Tag Archives: Stone Butch Blues

Mourning a Transgender Warrior on Transgender Day of Remembrance

Laurie and Debbie say:

Leslie Feinberg died five days ago, of complications of Lyme disease and related tick-borne illnesses. November 20 (still today on the West Coast of the U.S.) is the International Transgender Day of Remembrance. While this somber day is about remembering trans people who have been murdered for being trans, it is also a most fitting day to remember Leslie Feinberg, who died not by murder but by the medical establishment’s bigotry .

Feinberg was a tireless fighter for revolutionary justice for all people, and identified as an “anti-racist white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female, revolutionary communist.”


Hir obituary describes hir autobiographical novel, Stone Butch Blues as “a groundbreaking work about the complexities of gender,” a near-perfect description. Both of us remember reading Stone Butch Blues when it was relatively new, and being struck by … so many things. How ze was not only a good writer, but also a clear thinker. How clearly ze delineates the working-class Buffalo gay culture where ze grew up, and how class is a central part of the story. How — in a time where being gay was more dangerous than it is now, being butch was flaunting the refusal to pass, and being trans or genderqueer was rarely acknowledged and given very little space even in queer culture — ze managed to examine the complexities of being butch and trans, being working class and queer, being stone and loving.

Shauna Miller, writing at The Atlantic, talks about the importance of Stone Butch Blues, and what she learned from it.

… the depth and beauty of Stone Butch Blues comes from the way Feinberg takes the reader down the path of realizing what butch identity means—and what safety and self-acceptance inside that identity means—with her. Jess’s identity is so much more than her appearance. It’s more than her choice to work in a male-dominated factory world. It’s more than those simple and severely punished offenses against both womanhood and manhood. It’s more than the fistfights with other butches as a desperate attempt at intimacy, more than disappointing her great love, Theresa, with her emotional and intimate distance. By the end of this book, butch identity comes from letting love’s light trickle through a crack in the armor. But first the reader needs to understand where all the armor came from. “I felt as though I was rushing into a burning building to discover the ideas I needed for my own life,” Jess writes. That’s heavy gear to carry.

Feinberg believed that her death was directly attributable to “bigotry, prejudice and lack of science,” both because of the extra difficulties transgender people face in receiving good care, and the absolute failure of contemporary medicine to acknowledge and treat chronic Lyme disease and its related co-infections. Her multi-part essay, “Casualty of an Undeclared War” goes into substantial detail about this.

Feinberg was never one to let someone else have the last word. From hir obituary:

In a statement at the end of her life, she said she had “never been in search of a common umbrella identity, or even an umbrella term, that brings together people of oppressed sexes, gender expressions, and sexualities” and added that she believed in the right of self-determination of oppressed individuals, communities, groups, and nations.

Nothing About Us Without Us

Laurie and Debbie say:

“Nothing about us without us” is translated from the Latin (“Nihil de nobis, sine nobis”) and came into contemporary use in Central European, particularly Hungarian, law. The point is that no legal or social decision should be made about a group without the participation of members of that group. Most commonly in this century (in the U.S.), it’s used by disability activists.

Generally, the slogan refers to government and policy decisions. This week, however, we’ve run across two cases where the mainstream media has (for reasons we’ll go into a little later) deliberately distorted or ignored the true stories.

Amy Chua, a professor at Yale, has written a memoir called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother about her initial decision to raise her American children in a very strict, conventional Chinese fashion, which she’s the first to point out, although she calls it “Chinese parenting” for convenience, is not the parenting style of all Chinese parents and is the parenting syle of many non-Chinese parents. The Wall Street Journal put together a set of excerpts from the book, eye-catchingly entitled “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” and ran that article under Chua’s byline. She never saw it before it was published.

