Fight for your Right to Good Books

Thu. November 11, 2004 12:00 AM
by Jill Craig

Leslie Feinberg is clearly not a writer. She says it herself in the afterward of my ten year anniversary edition of Stone Butch Blues; “I wrote [Stone Butch Blues] not as an expression of individual ‘high’ art but as a working-class organizer mimeographs a leaflet – a call to action.”

If you are in any way a queer reader I am sure you have heard of this book. I have been out for almost five years now – and secretly been reading queer literature for many more – and was given a copy of this book when a friend found out that I had not yet read it. “It’s a lesbian classic,” she said.

This “classic” is the story of Jess and her survival across the country and through many volatile decades. We first meet Jess when she’s just a misunderstood child. She lives with her parents in some unnamed desert and, as though her parents do not have enough to worry about with the rocky 1950’s economy and being the only Jews in a Catholic neighborhood, Jess plays rough and refuses to wear a dress to temple.

Jess gets beaten and raped at school, her parents pretend not to notice. She is an odd child; she makes her parents uncomfortable, so of course they treat her like garbage. These early experiences set the tone for the rest of Jess’ life; the cold warehouses and gay bars of Buffalo, New York are not much friendlier and I winced throughout this novel as cops, bosses, random assholes on the street, dished out beatings to anyone and everyone who did not appear as a straight man or straight woman. Did this really happen? It is difficult for me to picture a world where going to a gay bar is a crime, considering that queer law enforcement and politicians march in the parade, I got hit on by two cops in one night at Spin; maybe we are not equal citizens, but it seems like we have always had some sort of safe space. Feinberg fails to put these policies into context; they simply exist.

Jess and her friends live through THE most pivotal era of queer history, though Feinberg glosses over it so quickly that less thorough readers are likely to miss it altogether. I would expect a butch lesbian - so desperate that she began taking hormones in order to pass as a man - and her gender-bending friends, to take a little more interest in the inciting moment of the queer rights movement – Stonewall. Jess does attend a rally, she even gets up on stage and shares her story, but Feinberg never captures the excitement, the electricity, the hope, that was born during these transitional times.

Although Feinberg never provides a healthy discussion or consideration of any issues, she does touch on some that still remain in our community. When a fellow butch reveals to Jess that she has taken a butch lover, Jess is immediately disgusted. She does not know what to think and can hardly stomach the idea of the two of them in bed together. Jess shuns her friend until she comes to the slow realization that, in a community so hated and rejected by society at large, there is little room for disgust or rejection. The “mechanics” of two very similar women in bed together is an issue that compels so many of our straight friends to ask embarrassing questions, and judging from Feinberg’s explanations, this is nothing new. Though Feinberg makes a point to raise this issue, she offers no solutions (I have plenty, but you have to email me to hear those).

Some of the femmes in Stone Butch Blues get chided by their straight co-workers for taking butch lovers. Again, this is an age old issue that Feinberg merely acknowledges. If this activist, a woman who has supposedly lived through it all, cannot help a sister out with a good comeback to “why date a woman who looks like a man, when you could just date a man” then we may all be in serious trouble.

Or maybe not. I have some pretty good comebacks to this question, and I am sure that most of you that like your women a little rough around the edges do, too. Feinberg’s lack of snappy retorts is not the real issue, however, it is her novels status as a classic. Should we regard this confused, detached, poorly developed book as part of the foundation of our cultural literature? Do we have a choice? Should we ignore the lack of literary merit and celebrate Feinberg simply because she tried? Doing so will only get us so far. We need to be honest about our literature and our art, we need to evaluate honestly and fairly, and we need to stop embracing sub-standard offerings simply because they have queer subject matter. Demand more from your books, from your art, from your representation in today’s culture. After all that we have been through as a community and as individuals and couples and families, we certainly deserve it.

Buy Stone Butch Blues on

Stone Butch Blues was first published in 1993 by Firebrand Books. The Alyson Books edition was put out in 2003.