Stone Butch Blues: A Book that Mattered

The autumn of 2005 found me in Hollywood, struggling to find my voice as a not-yet-successful novelist. I had just finished writing a horror novel, The Sleepwalkers, and had embarked on a new dystopian speculative fiction novel in response to the war in Iraq, the reelection of George W. Bush, and what I saw as the eclipsing of democracy in America by corporate power.

I was in the throes of a tumultuous relationship with a talented but troubled young actress, and when I wasn’t writing, I often went film shoots and auditions with her. That September, she was acting in a film which she was to play a butch lesbian—quite a stretch for my ultra-feminine and fashion-conscious girlfriend. To help her prepare for the role, the director gave her a book.

“Read this, and you’ll understand what it’s like to be butch,” she said, handing over a copy of Stone Butch Blues.

My girlfriend, the quintessential Hollywood slacker, skimmed a chapter or two then left the book to gather dust on our coffee table. I, however, picked it up and was instantly mesmerized. Its author, Leslie Feinberg, spins the tale of a woman growing up gay in America in the middle part of the twentieth century. Her parents toss her out at age fourteen for being different, casting her into a life of poverty and loneliness. When she finally finds community in a local gay bar, she finds a measure of happiness until sadistic homophobes in the town—including police—target the bar’s patrons for abuse. In her struggle to make ends meet, she finds a job working in a factory, but when layoffs arise, hers is the first head to roll. Desperate for a job and struggling with her identity, she embarks on hormone therapy, grows a beard, and finds a factory job posing as a man.

Feinberg tells her story with Hemingwayesque simplicity, and the pain, truth and humanity of her words grabbed me like a fishhook. “This book should be required reading for everyone on earth!” I declared when I finished the last page.

Although years before I had helped the Human Rights Campaign gather signatures to make anti-gay violence a hate crime, the gay equality movement hadn’t really begun gathering steam yet. As a heterosexual white male, I simply hadn’t given much thought to what it would be like to be a transgendered person. Feinberg’s writing was so simple and vivid, however, that I couldn’t avoid it. More than that, I that now I felt as if I had actually been a transgendered person. The pain I felt reading her book was as real and as personal as if I had suffered the taunts, the beatings, and long, lonely, hopeless nights myself.

I quickly realized what was missing from the novel on which I had been toiling, and made its protagonist, like Feinberg’s, a strong gay woman, valiant and vibrant but alone in a world in which she did not fit. The novel Blood Zero Sky benefitted greatly from the inspiration, and in 2012 it became my fourth published novel. I owe Leslie Feinberg a debt for that. But far more important than the impact Stone Butch Blues had on my writing, is the befit it had on my soul.

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