Leslie Feinberg uses the characterization of Jess to illustrate and exemplify the complexity of gender identity in Stone Butch Blues. Feinberg incorporates Native American spirituality and culture to suggest a validation and appreciation towards Jess’s true self. Her Indian family also foreshadow Jess’s future which will be full of tremendous hardship and violence that make this novel graphic and unsettling to the extreme . Jess’s interactions with the painful rejections and realities she encounters when embodying her identity as a stone butch/transgender lead to a profound construction of character development that denotes Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues as a powerful force in the fight for civil rights.
Is it a boy or a girl? Hell if Jess knows. She does understand, however, that she is different from everyone around her. Feinberg foreshadows the detrimental feelings of fear and self loathing our character will grow familiar with in an instance when Jess potentially identifies with another person for the first time. It is a brief moment when she is driving with her family and notices a ‘he-she’- an individual who’s sex she cannot determine from their outward appearances. “Suddenly a wave of foreboding swept over me. I felt nauseous and dizzy. But whatever it was that triggered the fear, it was too scary to think about.” Jess describes her feelings toward understanding that the world thinks of “he-shes” as perverse from her parents reaction to this gender ambiguous individual.
One of my very favorite angles of this novel is how Feinberg constructs the beginning of Jess’s journey as she is taken into care by a Native American family. They love Jess, nurture her, and even share their language with her. She is a part of their family, which is soon broken when her parents decide that they are too involved in Jess’s development-a notion potentially stemming from fear, racism, or their own insecurities towards their own daughter. When Jess’s parents come to retrieve her from her Native American family, Jess describes, “I’ve only heard bits and pieces about that evening, so I don’t know everything that went on. I wish I did. But this part I’ve heard over and over again: one of the women told my parents I was going to walk a difficult path in life”
In this passage, Feinberg foreshadows the tremendous pain Jess must experience before she will embrace herself for who she is- taking on the entire world before she lives a life that is a lie. What is interesting about this fraction of the novel is the superstitious and spiritual elements that are incorporated through the characterizations of the Native American women. An important element of most Native American cultures and tribes is the powers and wisdom held by a transgender tribe member. In many instances, an individual born as transgender is regarded as encompassing, exerting, and manifesting the wisdom of both energies-male, and female. They are known as “Two-Spirit”. Often times, the transgender person is denoted the role as a powerful religious leader or teacher. They are respected and highly regarded not only from a religious standpoint, but also in a sense that the transgender individual is important to the survival of the tribe because they can participate in both male and female work. They are considered to be hard working and artistically gifted.
We can relate this to our character Jess who exemplifies both male and female perspectives and initiatives. Although most of the world is full of hatred and fear surrounding Jess’s ambiguous gender, the Native American family serves as foreshadowing to the reader, but also as a reminder that people like Jess are nothing new to this world, and are certainly no one to hate. In fact, they should be looked to for strength and guidance as people who understand the hardships of this world from their own experiences, and from their ability to invest in both a female and male sense of self. Feinberg’s incorporation of the Native American family as the first individuals to guide Jess is a powerful suggestion to the reader of the difficulties she will experience, but also the value of true self and the wisdom acquired from a taking the path less traveled.
DQ: How does Feinberg address intersectionality using the characterization of Jess?
DQ: What does the ring, given to Jess by the Native American family, symbolize throughout the novel?
DQ: What effect does the letter to Theresa in the introduction have on the reader and on the novel as a whole?