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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Search for Identity Leslie Feinberg (1949 – 2014)

[7947] Deirdre Griswold Strapp, Leslie Feinberg Speaking at Madison Square Garden Theater as a Founder of Rainbow Flags for Mumia (2000), courtesy of Deirdre Strapp.

Like her character Jess Goldberg, Leslie Feinberg was born in Buffalo, New York, where she grew up before the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, which many observers consider the watershed moment in the twentieth-century movement to secure the rights of nonheterosexual people. Feinberg struggled to find her identity in a culture that seemingly had no place for her as a transgendered individual. A journalist and author as well as an activist for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals, she has stated that her written work is often an attempt to answer her own questions about why some people feel that they need to punish those who are different.

Following in the tradition of writers like Toni Cade Bambara, Feinberg’s novel Stone Butch Blues endorses the belief that writing can be revolutionary. Simply by sharing this story with others, Feinberg extends her activist reach by educating her readers. In Stone Butch Blues, she combines autobiography and fiction in a narrative structured as a letter to an ex-girlfriend. Her character Jess Goldberg struggles to come to terms with her identity and sexuality in a society that provides no models and no safe refuge for her. Thus, even as its startling depictions of brutality and cruelty may be uncomfortable for some readers, the novel answers a need in the queer community for testimonials that establish a common history and reveal stories that had for so long remained untold.

Teaching Tips

  • You will probably need to spend some time clarifying the terms “queer,” “transgender,” “transsexual,” “gender variant,” “butch/femme,” and other phrases that students have questions about. For more information, see the “Gay and Lesbian Identities in Contemporary American Writing” extended context in this unit and consult an introduction to queer studies, such as Annamarie Jagose’s Queer Theory: An Introduction (New York UP, 1997).
  • To exhibit the hatred toward gender-variant individuals that Feinberg describes, you could show an excerpt of the 1999 movie Boys Don’t Cry, for which Hilary Swank won an Academy Award for Best Actress. You could ask the students to compare the rape scenes in the movie and in Stone Butch Blues. Or, students who may not be ready for such graphic descriptions could compare the scenes in which Swank’s character cross-dresses to similar scenes in the novel.
  • Many students even at college age are uncomfortable talking about sexuality in general, so you may have to teach them how to do so usefully and constructively. Also, because of the persistence of homophobia, be prepared for the possibility that some students may make stereotypical and perhaps offensive comments. With this issue more than perhaps any other, it is important to remain sensitive to the probability that students are personally dealing with these matters, and some in the group are probably coming to terms with their own sexual identities and orientations.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What does it mean to be transgendered? What does it mean to be gender variant?
  2. Comprehension: How does Jess realize that she is not like the other children?
  3. Comprehension: What are butch and femme identities? What are identity politics?
  4. Context: Relate Jess’s difficulties dealing with the mainstream community to the difficulties experienced by Chinese Americans Nanci Lee and Wittman Ah Sing in Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey. How are their experiences similar? What makes them different?
  5. Context: Compare Feinberg’s forthright, public image to Thomas Pynchon’s near-invisibility. Feinberg seems to need to tell her own story as well as Jess’s. Why might she consider her own story so important? You might want to think about your answer in relation to the statement, “The personal is political” (see Unit 15).
  6. Exploration: Why do you think Jess Goldberg tells her story in letter form? Why is her audience, her former girlfriend, so important? How does this audience shape the content, tone, and style of the narrative? Do you think that the letter, or epistolary, form allows a narrator to relate details more intimately, or do you think that a specific audience (i.e., the recipient of the letter) can actually limit the narrator’s revelations? If you have read Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, you could compare Feinberg’s narrative letter to Roth’s narrator’s address to his therapist.
  7. Exploration: The video for this unit expressed the idea that identity is not a stable, fixed thing but rather a process. What does this mean? Consider this idea in relation to Jess’s story. What are the steps of her identity process? Has she resolved her identity at the novel’s end? Is it ever possible to resolve identity or does the process continue until death?
  8. Exploration: Cultural theorist Marjorie Garber explains that a “category crisis” occurs when the borders between things often positioned as binary opposites–such as black and white, old and young, new and used–are revealed to be permeable. In Stone Butch Blues, Feinberg shows that the line between man and woman can be (and is) crossed. What other categories are in crisis in Feinberg’s novel? Consider gender, sexuality, race, education level, class, and any other category by which people are identified and/or judged.

Selected Archive Items

[7419] Anonymous, Cover: The Liberty Press (1996), 
courtesy of The Liberty Press. 
Cover of a 1996 issue of The Liberty Press, a gay/lesbian newspaper. Headline reads, “Leslie Feinberg tops the bill.” Feinberg’s novel Stone Butch Blues works from the premise that writing can be a tool for social change.

[7422] Anonymous, Leslie Feinberg, photo (n.d.), 
courtesy of The Liberty Press. 
The protagonist of Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues struggles to find her identity in a culture that does not seem to have a place for her as a transgendered individual.

[7766] Chris Hampton, Newspaper article: “Leslie Feinberg a Powerful Presence at Lesbigays OK Awareness Week.” The Liberty Press, May 1996 issue [Vol. 2 No. 9] (1996), 
courtesy of The Liberty Press, Wichita, Kansas. 
Feature article from a 1996 issue of The Liberty Press, a gay/lesbian newspaper, which also includes “a full report on anti-gay marriage activity in our capital.” Leslie Feinberg, a journalist and activist, has sought to understand why so many in the United States feel hatred for those who do not fit neatly into gender categories.

[7947] Deirdre Griswold Strapp, Leslie Feinberg Speaking at Madison Square Garden Theater as a Founder of Rainbow Flags for Mumia (2000), 
courtesy of Deirdre Strapp. 
Leslie Feinberg has gained recognition as a writer and activist. This is a photograph of her speaking at a rally for Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther and radio journalist convicted in the shooting death of a police officer and who is now on death row.

[8985] Leslie Feinberg, Interview: “Search for Identity” (2003), 
courtesy of American Passages and Annenberg Media. 
Author Leslie Feinberg discusses identity as a process.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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