Making Stone Butch Blues Into a Movie Is an Insult to Leslie Feinberg’s Legacy

The book cover for Stone Butch Blues repeated over and over.
There’s a casting call out for “Jess” that shows why the project is so problematic.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

According to a recently posted casting call, the classic queer novel Stone Butch Blues may soon become a movie—in direct opposition to late author Leslie Feinberg’s explicit wishes.

Very few details are known about the movie at this time, but the listing says production on an adaptation of Feinberg’s groundbreaking semi-autobiographical novel about lesbian and transgender life will begin in Buffalo, New York, this fall and that the film is being produced by 11B Productions. One of the directors is Jelayne Miles, who previously worked on We’ve Been Around, a series of short films about transgender pioneers. The casting call is for the novel’s main character.

Stone Butch Blues follows the story of Jess Goldberg, a working-class butch lesbian who comes of age in the 1950s Buffalo butch/femme lesbian bar scene. Over time, Goldberg becomes a labor activist, moves to New York City, and eventually decides to transition to male. After living life as a man for a period of years, she returns to life as a lesbian and navigates the line between butch and trans identity. The novel is largely autobiographical, with Jess’ life closely mirroring Feinberg’s, who was a prominent activist and identified as lesbian and transgender at different points in her life.

Stone Butch Blues was a pioneering novel and is beloved by generations of LGBTQ people, especially butch and femme lesbians, and transgender, gender-nonconforming, and gender-fluid people. It is not an easy read, going into the danger people faced at gay bars pre-Stonewall, the sexual violence lesbians endured at the hands of men, and the pain of gender dysphoria and feeling isolated from one’s own community. It is a story of one woman’s emotional journey set against the backdrop of how the gay rights movement evolved over the course of decades and is one of the most influential LGBTQ books of all time. Almost every lesbian I know has a story about how Stone Butch Blues changed their lives—it’s that important.

At this time, it’s not clear how 11B Productions acquired the film rights for Stone Butch Blues, as Feinberg wrote that she recovered the rights to the novel in 2012 after a long legal battle and subsequently retained the complete copyright. It’s possible the movie is a reanimated version of one Feinberg started working on in the 1990s but then abandoned, and is apparently proceeding without the permission of her estate. (11B had not returned a request for comment by the time of publication.)

Feinberg died of complications from Lyme disease in 2014 and is survived by her widow, Minnie Bruce Pratt. When I contacted her, Pratt said that she was unavailable to talk due to personal circumstances but said to refer to Feinberg’s author’s notes for her comment on the movie.

Feinberg’s notes, which can be accessed on the free digital copy of her novel on her website, are adamant in not allowing any film version or other reproduction of Stone Butch Blues. In the afterword to the 20th anniversary addition, she wrote:

No permissions, no contracts, no commercial use, no derivative use, no digital rights.

No adaptations: Don’t tell me you’re honoring me by saying you can tell this story better than I did.

No movie version: I worked briefly on a movie version of Stone Butch Blues until I discovered that the producer’s prospectus was trying to raise capital from investors by offering a sexual fantasy: an invitation to watch butches being raped by police. I requested that no movie be made; I don’t believe any movie can be made true to the intention of the book.

Feinberg went on to explain that she denied allowing derivative works of Stone Butch Blues to be made because she disliked the idea of people giving definitive appearances to her characters, who are interpreted to have a variety of different races and gender presentations. She said she preferred leaving people’s view of the characters up to personal interpretation and wanted their identities displayed through the lens of the reader’s mind, not through what Feinberg said they were. Feinberg wrote:

“Derivative artists … take their individual idea of who is Black or white, fat or thin, able-bodied or disabled—and the derivative artist flattens and concretizes their own interpretation for all time, as if that’s the truth of Stone Butch Blues for all time and all readers. It’s their imagination re-writing the entire book for all readers.”

“Concretizing an interpretation” is exactly what a movie adaptation would do, going directly against what Feinberg so strongly believed.

In the casting call, the marked ethnicity for Jess is “Caucasian.” It is hard for me to imagine Feinberg, whose strove to be staunchly anti-racist in her work, being anything but distressed by that. While she is largely understood to be white, there is no named race for Jess in the novel, and there is no reason that she has to be portrayed by a white actress. Additionally Jess, like Feinberg, is Jewish. Despite this being an important part of the character’s background, the casting call has no mention of Judaism and no request for actors with Jewish heritage or experience playing Jewish roles.

The casting call also says that “Jess presents as a butch female at the beginning of the film, but takes hormones to transition to male for a significant portion of the film. Actors who plan to medically transition but haven’t yet done so or are in the early stages of transition are strongly encouraged.”

Transitioning is not physically or emotionally easy, and suggesting someone enter hormone replacement therapy in the middle of a film shoot is a dramatic ask, no less so than requiring an actor to lose a significant amount of weight or gain a lot of muscle for a role. While trans actors could certainly choose to pursue that challenge, I suspect that the long hours and high stress of a movie set would not be a very good environment in which to navigate a transition.

Additionally, in the book after getting a mastectomy and taking male hormones for a number of years, Jess eventually quits taking testosterone and starts to live as a butch lesbian again instead of presenting as a man. Her experience transitioning is portrayed as traumatizing and ultimately not something she pursues as a permanent life choice, though Jess (like Feinberg) remains closely tied to the trans community. This storyline seems like it could be grueling for someone who is hopefully beginning what will be a positive and beneficial transition experience.

As Feinberg said in her afterword, “respect beings with asking and receiving permission.” This adaptation conveys a lack of respect for Feinberg’s wishes, and will be distressing to many who were deeply touched by her work and are still mourning her untimely passing. There are plenty of other novels and memoirs about the breadth of LGBTQ experience that are just waiting to be brought to the big screen. Leave this one alone.