The Importance of Leslie Feinberg

Stone Butch Blues was a gateway for me to understanding love, gender expression, and my girlfriend. It should be up there with the classic coming-of-age novels.

1993 was a hard year to be queer. For one thing, almost anyone who used the word "queer" was probably about to kick your ass for being one. MTV was starting to talk about safe sex and condoms, which just seemed like code for, "Warning: Gay people ahead, kids." But it was a year before "The Real World: San Francisco" introduced to the mainstream Pedro Zamora, an out gay man living with HIV. Matthew Shepard had five years to live before he'd be beaten and left to die tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyoming. Lea DeLaria—decades from mainstream fame on Orange is the New Black—went on The Arsenio Hall Show to declare ''It's the 1990s! It's hip to be queer, and I'm a bi-i-i-i-ig dyke!''

I was a little dyke, though I wasn't calling myself that then. I was getting ready to enter my freshman year of Catholic high school. That Arsenio episode was on past my bedtime, but I knew of Lea DeLaria. She was the pretty much the one visible butch lesbian I could identify in 1993, even though I didn't know what "butch" really meant then. I had an idea, though, and it was bad. It was worse than queer. It was a betrayal of womanhood. It was dangerous.

In 1993, butches were "bulldaggers," "too fat to get a man," "too ugly to get a man." You were a "cow"; I know that from walking through the halls of my high school, where my big, bald girlfriend and I got spit on and mooed at daily.

What did it mean that I didn't "look like" a lesbian? That I was feminine but liked girls that weren't? This sounds insane to say now, after we've survived the entire story arc of The L Word, but there weren't many "femme" lesbians to look to, either. I'd seen some fake ones in magazines I wasn't supposed to be looking at, but those were hardly images of relationships. Feminine lesbians were just doing it to get attention from guys. We would change our minds.

I started dumping my allowance at the local gay bookstore. (RIP and forever thanks to Lambda Rising in Dupont Circle.) Amid the leather and BDSM boy stuff, I was drawn to the vintage shelves stuffed with pulp books from the '60s, especially Ann Bannon's "Beebo Brinker" novels, full of the Sturm und Drang of old-school butch-femme relationships. So much fighting, so much drinking, so much of the butch staying out all night or speeding away from the femme's life forever on a motorcycle. So many flowers, making up, slow dancing. I was entranced by the detail the butches' clothes were rendered in: Their femmes ironed their shirts, laid out their cufflinks, scrubbed their factory coveralls. It was back to the Stone Age in terms of feminism, but was it? These were women having real relationships with each other. But why were the butches so hardened? So mean? So withholding? They were women; certainly I could understand them. Surely I could get through.

(This is the sound of a million femmes laughing at me.)

In 1993, transgender activist Leslie Feinberg published Stone Butch Blues, hir second book, a novelized version of hir life so far as a butch lesbian. (Feinberg published six books, including Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come (1992), Transgender Warriors: Making History (1996), and Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue (1999). Feinberg, who died Saturday at 65, preferred the pronouns ze and hir.)

Stone Butch Blues wouldn't make it into my hands for more than 15 years, which is unfortunate because it changed queer history. It changed trans history. It changed dyke history. And how it did that was by honestly telling a brutally real, beautifully vulnerable and messy personal story of a butch lesbian. A stone butch. In 2010, I had just started dating a butch, the love of my life. And I had all the same questions I did in 1993—and a lot more.

I wouldn't blame you if you thought the audience for Stone Butch Blues must be incredibly limited. (You'd be wrong: It's been translated into Chinese, German, Italian, Dutch, Slovenian and Hebrew.) Admittedly, the "Who Cares?" barriers are high. It's about a woman. It's a about a gay woman. It's about a sexuality and gender expression that's hard for even the narrator in question to understand. The story itself is pre-Stonewall, and it was published pre-Internet. It could seem antiquated and irrelevant to young people today, kids with the freedom to embrace their queerness—and especially their genderqueerness and identity fluidity—with actual communities they can turn to, Tumblrs they can learn from each other on, and role models they can Tweet at. Who wants to read story about some crusty butch who can't open up to her lovers? To anyone?

I did. My god, I was dying for it. I read that book with big, round eyes and a highlighter. Stone Butch Blues was the heartbreaking holy grail of butch perspective. The main character Jess Goldberg, is always on the move—either trying to find a new spot to maybe fit in, or more likely rest a while before being forced to move on for her safety. Her appearance is an affront. Her appearance is aggressive. It puts her life in danger. It puts her livelihood in danger. It's dispersed any biological family. Her appearance has cost her everything.

But the depth and beauty of Stone Butch Blues comes from the way Feinberg takes the reader down the path of realizing what butch identity means—and what safety and self-acceptance inside that identity means—with her. Jess's identity is so much more than her appearance. It's more than her choice to work in a male-dominated factory world. It's more than those simple and severely punished offenses against both womanhood and manhood. It's more than the fistfights with other butches as a desperate attempt at intimacy, more than disappointing her great love, Theresa, with her emotional and intimate distance. By the end of this book, butch identity comes from letting love's light trickle through a crack in the armor. But first the reader needs to understand where all the armor came from. "I felt as though I was rushing into a burning building to discover the ideas I needed for my own life," Jess writes. That's heavy gear to carry.

Leslie Feinberg puts the reader through those paces with a narrator that, strangely, could put any man or woman at ease. Maybe it's that the character—hirself, really—inhabits a body without traditional proscriptions (Jess considers breast-reduction surgery and tries male hormones, but ultimately feels most comfortable living on the transgender spectrum), but has needs so familiar to any of us that it becomes a story of everyman. Except, importantly, this is not the story of a man; it's the story of a masculine-identified woman, yet still so accessible in its intimacies. “I began to feel the pleasure of the weightless state between here and there,” Jess says.

Leslie Feinberg died this past weekend of complications related to Lyme disease, which ze'd been struggling with for decades. Ze leaves behind hir partner, poet Minnie Bruce Pratt, and hir chosen family. Ze also leaves behind me, a femme in love with a butch whose stone I misinterpreted as passivity and coldness. Stone Butch Blues taught me that butchness is wanting. Butchness is aggressive passion restrained by expectations and protections you've had to build to protect your heart and your life. Butchness is a romantic, pleading heart under a heartbreaker's leather jacket. Butchness is not always being able to ask for what you want, but wanting to be understood and supported and loved and cared for so badly, as much as any of us. As much as any femme ironing a work shirt, who finally gets it that the butch woman she loves just wants to feel safe and put the armor down for a little while.