Published in 1993, this brave, original novel is considered to be the finest account ever written of the complexities of a transgendered existence. Woman or man? That's the question that rages like a storm around Jess Goldberg, clouding her life and her identity. Growing up differently gendered in a blue--collar town in the 1950's, coming out as a butch in the bars and factories of the prefeminist '60s, deciding to pass as a man in order to survive when she is left without work or a community in the early '70s. This powerful, provocative and deeply moving novel sees Jess coming full circle, she learns to accept the complexities of being a transgendered person in a world demanding simple explanations: a he-she emerging whole, weathering the turbulence. Leslie Feinberg is also the author of Trans Liberation, Trans Gender Warriors and Transgender Liberation, and is a noted activist and speaker on transgender issues.
Basically, and no offence to those who identify strongly as butch or femme, I view this dichotomy as a painful canker on the skin of my gender identity. Our society is so married (haha) to the duality of male versus female that we need to subdivide our already overly-simplified gender system into further dichotomous boxes. OK, so you idenify as a "woman." But are you a feminine woman, or a masculine woman? A feminine masculine woman, or a masculine masculine woman? Again, I know that there are people who identify strongly and naturally with a specific degree of butch or femme, and I honor them. But for me personally, this compulsive categorization smacks of insecurity and pidgeon-holing.
For example: I'm very involved with knitting and sewing, putting me firmly in the femme camp. I also champion oft-maligned traditions of domesticity, such as "having a comfortable and fitting space to live in is spiritually important" - femme for sure. But I also have a physically stubborn streak, sometimes known as my "Norwegian" side, which insists on moving furniture without help, paddling the canoe at least as hard as my boat-mate, and carrying desks without emptying the drawers. Classic butch/masculine behavior. I love 1950's women's fashion. On the other hand, I would rather find things in stores myself, rather than asking directions. So what "am" I? And what good would an answer to that question ever do? Rooting around in my bag to find my library card in amongst all the knitting supplies, I joked that I was taking out my "International Association of Femmes" card. "Out of your man's wallet?" countered boss David. Touché.
So much of the time these distinctions seem beside the point, like when my dad and I were building a bookcase together over the weekend. What really struck me about the process was how similar making things is, whether the thing in question is a sweater or a carpentry project. The same principles apply: make sketches, measure twice/cut once, use the completed half as a template for the yet-to-be-completed half, plan out your steps, do a dry-run on the final construction to check on the fit, mark lightly on the outward-facing surface, mirror your shaping from side to side, make sure you have adequate reinforcement on high-stress areas...I could go on and on. I would venture a guess that making any project from conceptualization through realization is a somewhat similar process, whether it be a house, motorcycle luggage, a fancy cake or a gossamer shawl. Yet some of these projects fall into the irrelevant "butch" category, while others are randomly labeled "femme." Even more ridiculous is the manner in which these activities are associated with the identity of the person who does them. If I ever became deeply involved with carpentry or metal-work - and I would love to, someday when I'm living in a larger space - I would quickly become associated with the butch camp, despite my current strong allegiances to the femme life, and despite the myriad similarities between making things out of yarn and making things out of wood or metal.
I have known certain people for whom it has been important that I identify as a femme, usually because they identified as a butch. But I'm really neither; I most strongly identify as a person who likes to make tactile things with my hands, to plan projects and end up with a satisfying and well-executed final project. I take great satisfaction in using the appropriate tool for a given task - a counter-sinking drill attachment to allow a screw to fit flush with the wood surface, or a well-sized crochet hook to wheedle a dropped stitch back onto the knitting needle. The idea that the medium of such a project would speak to my sexual identity seems laughable, at best. When I think about how many everyday activities have been pointlessly infused with gender, it makes me empathize on some small level with Intersexed folks - they are of ambiguous gender back at the first subdivision, which is obviously a tougher row to hoe than just falling between (or among) categories at some later fork in the road. Nevertheless, I think most people will find the system of duality to be frustratingly inadequate sooner or later.
Leslie Feinberg's classic novel Stone Butch Blues does an amazing job illuminating many ways in which people be let down, and - to be fair - buoyed up, by the gender system. I would definitely feel more confusion and resentment toward folks identifying as butch, folks who have sometimes pushed me into a degree of femme-ness with which I was uncomfortable, and who I perceived to be devaluing traditionally feminine attributes, if it weren't for this book. While the prose can sometimes seem a little awkward, it fits the sometimes-awkward protagonist perfectly, and makes for a convincing narrative, and one of the few that can make me cry almost from the moment I pick up the novel. The portrait it paints of growing up radically nonconformist in a stringently rigid gender world makes me realize that I don't have it so bad now, and also explains why the butch lifestyle/image/persona was such an important and hard-won right for the women who lived that way back when they could be thrown in jail just for wearing their hair too short. That resourceful, DIY quality that David associated with butchness, was, at least for butch women pre-Stonewall, born of necessity: they were barred from going into a store and buying mens' clothes. The novel also makes me realize that, ideally, even though butch people of either gender tend to be more invested in the dichotomous gender system than I want to be, they do have deep respect for femmes. This fact is not always apparent just from interacting with butches (or men) on an everyday level, and can be confusing for girls like me, who like to skirt (haha) the gender map, so it was good to have it explored in novel form.
