Friday, December 10, 2004

Practical Theater: Identity, Role and Acceptance in Stone Butch Blues

In the novel “Stone Butch Blues” and the accompanying pieces we have looked at this week we have been exploring the practicalities of living as a “Gender Outlaw” that we had begun to examine in “Boys Don’t Cry” we are facing issues of class and race, and moreover, again coming upon the practicability of living “without” norms, or normativity. I explored a lot of the issues of binary replication in classification of lesbian groups, and the need for solidarity that simultaneously arise for individuals treated as gender outlaws and so here I will be further examining these issues alongside the personal story created for the character Jess Goldberg by Leslie Feinberg in this novel.

This is a bildungsroman in the true sense. It talks about the layered and painful development of its protagonist Jess Golberg through h/her violent and in many senses circular trajectory through a working class life in the US and indeed through variously gendered and sexed bodies, and through the conceptual mire of gender itself. From the outset Jess is looking for home, a home within hi/herself and in a community of others who can accept her, as is exemplified by her childhood encounter with the mirror, or h/her early life in the company of a group of Native American women, and indeed, h/her early propulsion in the New York state bar scene. He/She seeks a harbor of recognition and safety represented in h/her dreams and daydreams in the form of a hut, a gathering circle, or a ring. Again and again we see the symbol of the circle manifest itself, whether representing a unity of workers, of butches, or an acceptance for a new body, or indeed the safe home offered by the arms of “high femme” (who at certain points embodies a kind of motherly ideal, interestingly), which in the end is the feature to which Jess is most attracted, regardless of “sex”. And it is striking that throughout the novel despite the evident and painful search for individual identity, the “type” as a group, a home, a locus of solidarity remains fairly strong. Jess strives heroically to create and recreate, to build and rebuild a home around and within h/herself, to nurture and be nurtured. But the strong association between femme and home between “wife” and home remains remarkably stable considering the precarious path jess walks through the gender minefield, as does the character and ideal of butchness, although that it seems that that is subject to more change than the former. These signifiers have a purpose: Edna is attracted to the qualities of “Butches” for example, the “butch heart”. In h/her reaction to h/her evident placement within a continuum of evidently fairly interchangeable butches and her striving for a lineage of the butch as is exemplified in h/her need to search out Butch Al, Jess aligns herself with a set of characteristics, a stereotype constructed inside Lesbianism itself. The political and emotional necessity for this tracing of a butch family tree for Jess, even though in the end he/she in many ways has transgressed even these boundaries, is understandable and evident. But again we must ask what the effect of such fixed binaries of “butch/femme” are within lesbian/gay groups…we see the horror with which Jess reacts to the relationship between two butches, in many ways echoing homophobic discourse, and we are faced with the consequences of a perpetuated politics of symmetrical complementariness along what truly are gender lines, now having been removed from their presumptive biological foundations. It is not my intention here to belittle the efforts of our resourceful and engaging principal character, who, after all stands as an example of an experience that in many ways is widespread. I believe however that it is precisely the aim of Leslie Feinberg in writing these situations into the novel that we should question the distinctions drawn, as Jess h/herself does in the end, even as we revel in the Kerouac-like “beat” and beaten grace of the Butch. We must conclude that in all events Jess walks a tight rope between an idealized trajectory of “self-realization” whether itself believed to be innate or in socially informed and socio-economic pressures in h/her journeys through gender, and that in any and all events he/she is engaging in a self-making practical theater of which he/she is at various points extremely conscious.

The novel itself, as well as being a document of development in the fog of gender war, is a sort of confessional. We are party to the most intimate and painful moments of Jess’ existence…the humiliating and horrifying rape, menacing beatings, private doubts and public embarrassments. The responsibility of the writer to create a relationship between the text and reader that is not engaging, or relying upon a sort of gender exoticism is extraordinary, and in fact Leslie Feinberg manages this well, we become a sort of lover to the character… We stand facing the image of the little girl in her father’s suit. It becomes our image and that of our fantasy, just as it is for Jess…we are made so intimately sympathetic to Jess that we cannot but identify with h/her, and in effect we are thus allowed to act as femme and “melt the Stone”. At the cool climax of this record of intimacies, at the end of the novel, we again find ourselves in within the circle… catapulted into a confession-within-a-confession that echoes the letter that begins the novel…and into the effects for the protagonist of a self-conscious confession before the crowd. Judith Halberstam speaks in her articles of a need to find a new language to describe the erotic life of the butch, the erotic life based on giving pleasure but remaining resistant to it oneself, what she actually identifies as a catalogue of “negative” sexuality based on “what is not done”. In fact this is the ultimate contradiction at the heart of the condition of being Butch with a capital “B”: in the moment that one admits, confesses, lets flow all that has been inside into discourse, in some senses one ceases to be a Stone Butch. However we view the political effectiveness in this sense of Jess’ articulation of h/her condition in public in the final pages of the novel, we are confronted with the joy and release it provides, and the perhaps necessary redrawing of
Jess as an individual in relation to categories of sex and gender within and in fact beyond heterosexual norms. Perhaps that is the ultimate endpoint of the ring.

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