I’m going to ask a really useless question, but go with me for a minute: As queer readers, what do we want? I see this variations of this question all the time, it’s something I’m constantly asking myself, discussing with my friends. We want representation, obviously, but there’s more to it, we aren’t desperate for scraps any more. So often I see people saying that they want happy books, that they want drama, and romance, and tropes, and excitement. No more stereotypes, no more tragic endings. No more sad books. Or at least a lot of people say they don’t want sad books.
I say fuck that. I don’t want boring books. I don’t want hollow books. Leslie Feinberg’s novel Stone Butch Blues is the opposite of that.
This is not a happy book. I don’t know if I’d call it sad, but it definitely isn’t pleasant all the way through. It’s dark. There’s violence, both sexual and institutional, there’s depression and injustice. There are bad romances and failed friendships. There are parts that are really hard to read, both because of the terrible things happening to Jess, and because of the emotional turmoil.
It’s still an incredibly important book to read. I understand why people say they want to read happy queer books, but I’m not interested in the way it throws out books that are heavier. We should have both as options. Feinberg is writing about an important part of queer history here. This is a past that we’re living with. This book covers the shift from an older butch/femme paradigm to lesbianism influenced by second wave feminism and the beginnings of modern transgender identity. The conflict between these different sorts of overlapping identities is something I think we need to look back at and be aware of today. There is no right way to be queer, it’s important to recognize the varieties of ways people understand themselves and want to be understood.
It’s true that there is violence and the hate, but also the community. There desire to keep going, even when things seem impossible. Giving up is not an option. This is a story of queer reliancy, and why it’s important to keep on living. Even when things are hard there is the possibility to rebuild and start over and make new friends, to fall in love again.
I read part of this for school, and we only talked about the gender/sexuality aspects, which are obviously at the heart of the book. But there is also a lot about labor activism, and the connection found between the different sorts of injustice. Solidarity is a major theme of the book, and very inspiring.
For myself, as a queer reader, I want two things: possibilities and hope. A story can be bleak, it can be heartbreaking, but at the end I want a sense that the world is capable of change, that there are beautiful things, that there are good people. For me queer means something vast and constantly evolving, and that’s the sort of thing I want to find in queer books — not just queer characters, but queer spirit.