While most people spend Halloween thinking about costumes, I find myself increasingly drawn to the dead. While today is All Hallow’s Eve, tomorrow marks the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos). On this day, I lay out sweets for my father, pour red wine for my grandmother, and light a candle in honor of my known and unknown ancestors. In honor of this day, I also thought it would be worthwhile to acknowledge a writer who has had, arguably, the biggest impact on my own life (as a writer and as a human being), Leslie Feinberg.
For those of you unfamiliar, Feinberg most known for the novel Stone Butch Blues and nonfiction book Transgender Warriors, though zie authored many other texts. As described by hir partner Minnie Bruce Pratt, Feinberg was “an anti-racist white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female, revolutionary communist” who passed away in November 2014. Stone Butch Blues won a number of awards including the 1994 Stonewall Book Award for Literature and the 1994 Lambda Literary Award for small press literature.
When I think about Leslie Feinberg and Stone Butch Blues, I remember what it was to be 21 years old. At the time, I was living in San Francisco. I was on the tail end of a 4 and a half year, closeted relationship. It was 2003. I had just graduated from college, and I was struggling to understand what it meant to be gay. I remember googling a list of lesbian authors and printing out a list of books. I took the list to the public library and searched the shelves for any title I could find. One of the first books I encountered was Stone Butch Blues.
I started Stone Butch Blues on my 45-minute BART ride into the East Bay from San Francisco. I remember sitting in my seat while the train rocked through the underground tunnel and reading the opening letter from Jess to Theresa, hir beloved. By the end of that opening letter, I found myself sobbing uncontrollably, a physical emotional response that continued throughout the rest of the book.
It is interesting to note: My life looks nothing like the protagonist Jess’s life. I am Filipino-American while Jess is Jewish. I am boyish, but do not see myself as a Butch woman. I have also never encountered the kind of hate and violence our protagonist goes through over the course of the novel. And yet, reading that book was like feeling a valve release inside of me – though my world had never reached the darkness of Jesse’s world, I identified with the ache and the loneliness and the longing to belong. And, most importantly, I understood and ached for the people whose sacrifice made for me to be able to exist the way I exist today.
Feinberg and Stone Butch Blues also feels like a fitting title to mention today, the last day of LGBTQ History month, because this book also taught me much about our history. It taught me about what has come before, and changed my view and thoughts on the kind of impact I could have today. It taught me, too, about the importance of coming together, of seeking action. As Feinberg hirself writes,
“[With] this novel I planted a flag: Here I am—does anyone else want to discuss these important issues? I wrote it, not as an expression of individual ‘high’ art, but as a working-class organizer mimeographs a leaflet—a call to action….
“I am typing these words as June 2003 surges with Pride. What year is it now, as you read them? What has been won; what has been lost? I can’t see from here; I can’t predict. But I know this: You are experiencing the impact of what we in the movement take a stand on and fight for today. The present and past are the trajectory of the future. But the arc of history does not bend towards justice automatically—as the great Abolitionist Frederick Douglass observed, without struggle there is no progress….
“That’s what the characters in Stone Butch Blues fought for. The last chapter of this saga of struggle has not yet been written.”
And so, today, in honor of LGBTQ History Month and the Day of the Dead, I want to put a special call out to writers and readers who have never read this book. They are no longer printing copies, but you can still DOWNLOAD IT FOR FREE HERE! I know I’ll spend some time re-reading those opening pages in honor of Leslie Feinberg, a writer who – quite literally – changed my life by helping me to understand the world and community in which I am a part. So, Leslie Feinberg, wherever you are, I stand with you, still, in solidarity, hoping to continue the fight to make this world a better and more inclusive space.
If you have a moment, please take a time to honor and respect a deceased writer who has influenced you. Tell us about this person in the comments below.