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Slipperiness & Gender Identity: Stone Butch Blues

anneliese's picture

Brought to you by The Slippery Brain Sodality

   a novel by Leslie Feinberg  sbb150.jpg

"'Is it true? Is it real?' Oh it's real alright - so real, it bleeds."

(Click here to hear more from the author's afterword to the 10th anniversary edition.)


Winner of the 1994 Lambda Literary Award & the 1994 American Library Association Gay & Lesbian Book Award


There are any number of ways to describe this breathtaking, tender, and brutally honest work. As the publisher writes, it is a "brave, original novel," considered by some "to be the finest account ever written of the complexities of a transgendered existence."  Equally important, it is a book about the struggle for human rights and a celebration of human diversity.

More from the publisher:

"Woman or man? That’s the question that rages like a storm around Jess Goldberg, clouding her life and her identity. Growing up differently gendered in a blue--collar town in the 1950’s, coming out as a butch in the bars and factories of the prefeminist ’60s, deciding to pass as a man in order to survive when she is left without work or a community in the early ’70s. This powerful, provocative and deeply moving novel sees Jess coming full circle, she learns to accept the complexities of being a transgendered person in a world demanding simple explanations: a he-she emerging whole, weathering the turbulence."

(While this page is part of an ongoing book club discussion, visitors are warmly invited to share their experiences and join the conversation.) 


Laura Cyckowski's picture

categories, identities, new meaning

Although I didn't read the book for this discussion, I've had a hard time thinking about the topic of gender/sexuality because I haven't felt much of a reaction to much of what was discussed in terms of that specific topic. But I did enjoy the the larger topic about "categories" that emerged. I have been thinking a lot the "mental health categories" with respect to the DSM. The next revision to the DSM is in development ( and it's been interesting to read about the changes and read around the web what people (particularly those that have been given a diagnosis) think about the modifications to the different categories. There is a patient voices on autism in the NYT that got me thinking about categories and identities. It seemed from the discussion that the construct of categories (or groups as it may have also been called) got largely a bad rap. One women in the NYT article "had been given diagnoses of various mental health conditions throughout her life, so learning about autism helped her make sense of how she experienced the world". I think it's one thing to feel a belonging to a group and incorporate it into your identity, but for a category to actually help one make sense of how one experienced the world is I think something distinct and very interesting. Yes, of course people are multi-faceted and of course there is much variation among people and their experiences, but still the construct of categories/groups/etc. can be generative in helping to make new understandings of one's past experience. Reading what I just wrote seems a little vague (and slippery?) but I hope it makes sense.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Deconstructing and reconstructing cultures and individuals

Rich conversation, both face to face yesterday and here below.  Yes, indeed, Stone Butch Blues is a painful/powerful/useful reminder that "humans can be brutal."   And yes, I too can "identify with Jess." My guess is that most people can, if they allow themselves to.  For some people, the underlying issues are focused on sex/gender identity (cf Gender identity and the brain).  For others, there are different underlying foci, perhaps as many different ones as there are kinds of people.  Not everyone has to face the sort of physical abuse Jess describes, but my guess is that most people (all people?), at one time or another and to one degree or another, experience some level of psychic discomfort,  "feel invisible" and hence "disconnect from myself publicly" (cf What am I? To whom am I?).  

Such "double" (W.E.B Dubois) or "dual consciousness" (Fritz Fanon) isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Indeed, one can make a case that slippery brainedness of this sort is a necessary and valuable component not only of deconstructing and reconstructing individual identities but of deconstructing and reconstructing cultures as well (cf cultural and individual identities).   That said, Stone Butch Blues is an important reminder that there is a continuum from psychic discomfort to psychic abuse to physical abuse.  And a challenge to all of us to think more actively and explicitly about deconstructing and reconstructing cultures, not only with regard to their handling of matters of sex/identity but more generally.

It was this aspect of our conversation that most intrigued me, and most pushed my own thinking along.  I was intrigued by the distinction made between "filters," "categories," and "reified" forms of the latter as it developed from Anneliese's starting point in "face-blindness." 

The brain does indeed and necessarily "filter" in the sense of using some input information while discarding other information.  This filtering begins at the unconscious level and almost certainly does result in differing subjective experiences and hence different constructed understandings of the world/self in different people.  At the conscious level, the filtering in turn, again probably desireably and necessarily, leads to "categories," the grouping together of things that are made more similar both by the underlying filtering and because recognizing similarities (and differences) is useful for particular purposes.

