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Literature / Stone Butch Blues

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Stone Butch Blues is a 1993 semi-autobiographical novel by transgender activist Leslie Feinberg. It follows the story of Jess, a "he-she" (later "butch," as the story progresses and she hates herself less) from a working class Jewish family. After she is raped on campus by members of the football team trying to "cure" her and the crime is dismissed by the school authorities, she runs away from home and begins a new life, growing up under the supervision of older lesbians, who provide her with a sense of community. Later, she becomes a union activist.

The story explores gender, sexuality, and intersectionality from the perspective of a character trying to find a place in life. Jess undergoes hormone therapy in order to transition to pass as a man, but ultimately decides that she is tired of living in a way that feels unauthentic and stops taking testosterone. While she/her pronouns are used to refer to Jess, in today's terms, Jess would likely identify as nonbinary or genderqueer.

The novel is very much Truth in Television for the time period, and that should depress you.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Ambiguously Gay: After she starts passing as a man Jess has a complicated tryst with a woman who seems to think of Jess as a man, but as they eventually part ways it is unclear if she wasn't actually aware that Jess wasn't a cis man.
  • Ambiguous Gender Identity: Jess. She outright states that she doesn't feel like a woman, but she isn't a man either. Removing her breast tissue is something that she doesn't regret, but she has complicated feelings on transitioning. The changes brought about by testosterone don't seem to distress her so much as the feeling of passing as a straight man, and in the end she gives up on attempting to pass.
  • Attempted Rape: When it's not successful, although it sometimes is.
  • Big Damn Heroes: At the union protest, Jess manages to get the entire strike to rescue Jan and the others arrested.
  • The Big Rotten Apple: Jess's first few months in early 80s New York are not pleasant at all. Things do get better, though.
  • Butch Lesbian: Exactly What It Says on the Tin
  • Bury Your Gays: Notably, this hardly applies to all of the queer characters in the book. However, at the time, it was Truth in Television, and there were very high rates of both suicide and homicide of queer people, which is reflected in the novel. Incidentally, the page image, from Watchmen, is the same timeframe.
  • Cast Full of Gay: There also are many transgender characters and others who fall outside of the binaries of male/female and gay/straight, but the number of heterosexual cisgender characters can be counted on fingers. Quite the Justified Trope, considering the novel is about the LGBTQ community, although quite unique at the time it was written.
  • Closet Key: A rare gender related example - when Jess first meets Rocco, an FTM who is transitioning, she is immediately transfixed. She later explicitly imitates Rocco and seeks advice both from him and from his girlfriend.
  • Coming of Age Story: Early on, although Jess keeps growing as things progress, and being "old", mentally vs. physically, is often discussed.
  • Cure Your Gays: Jess' parents caught her wearing her father's clothes when she was a young teen and admitted her to a psych ward until she lied her way out of there. This narrative is also part of what makes the rapist policemen so insidious.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: A large portion is set in pre-Stonewall America. Needless to say, it's fucking terrifying. And not even exaggerated.
  • Drag Queen: Several of the characters in novel identify as drag queens, though it might be safe to assume at least some of them would identify as trans women in today's terms. Importantly, the drag queens and the butch women share a unique solidarity in the novel that is rarely explored in other media.
  • Drugs Are Bad: One former friend becomes a hooker strung out on heroin.
  • Family of Choice: One of the earliest queer works to explore the very important queer notion of chosen family. After running away from home at sixteen Jess cuts ties from her biological family and finds her family among the LGBT community at the bars and factories.
  • Forced Out of the Closet: Jess' old unionist friend accidentally outs her as a woman in the factory by using the wrong pronouns. She quits her job there before they can fire her (or report her actions to the police).
  • Gender Traitor: Theresa leaves Jess specifically because Jess is undergoing FTM transition. However, while some of the other fems that Jess and Theresa hang out with consider FT Ms traitors, Theresa specifically says that she understands Jess' choice but she doesn't feel like she could be with a man as a lesbian.
  • Heteronormative Crusader:
    • The various groups of men who rape Jess to "fix" her are the extreme end of this.
    • Also, when one of the older butches dies, her family refuses to allow anyone dressed "butch" to attend, forcing all of the butches to wear dresses. When Jess arrives in her usual apparel, she is forced to leave and the funeral becomes closed to anyone but family.
  • Incompatible Orientation: This becomes an issue between Jess and Theresa when Jess begins her FTM transition.
  • Lady Looks Like a Dude: Jess undergoes being called "it" and faces other harassment from those who cannot determine her gender.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: All of Jess' love interests identify as Fems and are described as what we would call now lipsticks, especially Theresa.
  • No Periods, Period: Also averted, as the discussion of menstrual blood comes up frequently. When Jess decides to stop taking hormones, her period returns, and she destroys her underwear rather than risk having to answer questions in the building's laundry room.
  • Old Friend, New Gender: At her most hormonally-induced masculine, Jess is still recognizable to people from her old life.
  • Queer Flowers: The lesbian couple Edna and Butch Jan eventually open a flower shop together named Blue Violets. When Jess visits them, she first sees Jan "bent over a crate of violets."
  • Rape and Switch: Jess is separately gang raped, as a teenager and later as an adult, by different groups of men who are trying to "fix" her sexuality. She remains a lesbian, and only becomes more traumatized.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Stated verbatim by the offenders - this particular brand of violence is meant to humiliate the butch lesbians and break their spirits.
  • Real Women Don't Wear Dresses: Many of the butches believe this, and Jess does too, although her refusal to wear a dress to a funeral causes her ostracization from both worlds.
  • Red Scare:
    • The story takes place between the mid 60's and late 70's, with the Vietnam War making headlines in the background. In that political atmosphere, is it a wonder even union activists are terrified of being called communists?
    • Even Jess, who is an ardent believer in organized labor, is practically horrified to hear her friend might be communist.
    • When Gay Conservative (ish) Grant wants to insult anyone (especially Theresa) she calls them Dirty Communists.
  • Sex as Rite-of-Passage: Rather than humorous, Jess' first time with a woman is sweet and loving.
  • Totally 18: When Jess runs away from home, she is sixteen. She winds up at a lesbian bar, claiming to be 21 so that they will serve her a drink.