There was a time, before the Stonewall Riots of 1969, when Buffalo could support only one gay bar at a time.
In those days, a daring bar owner might open her establishment to the city’s LGBT population only at certain hours, after most of the straight clientele had left. Dancing was often relegated to some dingy back room, where same-sex partners huddled together and tried to shake off some of the daily shame heaped upon them by their families, their co-workers or their faiths.
Sooner or later, the bar of the moment would be raided by police. Officers would line the clientele up against the wall, sometimes checking to make sure women were wearing at least three pieces of female clothing. When the mood struck them, police would rough up clientele in the worst imaginable ways and cart them off to the local precinct for a humiliating overnight stay before releasing them without charges.
Their names would often be printed in the newspaper, the shame piling up like so much lake-effect snow and eventually hardening into a thick layer of ice – a protective coating against a cruel society.
It was under these horrifying social circumstances that Leslie Feinberg, the transgender activist and author who died Nov. 15 at 65, lived and worked. Feinberg took her harrowing experiences in the besieged gay bars and production lines of industrial Buffalo and funneled them into the 1993 novel “Stone Butch Blues,” a vivid document of Buffalo’s industrial heyday and a pioneering piece of literature about the forgotten lives of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people in the horrifying era between World War II and the rise of the gay rights movement.
Feinberg’s loss last week, which sent shock waves through the local and international LGBT community, was to some extent buried by the week’s devastating storm. That’s unfortunate, as most Buffalonians have probably never heard of Feinberg or “Stone Butch Blues,” and could stand to benefit from reading it no matter their background or politics.
The novel presents a nuanced portrait of blue-collar Buffalo in many ways starkly different than the city looks today. It wasn’t all negative, either. For one thing, the city’s manufacturing economy still buzzed, its plants still cranking out electronics, airplane parts and steel. The city’s trade unions, though under constant assault from the same backward-looking forces that constantly assailed LGBT citizens, remained strong.
Jess Goldberg, the protagonist of “Stone Butch Blues,” was able to piece a living together by jumping from factory to factory, finding solidarity in unions that protected the rights of every worker, even if the laws didn’t. By the time she started passing as a man, other opportunities might have opened up for her in Buffalo. But by then, the city’s blue-collar engine was running out of gas.
“The plants closed,” Feinberg wrote. “Something we never could have imagined.”
The stories of the city’s proud industrial heyday – and especially the camaraderie among workers of different races, sexes, gender identities and backgrounds – coexist in the novel with a much darker story about the violent conservatism that doomed so many of those workers to lives of shame or early death.
The book is full of routine indignities almost unimaginable to us today, including an incident in which Jess and her friends took a fellow lesbian to a veterinarian rather than a hospital for treatment after she had been assaulted by a police officer.
Buffalo has slid far backward in one respect and leaped light-years ahead in the other. Feinberg’s work helps give vital context to the economic backslide and social progress we’ve made, the income we’ve lost and the equality we’ve gained.
Much of that equality has been the result of grueling work on the part of people like Feinberg, who lived out her life in the trenches of progressive activism and often returned to Buffalo to participate in rallies supporting a range of causes. Her life was one long act of solidarity, sure to inspire generations of activists to come.
At this moment, when the city seems to be creaking slowly back to economic life, it’s essential to look back at our past. And perhaps more than any other novel about our city, “Stone Butch Blues” reveals the bone structure of Buffalo – for better and worse.
As she wrote about the characters in her book whose stories would otherwise be lost to history, Feinberg was willing to take on the whole world rather than make a lie out of her life.
We’re immeasurably lucky that she did.