Revolutionary Communism vs. Institutional Banality

Three silhouettes of faces
What’s been lost as radical trans novel Stone Butch Blues hits the mainstream?

By Billie Anania

Art by Rachel Mendelsohn

Who does Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues really speak to? The great novel of working-class politics and trans struggle turned 30 this year, and after being long relegated to cult classic status, it’s finally achieved mainstream recognition. Particularly since Feinberg’s passing in 2014, publications like the New York Times have praised the novel as an important contribution to trans, nonbinary, and intersex visibility. But Stone Butch Blues is a much thornier novel than these celebrations suggest. 

my own worry is the real-time consequences of visibility without deeper political change

Published in April 1993 by the now-defunct Firebrand Books, Stone Butch Blues tells the story of Jess Goldberg, a working-class butch who comes of age in the 1960s. Alienated from her family for cross-dressing, Jess attempts to “pass” as a man, organize a union in the industrial plants of Buffalo, and establish a public persona in a heavily policed public sphere. The tensions between individual and collective self-identification, as well as imminent deindustrialization across the Rust Belt, lead Jess to pursue a new, somewhat detransitioned life in New York City, where vigilante violence still ends up finding her. For Jess, as for Feinberg, visibility proves to be a double-edged sword in the decade between the Red Scare and Stonewall.

On one hand, Feinberg’s novel has inspired other marginalized writers to pen introspective queer histories of their own. From Lamya H’s Hijab Butch Blues to Tilly Lawless’s Nothing But My Body, an entire genre of queer memoir writing appears indebted to Feinberg. On the other, legacy media is catching on to the value of a figure like Feinberg. During Pride month this year, for example, the New York Times placed Stone Butch Blues at the top of its “Most Influential Works of Postwar Queer Literature” list. Times assistant managing editor Coco Romack wrote about “lifelong political activist, Leslie Feinberg (who used the pronoun hir)” who “devoted most of hir writing to exploring the complexities of gender.” This is perhaps an anodyne way to describe someone like Feinberg — a legendary organizer involved in broad coalitions against racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism; a Jewish American who spoke out against apartheid in Palestine and South Africa; and a lifelong member of the Workers World Party whose last words were “Hasten the revolution! Remember me as a revolutionary communist.” 

Looking at mainstream media coverage of Stone Butch Blues over the years, it’s easy to forget that in the past, an argument had to be made for the novel’s relevance. Writing for Slate in 2014, literary critic Jo Livingstone argued that SBB is “not just for gays,” but for everyone. “I worry that Feinberg’s literary reputation is being inscribed in the record of culture as ‘genre’ writing, relevant only to queer readers or to those researching the history of queerness,” Livingstone writes, arguing that this logic “does the canon of American fiction a grave disservice.” 

Who could argue against widening Feinberg’s readership? Nearly a decade later, however, my own worry is the real-time consequences of visibility without deeper political change: Transness has become a scapegoat for all forms of social and economic oppression, with 590 anti-trans bills proposed in 2023 alone. The paper of record has repeatedly published articles questioning the legitimacy of health care for trans children. As a collective of Times contributors wrote in an open letter to the standards editor against bias in the Times’ coverage of trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people, the Times “present[s] gender diversity as a new controversy warranting new, punitive legislation.” They wrote that “some of us are trans, non-binary, or gender nonconforming and we resent the fact that our work, but not our person, is good enough for the paper of record.”

Jess seeks a thriving queer community, even as it means abandoning her vulnerable community in Buffalo. 

Many of Feinberg’s best-known books — from nonfiction works like Transgender Warriors, Lavender & Red, and Rainbow Solidarity in Defense of Cuba to hir final novel, Drag King Dreams — explore how queer liberation is inseparable from the larger struggle against all forms of oppression under capitalism. From casual transphobia in the workplace to racialized police violence and state crackdowns on labor and tenant unions, it takes all of us working across historical divisions to expose the many contradictions of capitalism, while also identifying those contradictions in ourselves.

