Books, Pop Culture

This crucial book on identity and shaming will change your life

"...adults would stop me and ask, 'Are you a boy or a girl?' I'd drop my eyes in shame, never questioning their right to ask." - Stone Butch Blues

 Leslie Feinberg’s seminal work, Stone Butch Blues, came out in 1993, but it’s still relevant and vitally important today. And with the exponential increase of visibility for trans people and genderqueer folks in the last few years, we could all really stand to revisit this novel, trans, queer, or cis, gay or straight. Not only a lifelong activist for LGBTQ rights but of labor and economic justice as well, Feinberg’s life and works are essential to grasping the unfolding of these struggles throughout the 20th century.

Telling the story of a little girl growing up in working class Buffalo, readers are quickly thrust into a world of constant questioning of identity, shame, and willingness to live one’s truth. Jess, the protagonist, is questioned everywhere she goes about her gender identity.

Even as a child, it is difficult for outsiders to grapple with her non-distinct, non-binary presentation. And the ubiquitous shame she experiences as a result is not relegated to the world outside her family’s small apartment. She’s not safe at home either, with her parents openly lamenting her lack of femininity and asking why she can’t be more like her sister. But Jess is incredibly courageous and, even as a small child, unable and unwilling to compromise in order to be more palatable for others.

Jess, the protagonist, is questioned everywhere she goes about her gender identity. Click To Tweet

Witty, visceral, and immersive, Feinberg’s writing grabs the reader from the book’s very opening. The novel traverses the world of factory work, finding love, underground gay clubs, and a lifelong battle for the right to be as one is without needing to justify it. As she grows into adulthood, solidifying her identity as a butch, masculine-presenting woman, Jess’s life is filled with solitude, violent struggle, and heartbreak – but there are also some of the most achingly beautiful moments of solidarity that one could ever hope to experience. And there is triumph – an overall sense of triumph in Jess’s uncompromising life and self-expression.

And it’s here that the real medicine of Feinberg’s work comes into play. To give hope that there are places where one can be, live, and not have to beg for validation or permission from society. That there can be places where those who have struggled as you have, but longer, can tell you that it is possible to live through.

For any little girl who felt betrayed every time someone gave her a doll for a gift, whose parents and classmates shamed her for not wearing dresses – wanting to play dress up in their father’s suit and tie instead. For any little boy who was ridiculed and beaten for wanting that same doll and that same dress. For every child who grew up being told they were not alright in their own skin, that they were doing it wrong, existing badly, and therefore unacceptable – this book is necessary and healing.

And it’s so, so important for members of the cis- and straight communities as well. Click To Tweet

And it’s so, so important for members of the cis- and straight communities as well. Because it gives a beautifully wrought explanation of these struggles – so simply laid bare that one would hope they could feel a glimmer of understanding for it. It might help those who haven’t lived this experience to comprehend even simple things like the violence of misgendering someone through pronouns. It might help people to understand how far we’ve come and how far we’ve still got to go. Throughout the work, it is self-evident Feinberg is an undeniable powerhouse as is her character, Jess.