workers World.