AfterEllen.com Book Club: “Stone Butch Blues”

If I had to describe the experience of reading Stone Butch Blues in one word, I’d say: tough. And important. OK, so two words. Like so much of our history: tough, and important.

Here are some thoughts and questions for y’all.

1) I was fortunate to also see Ivan Coyote speak this month, another fantastic storyteller who often writes about gender and the eternal “boy or girl?” question. They brought up Stone Butch Blues briefly, saying, “If I could see Leslie Feinberg now, I’d shake them for the two decades of lesbians who think we don’t want to be touched.” I should note that Coyote also spoke of Feinberg lovingly, saying that the book was incredibly important in their life and that at the time there was “nothing else like it.” After reading the book, however, I can see what Coyote was saying. Jess does have the awakening towards the end of the book that not all butches are the same when she accepts that not all are attracted to femmes. Yet even when she’s discussing this new realization with Frankie at the pier, Frankie herself joins in on the joke of, “Feelings? What are those?,” which seems to simply reaffirm that all butches are, physical desires aside, “stone cold” emotionally. (A fact which is completely contrasted by Jess’s consistently emotional narrative.) While certainly not denying Jess’s experiences or the reality of stone cold butches, I guess what this leaves me curious about is: What is the meaning of “butch,” to you?

2) It’s hard for me to categorize this book as straight fiction, and I don’t think Feinberg herself categorizes it as such, either. I came to think of it as half fiction, half documentary, not that my opinion or any reader’s opinion of how to categorize a book really matters. But because of the obviously deeply personal feel of the book, for so much of it, particularly the first half, the horror that consistently washed over me as we traveled from one tragic event to another seemed even more acute; almost unreal. As in, “I can’t believe this shit actually happened — but I know it did.” Which I know are signs of my own naivete and privilege. It felt like one of those, “Knowing about our painful history is important,” moments, yet transgender rights are still undeniably lagging behind all other queer issues. The question of “boy or girl?” is apparently still more offensive, and more frightening, to people than “gay or straight?” How far do you think we’ve come, politically and as a society, since the tales told in Stone Butch Blues?

3) Perhaps the most fascinating part of the novel for me was Jess’s transitioning. There seemed to be two reasons behind the taking of hormones and the surgery (the surgery being one of the most traumatic parts to read, in my opinion): the first fits in with traditional trans storylines, of the need to conform more to the gender she/ze felt comfortable with, and two, the need to pass simply for her own safety, because living as a man was infinitely more safe than continuing to be a he-she. While the line between these two reasons was often blurry, more often than not the greater reason seemed to be the latter, which made me feel strange, at times. Yet the first reason still had to be true in some capacity, as after she stopped the drugs and transitioned slowly back to a semblance of her former identity, she said that she didn’t regret them, or the surgery.

While I’m not exactly sure what I’m getting at here, I guess what our greater moral lesson should be is this: Stone Butch Blues is often referred to as the first transgender novel. Yet what ended up being interesting to me was that even now, it shows us the layers of what trans can actually mean. So often, people still see it in terms of a binary: male to female, female to male, and those transitions frequently are many peoples’ truths. Yet for so many others, somewhere in between is their true identity. And I loved, loved, loved the character of Ruth, who also lived her own version of this reality, and I believe Jess’s friendship with her was the happiest ending this book could have had. What are your thoughts on it all?

I really strived to also read Drag King Dreams this month and type up some thoughts and questions on that, as well, but I just didn’t get there. I am curious, however, if anyone has indeed read both, and has thoughts on the differences between them. But please feel free to use this space for any other thoughts on either novel!

Another reminder that Stone Butch Blues will be released free online on May Day this year in honor of its 20th anniversary and Feinberg’s decision to take it “off the capitalist market.” All of our thoughts also go out to Feinberg as they currently fight both legal and health troubles, as well as to Kate Bornstein, another trans warrior currently fighting cancer. I also invite everyone to check out the inspiring stories and joy behind the new Trans 100 List, launched yesterday.

I’ll see you back here in a month with thoughts on The Raven’s Heart!

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