Its at the transition between filtering and categories, between unconscious and conscious brain processing, where I suspect cultural factors begin to become quite significant.  It makes sense for the brain to look for commonalities between its own subjective constructions of the world and those of other brains in order to facilitate cooperative interaction on mutually significant tasks.  Categories, or what we might call "shared subjectivities" are valuable for this.  We can more easily work together by having shared ways of making sense of things.

Its not, I'm coming to think, filtering or categorizing or culture in and of themselves that create the the kinds of problems exemplified in Stone Butch Blues or the milder forms of it associated with dual consciousness generally.  What creates those problem is the "reification" step, a transformation from shared subjectivities of benefit for particular purposes to the assertion that constructed categories based in unconscious filtering and useful in particular contexts are "real," ie fixed, eternal, and collectively expressive of all acceptable possibilities.   What made trouble for Jesse (and makes trouble for all of us) is not shared subjectivities useful in particular contexts for particular purposes (man/woman, homosexual/heterosexual, butch/fem in the case at hand) but rather the notion that these categories are adequately expressive of all aspects of one's personal subjectivity and exhaust the acceptable range of possibilities.  Its when one comes to believe that shared subjectivities have greater validity than individual subjectivities that dual consciousness becomes a problem rather than an asset, and when one, I suspect, starts to feel "invisible" and needing to "disconnect from myself publicly."

Is there a way out of this problem?  I'd like to think there is but it is one that I think will require significant changes both in cultures and in individuals.  Rather than taking culture as a given, we need to recognize that culture is itself a product of "shared subjectivities" and so can be influenced by individual subjectivities.  And we need, all of us, individually and collectively,  to be more critical of culture, actively deconstructing and reshaping it.  Along these lines, we need to pay particular attention to those features of cultures that discourage rather than enhance the ongoing development of distinctive individual subjectivities and act to change those features

"we have learned to deal, if still somewhat reluctantly, with diversity as a starting point but ... we still, both in classroom contexts and more generally, act as if what we want to achieve is commonality, bringing people from their diverse starting points to some shared degree of accomplishment/normalcy, lessening diversity and difference.  Maybe instead, in both classrooms and cultural systems generally, we should wholeheartedly embrace difference as the substrate for bringing new things into existence, and so not only welcome it at the outset but encourage its continuing development?" ... Culture, brain, science, education

More generally, we need to reconceive cultures in ways that empower individuals based on their distinctive individual subjectivities rather than using "norms" and "standards" to  disable them. 

"Instead of looking at each other in terms of deficiencies, we could look at each other in terms of strengths and construct our sense of what we're trying to do based on that.  We are trying to do whatever the particular collection of people who make up our culture is able to do well.  And we constantly adjust what we're trying to do to assure that everybody in our culture plays a meaningful role in what we're trying to do.  We create and recreate our culture to make everybody a meaningful contributor to it." ... Cultures of ability

Cultures, of course, won't be changed overnight, and so there will be a continuing need to help individuals struggling with oppressive social categories.  Here it seems several guiding principles can be helpful

  • shared subjectivities ("social categories") have no greater claim to validity than individual subjectivities
  • individual subjectivities are necessarily always richer than shared subjectivities
  • shared subjectivities should be understood not as things among which individuals need to choose but as one particular set of options out of a much larger array
  • shared subjectivities can be used by individuals to conceive alternative possibilities that in turn can become candidate shared subjectivities

Maybe in fact that's not a bad set of principles for all of us, whether we are at any given time wrestling with oppressive social categories or not, consciously or unconsciously?  Shared subjectivities can be useful, but they can also be constraining.  They can give one a sense of security and comfort, but sometimes the wish for a sense of security and comfort can put one in oppressive situations, or itself become oppressive.  Perhaps the trick here is to recognize that shared subjectivities are actually no more certain than individual subjectivities, and that shared subjectivities don't replace individual subjectivities but are best thought of as adjuncts to them.  And to accept that a certain level of insecurity, and associated psychic discomfort, is part of the price we pay for being agents capable of reshaping both our selves and the cultures of which we are a part.  Perhaps a clearer sense of that in individuals would make a contribution to the cultural changes needed to make humans less brutal to one another? 

anneliese's picture

seeing & being seen

Earlier this week, I was rummaging through old e-mails from a longtime friend, looking for forgotten treasures, and I came across a article he sent me a few years back that caught my eye. I often delay reading things that interest me, as I feel perpetually pressed for time; in this case, it turns out my timing was (or feels) perfect, because the article created a kind of bridge between Stone Butch Blues and another book I've been (re)reading. I'll try to explain...

