Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues is one of the most influential pieces of literature in the queer canon, especially for lesbian and bi women and trans people who found themselves included in the semi-autobiographical story of a gender non-conforming person moving through the world as a working class "he-she" in upstate New York in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. The novel, first published by the feminist small press Firebrand Books 25 years ago, won the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction in 1993, but has since been seen as a seminal trans text, with Feinberg's own identity "cross[ing] the cultural boundaries of gender," the author and activist coming to self-identify as both a lesbian and trans.
Butch Blues follows
protagonist, Jess Goldberg, a gender nonconforming youth whose
parents are less than loving, and whose peers are largely hateful,
some even violent and sexually abusive. Leaving high school before
graduation, Jess finds their people in the dyke bars of Niagara Falls
and New York City, exploring the roles of butch/femme and
experiencing police brutality for wearing men's clothes. They also
find comfort in the factories and unions working alongside other
butches, despite the harshness and bigotry that exists within the
patriarchal hierarchy that dooms them to fail. Persistence,
resistance, and daring to exist is Feinberg's message, executed
through a kind of unapologetic storytelling detailing the truths of
queer and trans lives at a time when even appearing to be LGBTQ
was especially harmful.
their final years, Feinberg fought to recover the rights for Stone
which was out of print for several years after secondary printer
Alyson Books folded. After winning the book back, Feinberg released
it as a free PDF on their website. Then they self-published a 20th
anniversary copy/author's edition in 2014 that was accompanied by a
had to work to recover my rights to Stone
Butch Blues," Feinberg
wrote. "When the first publisher went into Chapter 11 court,
I had to spend thousands of dollars of my wages on legal fees to
recover the right to this novel. ... While very ill in Spring 2012, I
recovered my rights again."
went on to assert that despite requests, their wish was for Stone
Butch Blues to
remain as they created it, free of any adaptations.
tell me you’re honoring me by saying you can tell this story better
than I did," Feinberg wrote. In the next section titled "No
movie version," they continued: "I worked briefly on a
movie version of Stone
I discovered that the producer’s prospectus was trying to raise
capital from investors by offering a sexual fantasy: an invitation to
watch butches being raped by police. I requested that no movie be
made; I don’t believe any movie can be made true to the intention
of the book."
also go on to assert: "No permission for derivative use,"
lamenting their experience with a cartoonist who wanted to create an
illustrated adaptation that they found to be false.
do not give permission for Stone
Butch Blues to
be re-written based on someone else’s imagination," Feinberg
died in 2014, the same year the 20th anniversary edition was
published. Their partner, Minnie Bruce Pratt, is now the executor of
Feinberg's literary estate but does not wish to comment publicly on
Feinberg, which were also Feinberg's wishes. Instead, she points to
the messaging from Feinberg as listed not just in the 20th
anniversary edition but on Leslie Feinberg's website.
when news of a film adaptation of Stone
Butch Blues was
announced earlier this month, the conversations around Feinberg's
final requests became public discourse, starting with an article
on Slate titled
Butch Blues Into
a Movie Is an Insult to Leslie Feinberg’s Legacy."
The author points to a
casting call for Jess, as posted on Backstage,
that reveals information on the production, slated to start shooting
this fall in Buffalo, New York.
on the book by Leslie Feinberg, Jess begins their journey growing up
as a masculine girl in 1960s blue-collar Buffalo, struggling with
identity and self-acceptance in the pre-Stonewall era," reads
the production description. "When Jess begins working at a local
factory with butch women by day and frequenting the local underground
gay bars at night, Jess finally finds some semblance of community.
Eventually Jess comes into their own as a passionate union leader in
the factory. Jess begins to take testosterone, alienating Jess from
the Buffalo community and those closest to their heart. When Jess
travels to New York City, they begin to glimpse at a new sense of
self, hope and home."
adaptation is being helmed by 11B
Productions, founded by Jelayne Miles of the Emmy-nominated
trans-focused series We've
Feinberg was featured as part of an episode about Camp
told Scenester.TV that
she "knew and marched with Leslie Feinberg" and that she
was making the feature film version of Stone
Butch Blues to
work toward "furthering the charge to fight transphobia with
trans voices." On 11B's website, her bio reads: "A
successful entrepreneur and business executive, Jelayne is also a
principal in Frontier Fiscal Services, a finance company she heads
with her husband, Dean Throntveit, serving the oil industry
throughout North Dakota and Montana." In 2015, Miles filed
to create Stone Butch Blues LLC, less than a year after
Haber—a gender nonconforming writer, director, and producer—wrote
the "Camp Trans" episode of We've
and was hired to write the new Stone
Butch Blues adaptation.
Haber did not wish to go on the record regarding the project but said
they were not aware of Feinberg's wishes against adaptations.
would be odd that Miles wouldn't have been aware, as it appears
she was behind the original adaptation that Feinberg spoke out about,
unhappy with the cinematic version that was in progress as of 1994.
In a Winter 1994 press release published
on Queer Resources Directory, that early adaptation was said
to be optioned to Miles and Against The Tide, with Feinberg adapting
the novel to a screenplay.