But apart from the Civics lesson, Feinberg's exploration of the unpredictable tergiversations of gender are fascinating and heartbreaking. In multiple passages Feinberg explores the shared toughness of butch women and femme sex workers, who may look like they occupy different extremes of the gender spectrum but actually (in Feinberg's analysis at least) face similar challenges, dangers and humiliations, leading to similar coping mechanisms and emotional scars. The camaraderie among the butch women in the pre-Stonewall bars and the factories where they worked temp jobs is beautifully portrayed, even when it's threatened by conflict or breaks down completely. The tragedies of the gender system are all too apparent as well: when the main character, Jess, starts passing as a man in order to find work during the recession of the mid-1970's, the love of her life leaves her, being unable to reconcile herself to living with a man. Similarly, when Jess finds out that a butch friend of hers has a relationship with another butch, it threatens her sense of self to such a degree that she breaks off the friendship for many years. While she is passing for a man she revels in the strange normalcy of her everyday interactions with the straight world, yet misses the true intimacy she had with her group of butch friends. Toward the end of the novel, Jess says about her new trans friend Ruth "I could tell that womanhood had not come easily to her," and it's something a reader could say about most of Feinberg's characters.
Throughout the novel, this push-and-pull of gender is always present. On the one hand, the fellowship of people from her own gender category provides Jess with a family and source of strength; on the other hand, that community's investment in their own version of the dual-gender system creates a lot of difficulty and sadness for them, on top of the difficulty and sadness generated by interacting with the straight world. I know that people who fall conspicuously outside of gender norms are still victimized on a regular basis in this country, but I like to think that we're moving toward a culture where people of any biological sex can carve out a gender niche for themselves that has all the benefits of Jess's world, and none of the unnecessary tragedy. Maybe I'm a dreamer, but a person doesn't need to be a butch lesbian or a drag queen to look forward to such a future. For ladies who like to ruin their manicures messing around in the dirt, for boys who play with dolls, for girls who change car tires in high heels, for burly dudes who know about home-decorating palettes and girls who know about engine repair, for anyone who has ever mended their skirt, pants or bicycle with a handy roll of duct tape, 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
The political and historical stories have both lost a lot of their impact in the meantime. It's ground that has been gone over by so many other writers since; the only thing that still makes it worth looking at is the immediacy of what is obviously first-hand testimony. The descriptions of police brutality and the constant threat of random violence still have the power to shock, even fifty years on and half a world away.
The more personal story of the narrator's progress from awkward girl to "he-she" to butch to passing male to a kind of gender identity that s/he feels comfortable with has kept more of its relevance. It doesn't attempt to generalise or draw big social or historical parallels, except to establish that gender involves a lot more than "either/or" categories. The narrator's story illustrates the complicated interaction between cultural expectations and individual nature that happens when we don't feel right in the roles that society projects onto us. It makes clear that categories aren't constant in time, space, or social class. There aren't any neat answers: although the narrator seems to have found a workable compromise at the end of the book, we know that there is still a long way to go.
"Woman or man? That's the question that rages like a storm around Jess Goldberg, clouding her life and her identity.
Growing up differently gendered in a blue-collar town in the 1950s. Coming out as a butch in the bars and factories of the prefeminist '60s. Deciding to pass as a man in order to survive when she is left without work or a community in the early '70s.
This powerful, provocative, and deeply moving novel sees Jess coming full circle, learning to accept the complexities of being a transgendered person in a world demanding simple explanations: a he-she emerging whole, weathering the turbulence."
Warning: This is a ramble.
THIS is the book that caused my recent reading and reviewing slump. Having finished Stone Butch Blues, nothing looked in any way interesting enough to move on to. Nothing I typed out made sense, or, even if there was some sense in it, it did not read as anything but a regurgitation of the same thoughts, the same sentiments that so many other reviewers have expressed already.
I think this is the very crux of the problem: this book seems so well known, so "iconic" that anything relating to it sounds a bit unoriginal, a bit cliche.
So, how about we get some of the "cliches" out of the way and see what is left?
- Stone Butch Blues is a "tough" book. True, there are a lot of descriptions of physical and sexual violence, but it also gives a lot of insight into people trying to cope. It beautifully describes characters without over-analysing what makes them tick.
- The story is very moving. Yes, it was written to be deliberately moving but then so is much of literature. And while I admit to being the first to criticise other books for manipulative writing (yes, I am looking at you, The Book Thief), it works in the favour of Stone Butch Blues because the book is somewhat rugged. Stone Butch Blues does not try to manipulate with pompous / pretentious writing. The narration is very down to earth, naturally clunky, and it works beautifully.
- The writing style is atrocious. It is not polished writing, but it works (for me). Most of the book is written from the main characters point of view. It would not befit Jess' character to tell her story in polished or flowery language.
- The book has a political agenda. It is true that the author had strong political convictions and that the book does feature the role and workings of unions. That does not constitute the book itself serving a communist agenda.
- The story focuses too much on the butch/femme dichotomy and not enough on other variances of gender identity. Erm, have you read the book? All of it? To the end? Go read it again. Besides, the story is told from the perspective of one person. It's one individual experience.
- The book is important. I have nothing to add to this.
So, what is left?
For much of the time that I have been thinking about writing this review, all I wanted to do was to join the chorus of readers who have loved this book "so damn much" (yes, that's another cliche). However, I wanted to know why.
Having thought about it, I did not like this book because it is important or moving. Well, at least not exclusively because it is both. I also liked the book for the descriptive detail and because it provided some historical context I was not familiar. The reason I love the book, however, is because as a coming-of-age story, Stone Butch Blues is as powerful as To Kill a Mocking Bird or The Catcher in the Rye or any other you'd care to mention.
It uses the best and worst aspects of humanity, cruelty and kindness, perception and reality, success and failure, to form the individual that is Jess Goldberg.
"My neighbour, Ruth, asked me recently if I had my life to live all over again would I make the same decisions? "Yes," I answered unequivocally, "yes." I'm sorry it's had to be this hard. But if I hadn't walked this path, who would I be?"