So unbelievably real: Stone Butch Blues and the fictional special guest.

Author:Rand, Erica
Position:Critical essay
 
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In fall 2009, I taught Stone Butch Blues (1) twice: as a guest at University of Southern Maine (USM) in Portland in Wendy Chapkis's upper-level undergraduate seminar The Politics of Difference which was cross-listed in Sociology and in Women and Gender Studies; and in my own, a first-year writing-intensive seminar called Sex and Sexualities at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. The 1993 novel by writer, historian, and activist Leslie Feinberg concerns a character named Jess Goldberg whose sex/gender identity does not match the female sex assignment that Jess received at birth, and who struggles to understand and navigate gender and sexual identities, norms, possibilities, and practices in the specific historical, economic, and geographical contexts of Buffalo and New York. I was in Wendy's class as part of a deal. I would teach for her when she was out of town; she would sub for me another time. When I got to her class, I asked the group, after introductions, if anyone wanted to share some initial thoughts. One student responded immediately with a comment, to paraphrase, like this: "I'm really glad I read it. Since we've been reading so much theory, it was great to read someone's true story, and find out what his life was really like!"

Four minutes into it and, at least in my perception, I was facing one of those thorny situations that, if handled incorrectly, can wreck the dynamics of a class, even a course. How could I correct the student's obvious, possibly silly-seeming mistake--after all, the book, whether autobiographical or not, was not autobiography but fiction--without making her feel like an idiot or implying that other students should not risk venturing their views? It was not that her comment was so off-base. As I discuss later, Feinberg intended to convey truths about the lives of trans and other gender nonconforming people and the novel's power lies partly in Feinberg's ability to do so. Probably that is partly why many people link Stone Butch Blues to transformative moments of recognition. I am one of them. Reading the book, hot off the presses in 1993, I saw someone like the person I then understood to be my girlfriend. He--then going by "she"--had said things about not being able to reconcile his gender identity with the sex assigned to him at birth that I had not encountered as a close-up personal narrative until I "met" Jess in the novel. He found himself in the book, too, coming to understand himself as FTM, or female-to-male, identified. I know others with similar stories. They were common in the decade after the book came out, before one could happen upon trans people in a wealth of cultural products ranging from small-press anthologies to network TV.

Nonetheless, the book was a novel. I sidestepped the student's mistake, praised her attention to the realism, and said we would be talking more about it, partly in light of the book's status as a novel. How interesting, I said, that the author made fiction seem real. As it turned out, I need not have worried that the student would feel embarrassed. To the contrary, the fact of fiction did nothing to change her view that she had experienced in reading the book something similar to attending a panel in which trans people talk about their lives--an opportunity that the students in the course had recently had, too.

This essay sets my two recent experiences teaching Stone Butch Blues against my own experiences with live special guests in the classroom to consider strategies for turning "special guests" against the very problem that the "special guest" can often contribute to: locating trans issues, matters, and people on the outskirts of gender as extremes or exceptions. What can we learn from thinking about special guests across the boundaries of flesh and paper?

Live

I know from teaching experiences both linked to and distinct from trans matters that it is hard to relocate people and ideas commonly considered special guests, even when you present them as the regulars instead. For example, despite dispensing with the "fathers of art history" in the first few weeks of my methods course for the history and criticism track of Art and Visual Culture, students routinely display seemingly intractable beliefs that studying everything from race to television is daring, super-unconventional, a bit outrageous, and, fundamentally, outside the field. With live special guests addressing their marginalization, the challenges can be multiplied. Nonetheless, I have attended, hosted, and once spoken at events that aim to illuminate trans matters by having trans people, sometimes with a non-trans ally or two, talk about them. In fact, in the nearly 20 years since Stone Butch Blues was published, such events have become common enough in central and southern Maine that some big-name speakers, including Leslie Feinberg, have cycled through more than once, and the phrase "trans panel" has become a widely-understood shorthand for a particular type of event: one where a group of local speakers share their own histories and analyses, along with general, introductory information about trans matters should the audience require it. I booked such panels once or twice for another course I teach, Women, Gender, Visual Culture.

I do not regret doing so, for reasons that go beyond the speakers being insightful and illuminating. For at least two reasons, I believe that...

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