Sunday, 18 May 2008

Stone Butch Blues & A Memory

I read Stone Butch Blues (by Leslie Feinberg) over the weekend. I alternated between thinking, good god, they went through all that? And wanting to say, thank you, thank you, thank you. And even though Jess and I are so different (age, class, geography) I also kept thinking, yes, that’s exactly how I feel. That’s it exactly. (No spoilers here, on the off chance someone reading this blog hasn’t already read the book, but the section on Theresa really got to me. The crushing consequences to a relationship of walling up the soul.) It was absolutely devastating to read and also utterly freeing and empowering.

One random memory the book brought back to me... I was in a play in, oh, my junior year in high school? It was about kids in a juvenile detention center. The director told me and another girl to include some touching and physical closeness, to heighten the ‘realism’ of the production. On the theory that prison=gay sex, I guess. (He didn’t ask any of the boys to do this. I was in the closet but had been with T. for over two years by then.) I felt very awkward but also like refusing would lead to questions I couldn’t answer, so I went along with it, though I made sure she did most of the actual touching. (She was younger than me and quite attractive and I felt dishonest touching her. Not to mention I did not want to be aroused in that situation.)

As part of the rehearsal process the director arranged a field trip to the town police station. We were put in two cells and locked in and left for a while. I was terrified from the start and considered backing out but was also a little curious and didn’t want to seem like a wimp. After a bit we (in the girls’ cell) decided to start acting out a section of the play. At one point the girl I was supposed to touch stepped towards me, and I stepped back and put my foot up on the bench in the cell. Instantly the sergeant who was ‘showing us around’ was there and landing on me like a ton of bricks. He loomed outside the locked door; we were all sitting down by that point, me closest to him. The other girls were dead quiet. “What were you girls doing in there? Dancing with each other?” he said, condescendingly. “We were acting out the play,” I answered. I was aware of the other girls and the silence of the boys in the next cell and the director and his wife in the hallway. The policeman and I were locked in what was almost a staring contest. I sensed a malice in him, a casual cruelty, and a desire to see me cry. “When the drunks are in here and they put their feet up there, you know what we make them do?” I was silent. “We make them take a bucket and a scrub brush and scrub out the whole cell.” Our gazes were still locked. “Do you want me to do that, then?” I asked quietly, refusing to show just how scared and vulnerable I felt.

I don’t remember exactly what happened next. I think the director broke the spell finally, maybe just by walking over. Anyway I didn’t have to clean the cell (though I would have). Our field trip limped to a finish and we left the station. The girls drove back to the school in the director’s wife’s car. “That sergeant has a bad rep,” she said. “He’s always trying to get in girls’ pants.” A bit later, she suggested he was a jerk because he was short. “Don’t ever date a short man. I was with a short man for a few years. He beat the hell out of me.”

None of this remotely approaches the violence Feinberg describes. But it did make me think about how instantly the policeman and I moved into adversarial positions, as if we recognized in each other some ancient enemy and had only to rehearse a script of antagonism, contempt and powerlessness. The world is a strange place.


letsdance said...

I've been wanting to read "Stone Butch Blues", Leo.

Powerful post!

Clementine said...

That book makes my cry buckets.

Dylan said...

Man. I didn't even make it through this post before I got up in search of my copy of this book. I'd love to read it again. I absolutely found myself, my identity in that story... it was the first moment that I found honor and pride in being called butch, a term which usually made me defensive and edgy. I can't imagine how many lives that book has saved, really and truly.