Stone Butch Blues itself does not shy from the contradictions of its own subjects. Many of the “stone butch” lesbians at the center of the narrative — who love women but resist being touched — exhibit the racism and misogyny of their cishet male counterparts, and Jess’s primary love interest, Theresa, refuses to be with a trans man due to her stated feminist principles. The need to “pass” in order to work leads Jess to mislead one of her sexual partners into an encounter that isn’t entirely consenting, betraying her own experience as a survivor of sexual assault. Further, the worst instance of “outing” Jess in the workplace comes from an accidental slip by her friend and fellow communist organizer, Duffy. In ceasing hormones and relocating to Manhattan, Jess exhibits the familiar desire for a thriving queer community, even as it means abandoning her vulnerable community in Buffalo. 

Because these scenes were adapted from real life, Feinberg can cast a critical yet honest eye on the people working hardest to move the needle. We can see this in the questionable treatment of Indigenous characters, with whom Feinberg expresses a naive identification. As scholars Lou Cornum and Mark Rifkin have noted, the Diné matriarchs and firekeepers who bookend the novel speak to an attempted solidarity among white queers who discovered precolonial matrilineal cultures, as well as two-spirit identity, in the mid-20th century. “Gay settlers, especially those like Feinberg who sense the limits of capitalism for human survival let alone sexual liberation, turn to the tribe for an animating orientation toward a sacred that seems to give gay life meaning and an oppositional role to the straightness of colonial power,” Cornum writes, citing a “utopic impulse” that Cornum argues devalues the existence of Native people in the present day. Feinberg would continue to wrangle with this paradox in hir next book, Transgender Warriors, which argues that the gender binary originated during colonial expansion and the establishment of private property.

Perhaps the strength of Stone Butch Blues, then, is in its imperfection and malleability — the different readings people still take from it, the original artworks it inspires, and the understudied connections between queerness and communism. Moreover, it is a testament to Feinberg’s will and spirit that no one has ever made a buck from this story. 

In the twentieth anniversary edition, zie stipulated that no adaptations should ever be made and a that copy of the text must always be freely available online. “The capitalist deeds of ownership that say the one percent owns everything that has been produced by collective labor, both enslaved and waged … those deeds are fiction and should be torn up,” Feinberg wrote in 2013. “And on the day those paper deeds of ownership are torn up, it won’t matter about protecting Stone Butch Blues anymore from commercial exploitation.”

it is a testament to Feinberg’s will and spirit that no one has ever made a buck from this story. 

Nonetheless, hir dying wishes have not stopped people from trying. In 2018, a proposed film dramatization by 11B Productions reignited debates around ownership and intellectual property, with SBB proselytizers and friends of the late author voicing their opposition. Beyond the very real struggle Feinberg faced to retrieve rights to the novel, 11B went so far as to create a private LLC in the book’s name and promote casting calls for actors meeting specific physical attributes. As poet Julie Enszer told INTO back then, these efforts not only contradict the wishes of Feinberg and hir recently deceased partner, Minnie Bruce Pratt, but the intentional ambiguity of characters’ identities. 

“I think Feinberg really was thinking a lot about those issues and resisted … any easy answers about it,” Enszer said. “I think that continues to raise questions that vex readers who want easy or circumscribed answers.”Stone Butch Blues may not be the ur-text of trans consciousness; it may have merely survived long enough to become an important piece of history on the limits of queer liberation within a system built on exploitation. And if the recent WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes can teach us anything, it’s that capitalists will stop at nothing to spin someone else’s story and likeness into gold, and then claim in retrospect that you consented. As the novel’s rough edges risk becoming blunted to serve a mass market sensibility, we owe it to Feinberg to preserve the central message: The only way we can ever hope to overthrow capitalism is by struggling together. Much of Feinberg’s work was about the difficulty and ugliness of this struggle. Are those celebrating hir work also willing to get in those trenches today? Let’s not let another revolutionary become a victim of institutional banality. 

Bille Anania is a journalist, organizer, and art critic in Brooklyn.