The Tide Productions can deliver what movie audiences are asking for
and what they have demonstrated they are willing to pay to see,"
the press release reads. "We will bring them Stone
an e-mail to INTO,
11B productions coordinator Sephora Rosario-Soto said they have no
response at this time.
any good intentions 11B might have (and any possible legal standing
they may have from the first optioning of the book in 1994), it's
hard to deny that Feinberg's wish for their novel to remain a novel
and that any reproduction would be against their desires, even in
casting description for Jess referred to the character as:
"Transgender, 18-28: masculine, gritty, working class,
vulnerable, defiant, gender outlaw. Seeking transgender and gender
non-conforming actors on the trans masculine spectrum. Open to trans
men as well as non-binary actors. Note: Jess presents as a butch
female at the beginning of the film, but takes hormones to transition
to male for a significant portion of the film. Actors who plan to
medically transition but haven't yet done so or are in the early
stages of transition are strongly encouraged."
ethnicity is specified as "Caucasian," which Slate took
issue with as Feinberg and the character of Jess Goldberg is Jewish
("Despite this being an important part of the character’s
background, the casting call has no mention of Judaism and no request
for actors with Jewish heritage or experience playing Jewish roles"),
as well as making the point that Feinberg was fiercely proud of not
specifying any ethnic or racial identifiers for any of her
lot of people say it’s cinematic, but they are seeing it projected
on the screen of their own imagination," Feinberg wrote. "I
made a decision in writing Stone
Butch Blues based
on my anger at seeing how many white writers used whiteness as a
default and only described a character if they were of color. Based
on my anger at writers who only used thinness as the default and only
identified characters as being fat, at writers who didn’t name a
character if they were able-bodied or didn’t have a disability, but
did label them if they did."
decided I wasn’t going to do that," they continued. "In Stone
Butch Blues, we
discover the characters through their reactions to racism and other
bigotries. I don’t name who the characters are. I don’t tell, I
show.That means that different people who read this book may have
different views about the sizes, and shapes, and abilities, and so
forth of these characters. And as readers those are all valid
Enszer, a scholar, editor of lesbian literary journal Sinister
and friend of Feinberg, tells INTO she
believes Feinberg's want is for filmmakers and other creatives to be
inspired by her work—but in order to create their own.
that are direct adaptations require permission from the literary
executors and in this case, Leslie's estate. And it sounds like there
was a process that Leslie had with the book that they didn't really
want to see that happen," Enszer says. "So I think creative
people responding to the book have to then rethink and if permission
isn't forthcoming, there are other sorts of projects that are not
adaptations of the film but using the book as inspiration. And I
think that, to me, I think that's the thing that's part of at least
as I read the introduction to the 20th anniversary edition, that's
part of what I read Feinberg as saying, that 'I created this work and
it's not going to be adapted, but you should take this as an
inspiration and go out and do your own work."
is also a professor (currently adjunct at the University of
Mississippi) who has her students read Stone
Twenty-five years after publication, at a time when the shifting
views, phrases, and thoughts on sexual and gender identity have
begged a revisionist or revolutionary look at previously hailed texts
that could appear dated, Enszer says her students find "the book
and the characters as sharing very contemporary concerns as their
certainly recognize that it's a narrative about the past and about
coming out and thinking about gender identity and trans issues in
slightly different terms than people think about them today but still
definitely progenitors; people laying a foundation," Enszer
says. "And so students really connected with it and found it
really quite inspiring."
ability to speak to and for both the lesbian and trans community was
through a kind of lived experience—one that might be hard for
filmmakers to translate.
always lots of contestation around trans issues and butchness,"
Enszer says. "How do we understand butch/femme relationships?
What's the relationship between butch women and trans experience? And
I think Feinberg really was thinking a lot about those issues and
resisted them in their lifetime, any easy answers about it. And the
book resists—the book does not vilify in particular female or
lesbian butch experience. It does think about different medical
interventions and doesn't see those as panacea. I think that
continues to raise questions that vex readers who want easy or
wish to dictate their own identity (or, perhaps more accurately,
identities) is directly related to their ownership of Stone
What Feinberg stood for was, as Enszer notes, "groundbreaking
intersectional feminism" that was inclusive of trans people, the
working class, and other oft-ignored groups, like queer and trans
people who lived outside of major metropolises. They were, by her own
account, a revolutionary communist and an anti-capitalist.
was a really crucial part of her work, and to me, it's a really
crucial part of the book and a crucial part of her work overall,"
Enszer says. "That revolutionary socialism was the kind of core
part of [their] analysis, and I think it's an important part of Stone
Butch Blues but
I think it's also easier for people to overlook and I think Feinberg
really wanted that analysis to be a part of that legacy."
to say, Feinberg would not take kindly to any Hollywoodization of
their story, their work, or themselves.
a communist, I am for abolishing ownership by the 1 percent of the
socially-built apparatus of production," Feinberg said in the
20th anniversary introduction. "Workers and oppressed
people—already doing the work of the world every day—can run that
productive apparatus to make historically overdue reparations and to
meet the needs and wants of the 99 percent. ... But the capitalist
deeds of ownership that say the 1 percent owns everything that has
been produced by collective labor, both enslaved and waged—those
deeds are fiction and should be torn up."
on the day those paper deeds of ownership are torn up, it won’t
matter about protecting Stone
Butch Blues anymore
from commercial exploitation," Feinberg continued.
that time has come.
>> The article above was written by Trish Bendix, and is reprinted from INTO.