Edited by Karli Wessale
Art by Priyanka Meenakshi https://www.priyankameenakshi.com/
“Strange to be exiled from your own sex to borders that will never be home” (Feinberg, 19XX, pg. 11).
Leslie Feinberg’s words echo in my head. I think about how strange yet familiar the feeling is of finding a work of fiction that you relate to on such a deep and personal level. I’m a trans man and I first started transitioning two years ago, in which time I’ve searched libraries, websites, lists upon lists of queer authors and gender theorists, all in the search for an answer to a question I can’t quite put into words. I wanted to find an account of someone who felt like I did. When you’re straight and cisgender, your sexuality and gender are never called into question by the literature surrounding you, but when you’re trans or queer, your identity becomes academic. Something to be debated around a table of people who don’t identify as you do. As a friend put it: “Cis people have gender, trans people have gender identities.”
I picked up Stone Butch Blues, a novel by Leslie Feinberg, at my university library a couple of months ago. Although it is a work of fiction, there are undoubtable parallels between the protagonist Jess Goldberg and Feinberg’s life. It describes parts of queer history that still feel relevant to today: even the most shocking aspects of queer life in the 50s and 60s – the raids, the police brutality, the sheer amount of hatred, the unliveable atmosphere, the class struggle – still happen now, particularly in communities of queer, trans, and intersex people of colour. As Jess describes her childhood tormentors, I feel mine.
Feinberg describes, in a heartbreakingly complex way, the intricacies of not feeling male or female. Jess’ life revolved for so long around being seen as a butch woman that it’s hard for her to let go. She decides to take steps towards passing as male for two reasons: safety, and to get the body she desires. But that body comes at a price. “I feel like a ghost… Like I’ve been buried alive. As far as the world’s concerned, I was born the day I began to pass. I have no past, no loved ones, no memories, no me. No one really sees me or speaks to me or touches me” (Pg. 213). No longer able to see herself and construct her identity in relation to her femme lovers, Jess feels lost and lonely. “I don’t feel like a man trapped in a woman’s body. I just feel trapped” (Pg. 158).
As a trans and queer person, it’s easy to feel like your history has been taken away from you: both your personal history and the history of your community. Academia does very little to help strengthen these historical bonds, due to a pervasive idea that personal experience is of less value, or emotional engagement compromises academia. This is reflected in the willingness certain institutions have to pit a trans person against a transphobe for the sake of ‘academic debate’, rather than actually fight for recognition of trans people in the field, and a great deal of gender studies literature runs cold fairly quickly in its attempt to depersonalise experience of gender. Stone Butch Blues does the opposite of this, creating a highly emotive atmosphere whilst still clearly communicating ideas, and continuing to value personal experience.
“You and I have to hammer out a definition of butch that doesn’t leave me out. I’m sick of hearing butch used to mean sexual aggression or courage. If that’s what butch means, what does it mean in reverse for femmes” (Pg. 274). What does butch mean now? Has its definition become any more inclusive? There isn’t a language for butch people to talk about their feelings. Jess talks about the need for “butch words to talk about butch feelings” (Pg. 275). This rings true in academia too. The language used for butch identities isn’t created by butch people, or for them. Stone Butch Blues begins to develop that language in a way that includes all conceptions of the term butch.
Despite all of the hardship Stone Butch Blues ends positively, which, considering the age of the book, is extremely refreshing. It is a story of carving your place in a world that’s pitted against you, and Feinberg describes what it is like to feel trapped in your body, and in the world at large. The novel covers many intersecting aspects of queer and trans life, from problematising binary structures in LGBT culture to handling class conflicts, which many modern feminist texts fail to cover with enough nuance. Jess’ struggles with the gender binary deserve academic attention, but as her friend tells her, “you’re more than just neither, honey. There’s other ways to be than either-or. It’s not so simple. Otherwise there wouldn’t be so many people who don’t fit. You’re beautiful, Jess, but I don’t have words to help people see that” (Pg. 218).
Feinberg, Leslie. Stone Butch Blues. Firebrand Books, 1993.
About the author:
Ronan is currently studying a BA in International Development with Spanish at the University of Sussex. He has found his course fairly disappointing in its reflections on gender and LGBTQ+ studies, so is working to increase his awareness of the links between LGBTQ+ issues and development studies in the hope to improve representation in the field.