History is a major component into what makes not only an individual but an entire society. It is an over-arching theme throughout history that the past cannot be ignored because if we do, we will be enslaved to that history, to that trauma forever and that is the evilest notion of them all. Leslie Feinberg illustrates this in her novel Stone Butch Blues, a story that integrates American history with fictional stories that seem all to real. Stone Butch Blues focuses on LGBTQIA+ rights in an era of history where discrimination, and segregation of several “abnormal” demographics was a common theme. Although a sad reality, Feinberg gives insight into one story that encompasses a plethora of different experiences that could be held from a variety of individuals. This review will help in the understanding of why this novel is often challenged and what is lost when it is left out of circulation.
Stone Butch Blues is an amazing novel that alludes to past American histories. The novel is centered around issues in 1940’s America that encompass many truths about what life was like for LGBTQIA+ in that time. The novel introduces many real experiences these individuals would have had to bear in this time. Feinberg brings to life a relatable story that would have otherwise gone untold. Like many other novels this one is fiction; however, it holds real value into true life experiences held by many. It can be seen throughout the novel how one characters experiences can shape a world of others, including the readers. Feinberg uses the character Jess Goldberg to tell these stories. Within the novel Jess, who does not conform to gender or sexuality ‘norm,’ struggles with many aspects of their life. In a society where they are unaccepted and thrown out, Jess navigates to find themselves, and who they were meant to be. This does not come easily however, with many difficulties, such as life has. Jess is an active participant within these struggles and gains the strength to eventually find themselves and who they are, even with struggle and trauma. Susan Stryker, former executive director, LGBTQIA+ Historical Society describes the writing of Stone Butch Blues and Leslie Feinberg as “a historian, an activist, a relentless bridge-builder. The one whose 1993 novel, Stone Butch Blues, gave the word transgender legs" [citation missing].
The explicitness of this novel is the root “cause” of why this novel may be banned or challenged. Stone Butch Blues includes topics such as mental health crisis, suicide, violence, and lude sexual acts. Moses states “Feinberg's novel interrogates the relationship between racism, sexism, and exclusive class structures” (76). With many of these topics we can see the history of novels that contain them to be banned or challenged. Most often parents or educators are the ones to challenge or ban these novels within the school systems on the basis of the protection of children. This argument is seen throughout as well and may be cause to why we see the banning of books as a trend. To counteract this, however, this specific novel also identifies American injustices against the LGBTQIA+ communities within the 1940’s. Stories like these create a narrative that disrupts the superficial American identity, which in turn gives America a tarnished past. It can be concluded that when these things come up, such as slavery or the treatment of Indigenous peoples, they tend to be rewritten or in other words sugar coated as a means to protect the ‘American Image.’ This fact alone may be cause into why this specific novel, and others like it such as Beloved or Bless Me, Ultima, are often challenged or banned. These reasons, on an educated basis, are not valid into why some choose to include Stone Butch Blues and other alike from circulation.
When novels such as Stone Butch Blues are cut from circulation many voices are lost, not just the voice of the author. Within this specific novel the voices lost would include those in the LGBTQIA+ community and those who actively participated in this portion of history. The loss of these voices indicates a loss of truth, and a loss of empathy for those involved in like stories. Stone Butch Blues and other like novels that hold historical values are a key component into the education of these topics. Although the novels are fiction, they still hold value, history, and purpose into the formation of educated opinions on such topics such LGBTQIA+ histories. When books such as these are banned or challenged, we lose history, we lose the ability to empathize, and therefore let the victims of such injustices go unknown and forgotten, even though this is a fictional novel. There is too much purpose within these novels to disregard them as they have been. For readers the connection to something, the empathy is much more then the actual story.
Stone Butch Blues gives the ability for readers to immerse themselves in what was, but also in what could be. This novel was set in the 1940’s, however, a majority of the situations within the novel can be taken as they happen today. From law enforcement issues to the talk of LGBTQIA+ rights, or even societal norms these things can be identified even eighty years later. Although a sad reality, novels such as this give the reader an empathetic view or perhaps a relatable view. Stone Butch Blues gives a sense of purpose as Dorothy Allison has said, "I'm alive because I picked up the right books at the right time. Some people on the page persuaded me my story was not over yet" (Gay Book Club). This is true for the readers of Stone Butch Blues as well and holds presence not just with this specific novel but with others alike that are often banned or challenged. Novels such as this give way to a feeling of belonging, strength, and love where when we remove such novels, we lose the ability for youth or even young adults to find themselves and be who they truly are.
Through the personal experience of reading this novel it has held a presence in my heart as I have a personal connection to the LGBTQIA+ community. I was referred this book by my wife, a woman who does not read much (self-admitted) but chose to pick up this novel stating that as a masculine identifying women this book changed the way she saw herself in the world. She communicated to me that this novel gave her a chance to see her own experiences in the world, specifically the commonalities in the traumas. It did so with myself as well, it gave me the ability to identify with different characters throughout the novel and gave me insight into my role in not only society but in my marriage. Together we have faced a variety of the same issues, such as harassment or violence as being a same-sex couple is still not fully accepted within society. Seeing the impact, a novel can have on a personal level and a marital level is astonishing but proves the point that these novels have a place in our world.
Leslie Feinberg is an artist of a sort, where her medium is story telling is of real fictional stories. The use of a different stories to make an encompassing fictional story allows readers to identify with some or maybe all aspects of this novel. Feinberg brings life to a subject rather untouched for its time and gives a story that is relevant even in today’s world. Due to the novels explicit use of certain violent and sexual circumstances it is often banned or challenged. This creates the basis for multiple books being banned and often leads to harmful outcomes such as the ones listed above. Stone Butch Blues leads us to the stories of the past that are still evident in society today. This is a crucial notion in the review of this novel, the importance of history and the variety of shared experiences we can see between then and now. History is a crucial part of education, in so, when we take away novels that portray history in a relatable, true forum, we become endowed to repeating it.
Feinberg, Leslie. Stone Butch Blues: A Novel. Leslie Feinberg, 2014.
Gay Book Club. "Banned: Stone Butch Blues." https://gay-bookclub.com/?q=article/banned-stone-butch-blues
Moses, Cat. "Queering Class: Leslie Feinberg's 'Stone Butch Blues.'" Studies in the Novel, vol. 31, no. 1, 1999, pp. 74–97. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/29533313.
Book cover from GoodReads.com.
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This book review is part of a series of Banned Books Week reviews from Dr. Emilee Howland's Fall 2022 ENGL 460: Banned Books class.
For more information about Banned Books Week and how to get involved, please visit BannedBooks.org.