Photos by Maddie McEwen/OutWrite
This article was originally published in our Winter 2023 print issue “Culture.”
“There were people who were different like me inside. We could all see our reflections in the faces of those who sat in this circle. I looked around. It was hard to say who was a woman, who was a man. Their faces radiated a different kind of beauty than I’d grown up seeing celebrated on television or in magazines. It’s a beauty one isn’t born with, but must fight to construct at great sacrifice. I felt proud to sit among them. I was proud to be one of them.”– Leslie Feinberg, “Stone Butch Blues”
Content warning: homophobia, transphobia, mentions of sexual assault
Leslie Feinberg’s historical novel “Stone Butch Blues” voices the experiences of many butch and transmasculine individuals. In a transformative exploration of queer recognition and the way it damns and redeems us, the novel unearths critical queer history and underlines the importance of intersectional solidarity. Courage, loneliness, and understanding echo through the story of the butch protagonist, Jess Goldberg.
The novel begins with Jess’ disconnect from other feminists, including other lesbians. Despite butch and femme lesbians’ willingness to join the 1970s women’s liberation movement, second-wave feminists largely rejected their collaboration.1 They accused butches of abandoning femininity and wanting to be men, and femmes of sleeping with the enemy and contributing to their own oppression via their hyperfeminine gender presentation.
Today, butches and femmes receive similar criticisms from the online queer community. Some see the butch-femme dynamic as a regressive adherence to the gender binary, and butches as proponents of toxic masculinity. However, this outlook ignores the rich history of butch-femme bar culture and the nuances of queer masculinity and femininity.
In actuality, butch-femme bar culture arose out of necessity. In the 1960s, law enforcement practices such as the informal three-article rule still existed and terrorized queer people’s existences. Visibly queer people suffered from recurrent street violence.2 Queer bars represented a rare space for queer people to gather, and even then the police regularly raided the bars and beat and raped their patrons.
Furthermore, butch-femme bar culture has historical roots in the working class. Butches were often factory workers, and femmes were often sex workers. Both butches and femmes faced physical and sexual violence due to their gender nonconformity and their unsafe working conditions, respectively. As a result, butch-femme partnerships were commonly rooted in shared trauma and survival tactics.
While butches are not always women, butchness has never necessitated hating or rejecting womanhood. The butch identity has historically encompassed aspects of both sexuality and gender, and has always included people who we would describe as nonbinary and/or transmasculine today. Significantly, for much of Western history, transmasculine people have struggled to secure the language and resources to live authentically. We existed, but we lacked a niche for ourselves. Consequently, we often found community within sapphic circles.
The danger of gender nonconformity in the late twentieth century encouraged some butches to medically transition. Some felt pressured to live as men solely for safety reasons while others, like Jess, transitioned to better express their gender identity. In the novel, Jess dreams of being a man. She starts injecting testosterone and receives top surgery, constructing for herself “the body [she] expected before puberty.” But passing as a man feels difficult and isolating.
Loneliness plagues Jess as her community fails to understand her choice, and the threat of exposure haunts her. She feels as if she is living inauthentically again and realizes her true self occupies an identity that is neither man nor woman.
The dichotomy between the desire to be seen and understood and the fear of rejection — a struggle many queer people will resonate with — underscores much of Jess’ journey. Jess idolizes the genderqueer individuals in her life. She finds beauty in the “shades of gender.” But after being punished for her androgynous gender presentation, accepting her true self terrifies her.
In a society which enforces normative expressions of gender and sexuality, queer recognition becomes a double-edged sword. Jess recognizes her queerness mirrored in other gender nonconforming people, but this recognition proves overwhelming.
The question persists: will I be brave enough to live as myself?
Through the course of the novel, Jess moves through multiple iterations of her queer identity, and at each stage, she grieves the new trials she must face. For instance, some of her fellow butches recoil from her decision to transition. But Jess doesn’t falter. Instead, she asks them, “‘How much of yourself are you willing to give up in order to distance yourself from me?’” The same question applies to us today: what purpose does division serve when we all suffer under the same systems of oppression? We are not each other’s enemy.
Unfortunately, people still accuse butch and/or transmasculine people, especially trans men, of defecting to the enemy’s side. Masculine trans men frequently experience isolation and invisibility because their masculinity leads them to be read as outsiders in their own community. But these responses to masculine trans men echo second-wave feminists’ reactions to butch lesbians and benefit no one.
Ultimately, Western society suppresses gender nonconformity because it disrupts the idea that the gender binary is biologic and intrinsic. Butch and trans masculinity exposes manhood as a construct, and when manhood is flexible and fabricated, the authority of the patriarchal system crumbles with it. Thus, queer masculinity disempowers the patriarchy; it does not reinforce it.
Queer masculinity, particularly butchness, differs from performances of patriarchal masculinity in its commitment to protecting marginalized groups, living as one’s authentic self, and honoring queer history. It values strength drawn from gentleness and resilience, and like any queer identity, it’s self-defined and varied. Masculine queer people seek to live truthfully just like anyone else.
Feinberg writes poignantly about the undercurrent of shame in the queer community.
So often, fear and shame fuel our community’s conflicts. But in-fighting only prevents us from reaching our political goals. It rids us of the heart of queerness: our solidarity. At the end of the day, we should be working towards radical and intersectional acceptance of and advocacy for every underprivileged group. So many of us are hurting, and our primary goal should be minimizing that hurt and cultivating collective flourishing.
“Stone Butch Blues” dramatically reshaped my perceptions of butch, trans, and queer identity by opening a window into our colorful history. I encourage all of us to explore the experiences of our queer elders before we deny ourselves a deeper understanding of the beautiful spectrum of queerness and pass harmful judgment on others.
A free PDF download of “Stone Butch Blues” is available on hir website.
Author: Rainer Lee (He/Him)
Artist: Maddie McEwen (She/Her)
Copy Editors: Gwendolyn Hill (She/Her), Bellze (They/Xey)