Queering Class: Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues

Article excerpt

   At the violet hour when the eyes and back
   Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
   Like a taxi throbbing waiting
   I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives
   Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see

-T. S. Eliot

The Waste Land

In presenting the daily struggles of a working-class transgendered person, a person who fits into neither prescribed gender category, Leslie Feinberg's first novel, Stone Butch Blues (1993), exposes the quotidian practices through which fixed gendered and sexual identities are culturally constructed and systematically imposed. Stone Butch Blues chronicles pre-Stonewall(1) working-class transgendered and gay and lesbian life and struggles in the urban Northeast and the conflicts between those struggles and the women's liberation movement. Feinberg employs narrative fiction to foreground the interrelationship of class structures and gender constraints. This essay examines the interrelationship of gendered identity development, socioeconomic structures, and resistance to oppression in Stone Butch Blues.

The achievement of Feinberg's award-winning novel is not that it is the first novel to tell the story of a transgendered person, but that it is the first to embrace "transgendered" as an identity.(2) Stone Butch Blues addresses a transgendered experience that is just beginning to see the light of day in both the medical and the popular literature on the subject: that of the female-to-male (FTM) transgendered subject.(3) Stone Butch Blues makes it clear that FTM expression is a complex identity in its own right. The very terms FTM and MTF are inadequate-Feinberg might argue-in their suggestion that anyone whose gender expression falls outside of either "F" or "M" is moving towards the expression of the "opposite" gender.

Feinberg's novel is the first work of fiction about a transgendered person to interrogate the notion that if one is uncomfortable with one's assigned gender identity, there is something wrong with the one experiencing the discomfort rather than with the cultural institutions doing the assigning. The novel implicitly interrogates the American Psychiatric Association's official construction of "gender identity disorder" (g. i. d.), a construction that has recently been challenged by transgender activists.(4) Stone Butch Blues implies that the "disease" of gender dysphoria (upon which the g. i. d. "diagnosis" is based) infects the dominant culture, and that it is a disease with difference.(5)

The concept of transgender has been seized upon by gender theorists because it deconstructs the naturalness of gender and challenges the biological "sex" categories upon which gender identity has been constructed as dependent. Transgendered subjects exist not in a space outside of gender, but in a space in which gender does not necessarily follow naturally from "sex," in which biological sex is often a mutable construct.(6) It is important to note, however, that definitions are contested in this realm. Neither transgendered communities nor those who theorize gender speak with a monolithic voice. Not all transgendered subjects, activists, and scholars, for example, endorse Marjorie Garber's concept of a "third space" outside of gender binaries.(7) Nor do all agree that the concept of transgender brings biological "sex" categories into question. For many transgendered persons, the notion of gender identity is the locus of transgender subjectivity. Feinberg portrays the relationship between the body, gender, and desire as not contingent on any "natural" factors, and as subject to change. "The transgenderist," argues Anne Bolin, "disput[es] the entire concept of consistency between sexual orientation and gender," a concept that Stone Butch Blues undermines.(8) The categories that define/confine desire-gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual-are dependent on notions of gendered identity and biological sex. "Same-sex" desire, for example, takes on a new and paradoxical meaning if the very notion of sex is problematized. …