The article, entitled "Face Blind," is a story on prosopagnosia and the promise it holds for providing insight into how the brain constructs reality and how that, in turn, influences "who we are" and how we experience the world. In describing recent/current research into the varieties of face blindness (esp. the work of neuroscientist Brad Duchaine), the author (Joshua Davis) notes that some researchers believe there may be different brain mechanisms for recognizing particular attributes, such as skin color, gender, and emotional expression. That is, prosopagnosics have different combinations of "deficits," such that one person may be able to look at a face and perceive skin color but not gender, whereas another person might have the opposite experience.

As Davis points out, the questions raised by such research touch on core social and cultural issues, including (and this is what grabbed my attention) gender and sexuality. "[W]hat would it mean," he asks, "if there were a particular part of the brain devoted to recognizing gender?" Some of the individuals he describes reportedly relate their sexuality to their difficulties in perceiving gender. For example, one man has trouble perceiving women's faces in particular and wonders whether that might be part of the reason he is gay. Another man is unable to distinguish between men and women and feels that this explains why he is bisexual.

Davis mentions gender/sexuality only briefly and by way of an example, but it caught my attention. "Is it possible that our sexuality is influenced by the wiring in the face-processing system?" Sure, that part seems plausible...but I imagine it's a lot more complicated/nuanced than he suggests. Though he refers to "social and cultural issues," he seems to be referring to issues that arise as a consequence of whether/not the brain is able to recognize a given attribute. That the attribute (i.e., gender) is itself subject to social/cultural influences seems to be overlooked/ignored. I may be wrong, but he seems to imply that gender is something fixed, absolute, with categories we can all agree on. So do the two men whose experiences he quotes, though that is not surprising - we use the stories available to us to make sense of our experience. One might also ask, What does the inability to perceive gender differences tell us about our notions of gender and sexuality? 

This seems to me a crucial question, especially after reading Stone Butch Blues. As a society and a culture, we suffer from a kind of collective gender blindness, with awful consequences. As Jess' narrative makes clear, even communities that embrace alternate stories about gender than the dominant (binary) one do not guarantee a place for everyone and may still disable individuals whose experiences do not fit the mould. 

Another question the article raised for me: Does having trouble perceiving (socially/culturally defined) gender, or other, differences carry a certain advantage, in that it "frees the brain up" to pay attention to, and appreciate others, on the basis of other attributes? 

Carly Schulman's picture

after a second read...

I'm amazed at how much I identify with Jess. Thankfully, many details are different. Interestingly throughout the read, I started getting called 'sir' and mis-gendered on a daily (it happens in life, but not nearly as much as lately). I kind of laugh it off most of the time, or intellectualize it; i wear "men's clothes" and have short hair... visual cues for 'male' in this society. It makes me feel invisible though. It changes how I carry myself knowing I'm not going to be seen. I think the incorrect identifications and the stares and the pointing and the "is it a boy or a girl" make me disconnect from myself publicly. The fears seem to be the same in terms of violence and harassment, but again, luckily, the prevalence is not nearly as high. Jail continues to be an unsafe place for the LGBTQ populations, and is grossly underreported.

I have so many thoughts about this topic and book, I'm so sorry I won't be there to discuss this with everybody. Perhaps I'll revisit and expound when I'm not so tired... :)

Sarah's picture

Stone Butch Blues

I'm midway through Chapter 3 and many groupings of words have made me stop, put the book down in my lap and think.

I related to the main character's feeling about coming across the poetry anthology at the hospital... "It wasn't just that the words were musical notes my eyes could sing. It was the discovery that women and men, long dead, had left me messages about their feelings, emotions I could compare to my own."

Jared Clemence's picture

Initial Thoughts on "Stone Butch Blues"

Humans can be brutal. I think somewhere in the back of our minds, we all know this. It comes to light in Stone Butch Blues and is made clear through the narrative of Jess Goldberg's story. The treatment she receives in jail is graphic, and I like to tell myself that it doesn't happen anymore, but somewhere my brain whispers to me that I am lying.

It makes me wonder. This narrative tells of a time period that expands from WWII to what seems to me to be the 1980's. The violence and intolerance is much heavier in the early period of the book, so I am left wondering: how much of this kind of physically violent rejection of sects of our society still occurs today? Are we more tolerent? Are we more forgiving?

A review of current blogs and media do not shed much light to me. However, perhaps, like Jess, the Butches of today hide the pain where we cannot see it. Perhaps they do not speak of it to protect themselves from the memory. If this is true, then how can we know the state of things? How can the situation change?