The article caused a firestorm of comment particularly in the Asian-Amerian community. Many Chinese people were understandably upset and angered by the prescriptive tone of the article.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘This is my particular hardcore way of parenting, take it or leave it, do whatever you want,'” says Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, a mother of four who writes the syndicated column, Adventures in Multicultural Living. “But the article is saying, ‘This is how Chinese people do it’ — implying that we all treat our kids this way. You spend so much time trying to break down racial stereotypes and after something like this, it all goes out the window.”

The problem is that what Wang is asking for is exactly what Chua says in her book. She told Jeff Yang of sfgate.com:

The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they’d put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn’t even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end — that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model.

I’m not going to retract my statements about Chinese parenting. But I’d also note that I’m aware now of the limitations of that model — that it doesn’t incorporate enough choice, that it doesn’t account for kids’ individual personalities. And yet, I would never go all the way to the Western ideal of unlimited choice. Give 10-year-olds total freedom, and they’ll be playing computer games eight hours a day. I now believe there’s a hybrid way of parenting that combines the two paradigms, but it took me making a lot of mistakes along the way to get there.

You might, possibly, say that this was just an oversight or a confusion on the part of some Wall Street Journal staffer, who only glanced at the book and pulled a few key quotations, but it’s hard to believe when you know that the book’s cover says:

“This was supposed to be a story about how Chinese mothers are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a 13-year-old.” As Yang points out, there’s no trace of that humility in the Journal article. As a result of the Journal’s misrepresentation, and its fast migration through the Internet, Chua has gotten death threats, and she’ll probably spend the next five years trying to dispel people’s preconceptions of who she is and what she’s said.

Let’s jump from here to Leslie Feinberg’s problem. Many of our readers may know Feinberg as the author of the incomparable Stone Butch Blues , a brilliant autobiographical novel about a stone butch’s journey in the 1950s and 1960s.

Feinberg is justifiably incensed because Catherine Ryan Hyde, an estranged relative, has written a YA book with a transgender theme (a teenage girl who falls in love with a young man and then discovers he is an FTM transsexual in transition), and is now on book tour, where she is claiming that her understanding of Feinberg’s life is one of the underpinnings of her insight into the story.

Feinberg, who has for several years been too ill to speak or write easily, has emerged from seclusion to make a long clear statement:

On her author promotional tour, Catherine Ryan Hyde is developing an embryonic biography of my life—fictionalized and unauthorized—to which I give no consent. Her assertions are all easily found on the web in a google search.

“This is totally my story to tell,” Catherine Ryan Hyde publicly maintains. She claims insider knowledge, because, she says, she grew up with a “transgender sibling.”

She also claims that because I have written and spoken publicly about my own oppressions and life’s struggles, my life is now public domain for her imagination. This argument draws an equal sign between the right of oppressed individuals to self-expression, and the bigoted “voice-over” that contradicts and denies those oppressed identities and life experiences.

Hyde’s book tour is underwritten by her publishers, Alfred A. Knopf, a prestigious division of Random House, which is in turn a division of German media giant Bertelsmann.

So here we have two very different forms of mainstream media providing support for narratives which not only disagree with but undercut and undermine the authentic voices of the people being discussed. This is nothing new: where stories of marginalized individuals and groups are concerned, the job of the mainstream media is to retell the story in a way that confirms the existing stereotypes of their audience … which (of course) also serves to keep the mainstream audience comfortable with only the oversimplified and untrue story. The vicious cycle is perpetuated, because then the true story sounds either false or too complicated to someone who has heard the simplistic one dozens, if not hundreds, of times.

Which is why “nothing about us without us” is so important for media as well as for government. If we cannot hear the authentic voices (including the different experiences, disagreements, and ambiguities) from any group, we have no chance of understanding anything about that group. Both of these cases are especially insidious because the voices are disguised as genuine: Chua’s byline is on the Journal article, Hyde can claim close-kin personal experience. But in both cases, the real voice is erased by the false one.

Read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Read Stone Butch Blues.

Thanks to Nalo Hopkinson (on Facebook) for pointing out the Feinberg story.