When I was a teenager, I used to skip school to go to the library. I followed one call number to another until I’d collected a whole stack of books. It was like magic — you could look up a slew of numbers and letters and all of a sudden find books that told the history of witchcraft or women or sex. You could begin to build an answer to all of the questions you had about the world.
In all this searching, though, I never read “Stone Butch Blues,” by Leslie Feinberg. I saw the cover in passing, but no one had told me about it. I didn’t know it was famous in certain circles and I didn’t know that it was exactly what I needed as a high school student, sitting on a marble bench in the Boston Public Library, wondering which book could describe the contradictions I saw all around me: How was it that my teachers — at the private school where I was a scholarship student — insisted racism was a thing of the past when there was only one black teacher on the faculty and I was the only black girl in my class? Why was it that politicians insisted that welfare wasn’t necessary anymore when I knew it had saved my family?
Most adults told me it was rude and not very smart to even try to ask these questions.
Decades later, as we all are trapped in a political discourse that emptily refers to empathy and knows enough to speak about trauma, but only in the abstract, and in which there appear to be “sides” on the question of what is the most ethical way to imprison children, “Stone Butch Blues” is exactly the book all of us should be reading.
Sometimes, when you read a book, it feels as if the author has been waiting decades to speak to you. “Stone Butch Blues,” which turns 25 this year, has that power.
Why isn’t it required reading today? Maybe because Feinberg, who died in 2014, was “an anti-racist white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female, revolutionary communist,” according to her own characterization.
I finally read Feinberg’s novel in February on a research trip in Haiti. I left the hotel every night and traveled to 1970s upstate New York. Every so often I would look up excitedly from the page and say to my boyfriend, “She’s writing about strike