The Search for Identity in Leslie Feinberg's "Stone Butch Blues"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2009 18 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature




The Search for Identity in Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues



Before writing this paper, I didn't know what the term “butch” meant. I tried to find out through texts and on the Internet what it meant, and I soon found out that there were many different definitions. I lost myself in blogs of people who defined themselves as butch, and the conclusion was that the definition has to do both with femininity and masculinity. After reading Leslie Feinberg's novel Stone Butch Blues (1993), the meaning of the term was at least a little more clear. I decided to write the paper on this concept, mainly driven by curiosity. It was like looking into a room full of books and feeling the desire to read them all, with the conviction that every book had to tell a different story. I decided to call the paper “The Search for Identity in Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues” because I think that Jess's search goes beyond her self­definition as a butch. The story narrates the search for identity of an individual who has to choose between given categories. At the end, Jess chooses to refuse a stable definition, because no one fits properly. I chose to follow the main character through the search, annotating every stage and trying to find confirmation in the critique.

The Search for Identity in Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues

There are two big questions and three strong feelings that distinctly emerge from Leslie Feinberg's novel Stone Butch Blues (1993). Throughout the whole novel, suffering and anger are constantly present, even if sometimes they are just in the background. But there is as well a feeling of sweetness, which is intertwined with the other two. Anger and sweetness combine in the same person and in the life of this person. The novel could be a novel about the hardness, or, to use another term, the stoniness of frailty. The main character is fragile, because she[1] is searching her own identity in a world which doesn't want to easily concede the definition of it. Without knowing exactly what she is, and without being able to show to others what she is, she is physically and psychically exposed to many attacks. The frailty is hard because despite of all the torments, the main figure doesn't give up and never stops to fight for something she feels as ineluctable. She needs to answer certain questions and brutality may delay or temporarily halt the way to the answers, but it is not strong enough to definitively neutralize them. On the other hand, in the text there are examples of persons destroyed by brutality, like the friend of the main character who ends in a psychiatric hospital. In the Italian introduction of the novel, the editor writes: “Quello che fa la differenza di Stone Butch Blues è la dignità, il coraggio, la forza di Jess e delle altre butch e femme: qui non si parla di vittime, ma di guerriere”.[2]

There are two main questions which never abandon the reader and maybe the main character as well. It seems that the whole existence of Jess Golberg turns round the question of identity. Every happening seems to be correlated to the search of a definition and it questions her role in the world. The second question is the enormous complexity of the aspirated identity. Every possible definition is too reduced or wide. She is not only a woman, she is not completely a man. Her identity can not be solved only with the parameter of sexual desire. She desires women, but not butch women. She desires lesbian women, but what is exactly meant under lesbian women? This is another category which is not easy to define. Beside her sexual life, there are other things which characterize her. She wears man's clothes, she behaves almost like a man. But is this enough to define her a man or masculine? What does exactly mean that she is masculine? She refuses to become completely a man through operation, and when she takes hormones in order to pass as a man, and finally manages to do it, she is not satisfied and the questions are still there, unanswered. How much has the idea of masculinity to do with a masculine body?

The novel begins with a letter. Jess writes to Theresa, a former and never forgotten lover. She remembers how they met, and she remembers the reason for their breakup, even if only later in the novel this is fully explained. Theresa was the one who “could melt this stone”[3] [4], but who finally left Jess, because she couldn't accept her passing as a man and her couple as a heterosexual couple. Theresa probably never gets the letter: “Since I can't mail you this letter, I'll send it to a place where they keep women's memories safe. Maybe someday, passing through this big city, you will stop and read it. Maybe you won’t”.4 So it is more a letter to the reader, in order to make him understand the situation of alienation Jess is in. The abuses at the police station are also partially revealed. The narration of the violences are mingled with the narration of love and of its beginning. Since the beginning, brutality is put beside sweetness.

