Few novels truly convey the challenges and progression the LGBTQ+ community has witnessed throughout the past few decades in the raw and sometimes even agonizingly honest way that Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues does. The story follows the life of the incredibly resilient Jess Goldberg as they* struggle through an undeniably alienating, confusing, and generally excruciating adolescent existence only to be suddenly thrown into the underground world of queer culture, romance, experimentation, and political activism, while consistently redefining self-discovery. Police raids, drag culture, worker’s strikes, and functioning within personal and romantic relationships all become a part of daily life.
Feinberg accurately portrays the inner tormoil and romantic consequences of growing up as a “stone butch” or a masculine lesbian who’s formed a tough emotional exterior to combat environmental adversity, particularly in the 50’s and 60’s when homosexuality was still illegal and considered a mental disorder. What formed as a sort of mental survival mechanism seems to also inhibit Jess' capacity or reception for true emotional intimacy. As time progresses, Jess discovers the possibility of hormone treatment, which would have been a fairly new addition to the LGTBQ+ community at that time. As a result, their experiences and perspective undergo a distinct shift once again. They are now capable of “passing” as a man.
To fully appreciate this novel, the apparent heteronormative, sexist, judgemental or otherwise upholding of the gender binary within the queer community at the time should not be overlooked or utilized as a point of criticism for the novel itself, but acknowledged as an insightful representation of the times and analyzed with historical context in mind. Perhaps the same can be said about the lack of clarity in whether Jess is definitively a transgender man or otherwise. We can only speculate given the time period and circumstances, which, personally, I find to be realistic given that the vast variety of identities we have today simply had no widely accepted or known terms to describe them during the story’s setting. Though written from the perspective of a genderqueer/trans man, no assumptions should be made as to whether or not our protagonists’ relatablity is subject to the reader’s own identity. Everyone can take something away from this book.
If you want a light-hearted romance that leaves you with a pleasant feeling by the time you’re finished then read something else. Stone Butch Blues will make you cringe. It will make you sad and angry. Most importantly, it will make you passionate, motivated, and leave you with a healthy respect for the sacrifices of those who have paved the way for the LGBTQ+ community today.
*As some reviews/summaries use the female pronoun and some use male due to the above mentioned lack of clarity in precise preference, I have chosen to stick with neutral pronouns. Note that the use of neutral pronouns does not imply plurality in this case.
The book was read and reviewed by volunteer Sarah.