Stone Butch Blues
Front cover of 2004 Alyson Books paperback edition
|Media type||Print (hardcover and paperback)|
|LC Class||PS3556.E427 S7 1993|
The narrative follows the life of Jess Goldberg, who grows up in a working class area of upstate New York in the 1940s-50s. Jess is aware from a young age that she is different from other girls, and often receives the question—"Are you a boy or a girl?"—from strangers. Her parents grow frustrated with the constant onslaught of queries pertaining to Jess’s gender identity, and attempt to discipline her gender expression by confiscating her masculine clothing and forcing her to wear dresses. One day, Jess’s parents discover her dressing up in her father’s dress clothes; horrified, they take her to a psych ward, where she’s institutionalized for three weeks, when Jess agrees to follow her parents’ orders pertaining to dress.
Jess reaches puberty, develops breasts, and begins to feel the weight of gendered difference, expressing guilt and self-loathing in moments when she is ridiculed for not conforming to the standards of femininity. She gets an after-school job at a print shop, where she learns from a coworker of a gay bar in Niagara Falls; when she finally makes it out to the bar, she meets drag queens, butches, and femmes, and feels validated in the company of other gender nonconforming individuals. Jess is adopted by an older lesbian couple, Butch Al and Jacqueline, who give Jess a butch haircut, help her shop for masculine clothing, and teach her how to approach women. The two also talk to Jess about sex, and about the importance of both butch generosity and femme reciprocity.
One night, police burst into the bar and arrest all of the cross-dressers in attendance, including Jess, Jacqueline, and Butch Al. Jess gets roughhoused, while her older two companions are severely beaten and raped. After the bust, the bar shuts down, and Jess loses touch with Butch Al and Jacqueline.
Jess continues to have a difficult time at school, and one day, six boys from the football team harass her for looking like a lesbian. The boys tackle Jess to the ground and gang-rape her. Following the rape, Jess is traumatized, and drops out of school the next day. She packs her bags and runs away from home to avoid her parents' wrath. Unsure of where to go, Jess goes to a lesbian bar, where an older butch named Toni offers to let her sleep on her couch.
Between work and the bar, Jess begins to find her place in the lesbian community of Buffalo. The cops continue to make busts, and one night Jess is arrested, beaten, and raped by several cops. In a numb, foggy, traumatized state, Jess gets into a fight with Toni, and is left homeless once again. She is taken in by Angie, a queer femme sex worker. The two have an emotionally intimate conversation, and then have sex—a first time for Jess. When Angie attempts to touch Jess, she cringes; Angie identifies Jess’s reaction as that of a stone butch, and assures Jess that there’s nothing wrong with being stone, and that her aversion to being touched is not permanent.
In need of work, Jess gets a factory job, where she works alongside several older butches and gets involved in union organization. After standing up for union rights, Jess is alienated by her male coworkers, who harass her on the job. One of the men jams the machine Jess is working on, causing the machine to malfunction, severely injuring Jess, and leaving her out of work. The lesbians at the bar help support Jess through the injury. At her new job at the cannery, Jess meets Theresa, a beautiful femme who flirts with Jess when they cross paths in the bathroom. After Theresa is fired for fighting with her boss after he sexually harassed her, Jess meets her at the bar, and the two begin dating. Shortly thereafter, the two decide to live together. With Theresa, Jess grows up, learns to take responsibility for her behavior in intimate relationships, and learns how to soften her stony exterior in order to grow closer to Theresa. After a short while, Jess proposes to Theresa, and their unofficial wedding takes place at the bar, with a drag queen leading the procession.
The cops continue their occasional raids of the gay bar, and the butches, femmes, and drag queens start fighting back. The bar crowd learns of the Stonewall riot, and are further emboldened to stand their ground. Still, Jess continues to be arrested, brutalized, and raped by the police upon their bar-busts. Theresa cares for Jess following her assaults, and Jess continues to love and trust Theresa. Theresa attends feminist meetings, where the other women accuse her love of butches as a betrayal to the feminine cause. Meanwhile, Jess has a vivid dream where she sees herself with a beard and flat chest. Jess is excited about the vision, and talks at length about her gender confusion; she feels like neither man nor woman, and her dream affirms her nonbinary identification. Theresa, however, is confused by the dream, and encourages Jess to forget about it. Later, the two argue over Jess’s gender identity; Theresa tells Jess she’s a woman, while Jess asserts that she is a he-she, which is different from being a woman. Jess learns that she can take hormones and get her breasts removed, and decides to pursue medical transition. Theresa disapproves, and the two decide to break up.
Jess starts taking testosterone, and her body begins to change; she grows facial hair, her body gains muscle mass and becomes leaner, and her voice deepens. She gets chest reconstruction surgery, and begins to pass as a male. While she is relieved to be safe in public, pass as a man in the workplace, and use the men’s room without harassment, she feels ambivalent for the fact that her transition erases the visibility of her lesbian identity.