In the letter Jess defines herself as a butch, but not as a “Saturday Night Butch”[5]. She is a stone butch. According to Gayle Rubin, a butch is “understood as a category of lesbian gender that is constituted through the deployment and manipulation of masculine gender codes and symbols”.[6] In their behavior, desires and interests, butches adopt codes of masculinity, but it is impossible to create an immutable category, because of the variety of human nature and also because “butches vary widely in how masculine they feel and, consequently, in how they present themselves”.[7] What is sure, is a strong presence of the idea of masculinity: “the butch tends to see herself something other than a woman-identified woman”.[8] The stone butch is a particular version of female masculinity and the term was first used in lesbian vernacular in the 1950s. It refers to an ideal version of the butch.[9] [10] One particularity of the stone butch is the refusal to be touched during sexual intercourse. Reason for this refusal could be the fear of being too much womanized, or, as in the novel, the fear of exposing one's body after having suffered humiliation. The stories of humiliated butches are told several times. When they got arrested, they where raped in prison, and it took many weeks to recover from the wounds, both mental and physical. Once at home, the femme, as Theresa, helped their partners, but sometimes it was simply too hard. Strong butch women were reduced to frail suffering beings, and they helped each other. Jess cuddles in the cell her companions, in order to comfort them. The adjective stone seems to be strongly related with such experiences: “The stone is partially a coping method, a method for dealing with the shame that comes from experiencing hatred and being victim of violent crime”. 10 For what concerns the novel, “Jess does generally link her own 'stoneness' to the sexual abuse she has suffered and to her difficulty with intimacy in general, and she sometimes conflates being 'stone' with her feeling of being 'trapped' in her own skin”.[11]

Anyway, the relationship of a butch woman to her body is not the same for all and there are many different kinds of relationships, as Gayle Rubin annotates:

Some butches are comfortable being pregnant and having kids, while for others the thought of undergoing the female component of mammalian reproduction is utterly repugnant. Some enjoy their breasts while others despise them. Some butches hide their genitals and some refuse penetration. There are butches who abhor tampons, because of their resonance with intercourse; other butches love getting fucked. Some butches are perfectly content in their female bodies, while others may border on or become transsexuals.[12]

Since her childhood, Jess knew that she was different, or better the others made her feel different. They constantly ask if she was a female or a male. She is surprised by this question, and she repeats it to the animals she meets, a dog and a crow. Not only this makes her feel between two worlds, as she grows up between two houses. The first house is the one of her parents, the second house is the one of her nurse, a Dineh woman. Jess tells: “And so I grew in two worlds, immersed in the music of two languages. One world was Wheaties and Milton Berle. The other was fry bread and sage. One was cold, but it was mine; the other was warm, but it wasn't”.[13] The statement seems already a metaphor for the division into two worlds: femininity and masculinity. Feminity is the world where she was born into, but it is cold as she doesn't feel completely at home. Masculinity is the world where she feels warmth, but she doesn't belong to it. Her father, like the guardian who should watch over the education of his child, takes her away from the warm house when she is four years old.


[1] I will initially refer to the main character, Jess Golberg, using the pronouns she and her. After the character recognizes herself as a transgender, I will refer to her using the pronouns s/he and hir, following the pronouns used in the critique.

[2] Margherita Giacobino, „IntrAduzione“, in Feinberg, Leslie, Stone Butch Blues, Milano, Il dito e la luna, 2004, p.6. “What makes the difference in Stone Butch Blues is the dignity, the courage, the strength of Jess and of the other butch and femme: they are not victims, but rather warriors”.

[3] Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues, Ithaca, NY, Firebrand Books, 1993, p. 11.

[4] Feinberg, p.12.

[5] Feinberg, p.6.

[6] Gayle, Rubin, „Of Catamites and Kings: Reflections on Butch, Gender, and Boundaries“, from Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (eds.), The Transgender Studies Reader, New York, Routledge, 2006, p. 472.

[7] Rubin, p. 474.

[8] Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity, Durham, Duke University Press, 1998, p. 120.

[9] See Halberstam, p. 102.

[10] Holly Stoffels-Doty, „The Construction of Gender in Stone Butch Blues“, 1998.

Online: www.angelfire.com/on/transtudies/sbb.html

[11] Monika I. Hogan, „Still Me on the Inside, Trapped: Embodied Captivity and Ethical Narrative in Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues“, in Thirdspace, Vol. 3, II, 2004.

Online: www.thirdspace.ca/articles/3_2_hogan.htm

[12] Rubin, p. 474.

[13] Feinberg, p. 14.


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ISBN (Book)
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Dresden Technical University – Institut Anglistik
Stone Butch Blues Leslie Feinberg Feinberg Search for Identity Gender Studies




Title: The Search for Identity  in Leslie Feinberg's "Stone Butch Blues"