Stone Butch Blues: Not a Luxury

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Title:Stone Butch Blues
Author:Leslie Feinberg
Publication date: 1993
LC Call Number:PS 3556 .E427 S76 2003

I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit I hadn’t really heard of this book before it was announced as the June reading for the Year of Feminist Classics, and I came into it with a certain trepidation, at least after the first couple chapters, which are deeply disturbing due to the violence that they depict. But what is this reading challenge for, if not to introduce me to books I might not have read on my own? In fact, by the end of the book, I was very glad I had read it. What a great choice for Pride Month.

Stone Butch Blues tells, in first person, the life of Jess Goldberg, who is assigned female at birth and, against the backdrop of the second half of the twentieth century in rural and urban New York, works through the process of trying to find a gender identity that really fits while dealing with the many kinds of violence that American society in the fifties and sixties and seventies and eighties inflicts upon hir–and trying to find love and friendship at the
same time. I’m not entirely certain which pronouns to use for Jess–it’s a fraught question in the book but by the end there doesn’t appear, in Jess’s particular case, to be One True Answer, so I’ll use gender neutral pronouns for now. Someone please tell me if this is wrong–I don’t want to be part of the nonconsensual third gendering that Serano discussed in Whipping Girl, but I’m genuinely not sure what pronoun is preferred. My understanding is that Feinberg uses these pronouns hirself, so maybe they will also be acceptable for hir character, although of course they are not the same person. According to the book’s afterword, the novel is not strictly autobiographical, but does incorporate aspects of Feinberg’s life along with those of many other people zie has known. This is not at all surprising when one considers the depth of experience expressed here.

One thing that’s great about doing this reading challenge is that I get to read all these books together and see all the connections among them. Stone Butch Blues recognizes so many of the issues that have come up in all the other works that we’ve read, and does so so gracefully, that it really becomes possible to see how they all fit together within someone’s life and why it is so important not to atomize these things. Class struggle is almost as important a part of the book as gender injustice; race, police brutality, and the suspicion between rural and urban people also feature prominently. Jess is a blue collar worker and a member of the gay bar culture, and each of these factors is part of hir life in a way that is not at all theoretical.

Stone Butch Blues deals with racism particularly as an important force in the life of several of Jess’s friends and shows them trying to educate hir about the problems they face. Jess is receptive to this, and actually visits Edwin’s bar in the black part of town, despite the trepidations of Ed herself. Jess hirself is also the victim of antisemitism. Feinberg’s care in dealing with race is itself noteworthy, but more interesting is the way that zie exposes the attempts on the part of the powerful to drive a wedge between oppressed groups. There is one point at which Jess is offered a promotion and Duffy, the union organizer, asks her not to take it, because the union has filed a suit to get the job for Leroy, their black coworker who one of the managers wishes to discriminate against. The butches at the factory are also victims of discrimination; not one of them has achieved the status that all the men except Leroy enjoy. Duffy asks Jess to wait, promising to include the butches in the next round of negotiation and stressing the need for unity in the union: “It’s just that there’s gonna be an explosion about Leroy, one way or the other. I’m trying to hold things together this summer, so that we’re strong if we need to strike, you know?” (84)

Although Duffy is a person of good will, and although Jess accedes to this request at this time, there is recognition in the book that this is a very dangerous argument. He is hardly the first person to ask members of one oppressed population to stand aside so that progress can be made for either another marginalized population for the larger whole (the more privileged, of course, benefiting more) . Jess’s friends recognize this, accusing her of selling out. Of course, the real issue here is that Jess, although qualified, has been offered this promotion specifically to sow discord between the butches and the men, thus weakening the union. These perceived differences are being manipulated in order to make it more difficult to challenge this discriminatory atmosphere.
This sheds some light on the notion of unity, which crops up again and again throughout the book. The second wave of the feminist movement makes an appearance in the seventies, and Jess’s partner, Theresa, takes a strong interest in it, but admits that in some ways both she and Jess are shut out–because they are not college educated, and because their gender presentation is not acceptable to the feminist activists Theresa has encountered. Although Theresa hangs a banner in the apartment reading “Sisterhood–make it real,” unity is not a reality. Jess hirself isn’t immune to harboring such prejudices, and has great difficulty accepting the relationship between hir two butch friends.

The book certainly presents many moments of great solidarity as well, but it’s very clear that neither the union nor the feminist movement has really brought unity among the marginalized. But it’s a book about progress. The first few chapters were so full of shocking violence that I was worried that it would be very difficult to get through this book. It seemed that it would be the story of a woman who was constantly subjected to violence by the gender enforcers–parents, bullies, police–in an attempt to beat her butch identity out of her. And I was also shocked by the assumption that arrest in a raid meant being raped by the police (was it really like that??). But as the book moves on, it pays attention to moments of joy as well. And Jess has real agency and a real resilience that carries hir through hard times. By the time that zie bonds with Ruth, we’ve learned that this isn’t a book about oppression so much as it’s a book about surviving oppression, although Feinberg does not allow the threat of violence to fade into the background but instead includes an assault near the end of the book to remind us that neither social progress nor personal growth removes this threat.

The last third or so of the book focuses on Jess’ attempt to find hir voice, both literally (hir jaw is wired together after the assault I mentioned above) and figuratively. Zie begins to study theory and history in an attempt to understand hirself not as a freak or an outsider but as part of a larger group that exists due to normal human variation. In almost the last scene, zie gets up on a stage and speaks at a gay pride protest, calling for acceptance and unity. It’s an inspiring moment, and one that Feinberg uses to articulate both this notion of inclusive unity and a call for action.

Stone Butch Blues isn’t just a protest novel, as much as I’ve made it sound like one here. Jess is a really compelling character with whose struggles we can empathize, even those of us who really can’t claim to have had any experiences like the ones described in the novel. It’s this last part of the book that inspired the title of the post. In some ways, Jess’s search for beauty reminds me of Audre Lorde’s insistence that poetry is not a luxury. It takes a long time for Jess to begin appreciating poetry and art and salads with flowers in them, but these things are all necessary in order for hir to find hir own voice. The book also finds its own voice as Jess finds hirs, taking on a lovely lyricism toward the end and incorporating symbols like circles, birds, night and day. Of course, even if it weren’t compelling as a novel, telling these stories is important and worthwhile–but to hold up the possibility of a life that includes beauty, in contrast to the emotional numbness in the novel’s opening chapters, is very important to the book’s protest novel ethos.

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3 Comments

Filed under Literary thoughts

3 responses to “Stone Butch Blues: Not a Luxury

  1. jenn aka the picky girl

    This is a fantastic exploration of this novel, one I’ve only recently heard about. Thank you so much for it because if I’m honest, if i ever get to this one, it will be a while.

    It sounds as though it’s extremely powerful, and I’m truly astounded at the people who fought for themselves and their space prior to now. Not that it’s easy now, but I will say there has been progress. In that day and age, not so much.

    • Thank you! It’s excellent and you should definitely read it. The grant thing about its taking place over such a long period of time–basically from the fifties to the eighties–is that you can see how progress happens. It’s slow, but progress is made.

  2. Excellent review. And thanks for giving such a full and insightful review. I just didn’t get this one read yet, although your review encourages me to keep trying to run it down. And I loved your reference to Lorde and the need for poetry.

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