After a significant break from dating, Jess develops a flirtation with Annie, a waitress at the coffee shop near Jess’s work. Eventually Jess asks her out, and they have a date at Annie’s house; before they have sex, Jess is able to slip into her strap-on without Annie noticing, effectively passing as male throughout the encounter. The next day, Jess accompanies Annie to a family wedding, where Annie makes several homophobic comments about her visibly gay man in attendance. Horrified by Annie’s use of the word “faggot” and her insinuation that gay people are sex offenders, Jess decides not to sleep with Annie again.
Following several years of passing as a man, Jess makes the decision to stop taking testosterone. Once strangers begin gawking at Jess in public, she knows she no longer passes as male, and begins to feel more comfortable navigating the world in her gender nonconforming body. After running into Theresa and her new butch partner at the grocery store, Jess decides she needs to leave Buffalo, and moves to New York City. Jess moves into an apartment next door to Ruth, a trans woman. After spending several months developing a loving friendship, the two develop a romantic relationship and move in together. Jess begins doing activist work in the city, and gives speeches to large audiences on queer and trans rights.
The novel ends with the two embarking on a road-trip to visit Ruth’s parents, during which Jess is able to return to Buffalo and reconnect with the friends from her past. Jess feels her life coming full circle, and she is filled with hope for her future with Ruth.
The novel was published by Firebrand Books in 1993. It was picked up by Alyson Books in 2003. A 20th anniversary edition was released in 2014 A free e-book edition is currently available on Leslie Feinberg's website. Feinberg requested that the 20th anniversary edition was made available for free as "part of hir entire life work as a communist to “change the world” in the struggle for justice and liberation from oppression."
The book was a 1994 Lambda Literary Award finalist in the category of Lesbian Fiction, and shared the award in the Small Press Books category with Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS. It also won the 1994 American Library Association Gay & Lesbian Book Award (now Stonewall Book Award).
Stone Butch Blues is most commonly described as a genderqueer narrative. It is sometimes seen as postmodern because of the ways it presents gender as a signifier lacking a fixed referent in the body, and the way Jess's identity breaks down the categories of male and female. As such, it is also about crossing boundaries and seeking home. Jay Prosser writes that, "Jess does not feel at home in her female body in the world and attempts to remake it with hormones and surgery." Because of her masculinity, she is also not at home in her community of origin, and thus the search for home becomes a theme as well. While physical changes help Jess to feel more at home in her body, Jess has greater difficulty finding a home in the world. Ultimately the book takes a stance of supporting coalitions.
Jess's stone butch identity illuminates the extent to which sexual trauma can affect one's sexual subjectivity. The first mention of Jess’s stone butch identity occurs in her first sexual encounter with Angie, who tells Jess she is “stone already” after Jess reacts negatively to Angie's attempts to touch Jess in a sexual way. Leading up to this encounter, Jess has experienced rape at the hands of boys her age and police officers. Jess admits to Angie that she has been hurt, but cannot discuss the details. Her difficulty opening up to femmes, both sexually and emotionally, is a sign of the sexualized trauma she experiences both at a young age, and throughout her life by way of police brutality.
Stone Butch Blues is also a novel of the working class. Much of it takes place in factories in Buffalo, NY. The novel involves a great deal of union organizing and discusses the treatment of working class people. The novel shows how gender and class intersect to shape Jess's identity, by portraying her discomfort with the middle-class feminists who disdain both the butch and femme identities that are standards of Jess's working-class community. Cat Moses writes that, "Stone Butch Blues is informed by an underlying yearning for the development of a revolutionary class consciousness among the proletariat, across gender and racial divisions."
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- Clarke, Deborah (2011). "Gender and the Novel". The Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Fiction. Blackwell Publishing. Retrieved 31 July 2017.
- Prosser, Jay (1995). "No Place Like Home: The Transgendered Narrative of Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues". MFS Modern Fiction Studies. 41 (3–4): 484–508.
- Moses, Cat (1999). "Queering Class: Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues". Studies in the Novel. 31 (1): 74.
- "Lan diao shi qiang". WorldCat.org.
- "Stone butch blues Träume in den erwachenden Morgen". Worldcat.org.
- "Stone Butch Blues". Worldcat.org.
- "סטון בוץ' בלוז". Worldcat.org.
- "Nedotakljive". Worldcat.org.
- "Mari-mutil handi baten bluesa". Katakrak.net.
- Free e-book download of Stone Butch Blues
- Leslie Feinberg's official site
- Stone Butch Blues on publisher's site, Alyson.com
- For an interesting look at the history of the gay bars of Buffalo, NY during the time of the novel, see Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis.
- "Building our own Homes: Frustrated Stereotyping in Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues". Warkentin, Elyssa, America@, 2(1).
- Free e-book download of Stone Butch Blues in Basque pdf