The Tenderness of a Butch

Jess has had a very difficult life. That’s putting it mildly. Before the age of 21, Jess dropped out of school, ran away from an emotionally abusive home, witnessed multiple people she cared for be victim of police brutality, lost her mentors (Jackie and Butch Al, I love y’all), and get a job in a factory. That doesn’t even scratch the surface, but once can soundly conclude that Jess Goldberg experienced more death and heartache than what my little, 21st century, college educated, cisgendered Asian-American booty has encountered at the age of 20. Yet, Jess is still a person with tenderness in their heart, even beneath their stone butch exterior.

Natascha’s “Gender Dichotomy” blogpost touched on the very topic that has followed me throughout this experience of reading Stone Butch Blues. The first time Jess entered Tifka’s, her nerves settled when she found an environment where she wasn’t a spectacle. For once, Jess was able to identify with those around her, but this bar was the same bar that taught and fostered this dichotomous lesbian culture of “butch” and “femme”. Jess’s notion that butches and femmes were always paired up together was reinforced by the people she trusted around her, like Jacqueline and Butch Al. Jess would most likely experience of finding the dichotomy in almost any gay bar at the time, but I think it’s importance to note that she learned from two people who she trusted during her adolescent years – remember, she was in between her sophomore and junior year of high school. When anyone called her a “kid”, it was because Jess truly was a kid.

Fleshing out that time period as the Jess’s formative, baby-butch summer is important, because Jess’s butch experience continues to compound on this idea that was rooted in the idea that there are two kinds of lesbians – the ones who are more like what a “woman” should be, and the ones who are morel like what a “man” should be. When Theresa brings up how problematic it is for butches – women – to refer to other women as “chicks or broads or hooters or headlights”, she describes it as a “gun with a barrel that’s open on both ends. When you shoot it, you end up wounding yourself at the same time.” (148) Jess has difficulty understanding how the objectification of other women may hurt herself, but again, this doesn’t mean that Jess has never exhibited the very tenderness that other femmes have displayed to melt Jess’s stone.

Jess had trouble expressing her emotions, most likely contributing from a multitude of factors – her family and school did not provide a safe space for her to express her feelings, coupled with the fact that butch lesbians strongly identified men who constantly exhibit hyper-masculine tendencies. But that does not mean that she didn’t have them. When she was 15, Jacqueline taught her to be tender with her girlfriends, and listen to what they want. This comes to fruition when Theresa enters Jess’s life. Even with hardness in Jess’s exterior, when Jess “had no words to bring to the woman [she] loved so much, [she] gave her all [her] tenderness.” (147)

Theresa experiences social ostracization when interacting with the college feminists who “draw a line – women on one side, men on the other. So women they think look like men are the enemy. And women who look like [Theresa] are sleeping with the enemy. [She’s] too feminine for their taste.” (144), but Theresa still educates herself on early feminist theories and current topics of women’s liberation movements. The irony of campus feminists telling which women could take part of a movement is understandable (I guess? I mean I have difficulty empathizing, but this is also coming from a 21st Century feminist), but highly hypocritical. Theresa’s struggle with this social isolation, along with the frustration that Jess wants to go through with hormones, contributes to the break-up between Theresa and Jess. Navigating who you should be with you who are is difficult. Navigating who you should love with who you do love, is hard as well. A person’s identity is shaped by their relationships, and the dynamic of Jess and Theresa’s relationship continues to shape Jess throughout Stone Butch Blues.


Food for Thought:

  1. Jess has difficulty expressing their emotions, even to those they love and trust. Is this inability to eloquently express themselves rooted in their own personality, the social expectations of being a butch, or both (if both, to what extent)?
  2. Jess experiences a variety of hardships by their late 20s, mostly stemmed from external stimuli (being raped in school, an unsupportive family, and a society that is violent towards homosexuals). Jess has to navigate a world that is constantly telling them that if she deviates from societal norm, physical and psychological consequences will follow. Considering that most of us are in our late teens or early twenties, do you identify with Jess?

2 thoughts on “The Tenderness of a Butch

  1. In reference to your question about why Jess is unable to express her emotions outright is because of many things. I believe that her and along with the other stone butches that they first learned from each other their community that it wasn’t considered accetable for them to express any sort of emotion, instead having to stay “stone,” or “hard,” and keep their emotions bottled up inside. Later, however I believe that Jess and the rest become so accustomed to being told not to express their emotions that they themselves hold their emotions inside whether it be concious anymore at this point. However, as we can see later in Jess that this holding of emotions inside is very difficult to do, but they because it has been ingrained in her mind that she can’t change her ways and she loses out on many relationships, as a result.


  2. In regards to your second question about potentially relating to Jess, I think that it’s absolutely possible for people, even those who aren’t queer, to identifying with her. Perhaps not in the same ways and not the same extents as her pressure to be a certain way, but on some level I think everyone has felt pressure to follow the allotted path- whether that is participate in stereotypes associated with their group, to not wanting to deviate from set character traits because that is what someone is “supposed to do”. Nevertheless, I do think it is indeed fallacious to equate pressure to conform in the context of gender to the pressure to conform in say, culture, or sexuality. I do still think though, that norms are prescribed in each of these areas, and this in turn can make it difficult to deviate.


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