[Note: Once again I apologize for the six week lag time between entries. The academic semester foiled me again. With the December holidays here now, and looking forward to being on leave next semester, I should be able to meet the challenge of bi-monthly writing.]
I read Leslie Feinberg’s classic novel about transgender experience, Stone Butch Blues, 10 years ago, although the book itself was published in 1993 (by Firebrand Books; a 10th anniversary edition was published by Alyson Press in 2003). Feinberg has always been at the forefront of transgender politics, well before they became a more visible issue in progressive movements around gender and sexuality. Hers was the first fictionalized autobiography to address the complications of being a subject born a woman, living in a body purposefully constructed as masculine. I recall being captivated and moved by the story of his/her (or hir, the compromise, composite transgender pronoun Feinberg uses in his new book, Drag King Dreams) challenges and triumphs, and learning more than I knew about what it means to be (as Max, the hero of Feinberg’s current novel describes it) fluent in the languages of gender, but only able to articulate yourself in one—and not the one that dominant society has assigned to you.
Reading Drag King Dreams 10 years after Stone Butch Blues is a less revelatory experience. The book’s heart is large and earnest; Feinberg remains a righteous crusader for not only trans rights, but for a progressive coalitional politics that draws careful connections among gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, and ability oppressions, as well as immigration rights and the complex suppression of freedom prompted by the post-9/11 security crackdown. By demonstrating these interlocking systems of power and their tactile effects on people’s lives, Feinberg brings home polemics that might otherwise feel abstract and distant. I applaud the novel for the sincerity of its passionate political vision, even while the construction of its sentences sometimes makes me wince.
Max Rabinowitz, the hero of Drag King Dreams, is an aging transman, a denizen of the night who scrapes by without bank accounts or credit cards, eking out a living in a twilight cash economy by working as a bouncer and then a bartender in two different Manhattan clubs. Both cater to drag kings and queens, and other queer people who consciously perform their genders of choice and likewise choose their names, rather than living under the proscriptions of the ones assigned them at birth. Thor, Deacon, and Weasel all act as men; Ruby and Jasmine act as women, although in the trans cosmology, it’s more apt to look at these characters through degrees of gender performance and desire.
Max’s family of choice is a panoply of race and ethnicity, drawn more tightly together by the brutal death of their friend Vickie, who was most likely killed by someone motivated by lethal hate. Vickie’s death haunts the narrative; it’s the sign of fate with which each character grapples as they make their way through a social world where everything is dangerous for their people. (Or, as they call each other, their “family,” neatly resignifying the conventional understanding of the now fraught word.)
Thor, for example, is arrested for using a bathroom; Feinberg doesn’t specify if Thor used a “men’s” or “women’s” room. It doesn’t much matter, since Thor clearly doesn’t quite “fit” in either. His liminality causes his arrest. Feinberg positions the police throughout the novel as agents of oppressive, uncaring, unchecked power and hatred. They roughly cart Thor away to jail, where they beat him up and most likely assault him in other ways that Feinberg leaves us only to imagine.
Ruby, the drag queen who is Max’s intimate, falls ill early in the story, and is taken, although she’s uninsured, to a local hospital, where she is humiliated by nurses who call her “sir” and sneer at the transgendered caregivers who stand staunchly by her side. Unwilling to be subjected to the physical and emotional brutality of those for whom her birth gender is fixed, static, and determining, Ruby insists that Max sign her out of the hospital, and leaves, regally leaning on his arm.
Jewishness crosses trans in Drag King Dreams as another part of an identity that requires Max to stage his public resistance. His cousin, Heshie, is a differently abled computer geek, who lives in a cold water warehouse dreaming up virtual reality games and developing software that frees people from the limitations of their flawed or otherwise constraining flesh. Through Heshie’s technology, Max explores alternate realities in which he can look for others like him, or feel what it might mean to fly, unleashed from the gravity that ties him to conventional notions of identity.
Max and Heshie fight over the politics of Israel and Palestine, with Max arguing for a Palestinian homeland and Heshie for a two-state solution. Their Jewishness and the strength of their history asmishpoche (or birth family) isn’t enough to make them the “same” or to let them find “home” with each other without struggle or accommodation. Heshie instantly offers shelter when unknown assailants with most likely political motives trash Max’s apartment. Max appreciates the temporary solution to his transience, but they both know that while they might be blood family, they’re not “home” to one another.
Max’s search for “home” in fact propels the narrative’s fits and starts. The book refuses more conventional crises and resolutions. While Vickie’s death begins the story and her memorial service happens near its end, other incidents crop up and melt away with what feels like little consequence. Max befriends two Arab men who live in his neighborhood; one of them disappears mysteriously after a political demonstration, which teaches Max about the precariousness of life for people of Middle Eastern descent living in the States after 9/11. He finds common cause with Mohammed, the man left behind, who protects Max’s belongings when the thugs trash his place, and feeds him with a tenderness exactly opposite the brutality he finds at the hands of the police who supposedly keep the nation safe.
Max entertains several tentative flirtations, one with his friend Jasmine, the Asian-American transperson who manages the clubs at which their friends work together as a team. Another flirtation happens on line, in a game Heshie gives Max called AvaStar, an LGBTQ environment that nonetheless requires players to enter through two-gendered locker rooms where they assume identities that even in virtual reality can’t accommodate the kind of flexibility Max needs to feel whole. Max, entering under the screen name “Pollygender,” signals his more complex gendered performance by awkwardly translating the semiotics of the street through the controls of the virtual space. Several other players are astute enough to read his signs and ask to meet him privately. One is a femme, the other more ambiguously described, but both seem to “get” Max and his multifaceted difference, even in this simulated place.
These moments of virtual play mix with historical time in Drag King Dreams, as the people Max meets in these futuristic internet environments reveal themselves as rather old-fashioned gender rebels, some of whom even call themselves lesbians. When asked if he’s a lesbian, Max responds yes, even though the material world through which he moves requires more complicated identifications. The AvaStar moments are at once the book’s most hopeful and most strangely nostalgic, sentimental, perhaps, for old gay and lesbian and butch and femme communities of face to face interaction, support, and love. While his screen interactions highlight Max’s loneliness, they also gesture toward the possibility of connection, both online and off.
The book’s central tension lies in its effort to recreate community through the eyes of a character who’s become an inveterate loner. Over the course of the book, Max begins to remember an earlier activist moment in which he and Ruby planned marches and plotted proactively to make change. The story’s finale finds him and his friends back in jail, arrested at a march against injustice they planned and led. But in between these two eras of his character, the story meanders a bit, as Max slowly works his way back toward the possibility of his own liberation.
Feinberg’s writing lacks a certain nuance; Max’s feelings tremor close to the surface of the author’s language, and often, his politics overwhelm any depth of characterization the story might otherwise achieve. Max’s conversations with his friends often devolve into polemics, whether he’s arguing about Israel with Heshie or talking about the old days with Ruby. We don’t learn much about anyone aside from how they proceed through the trials of the present. What Feinberg imagines of their pasts seems contrived only to explain current oppressions.
Yet if Feinberg skimps on her characters’ depth and individuality, she’s committed to drawing out what connects them to each other and the tenaciousness of their bonds. At Vickie’s memorial service, Max relates a proverb passed on by the Yiddishe aunt who raised him: “Tell me who you know; I’ll tell you who you are” (220). This crystallizes Feinberg’s point: that a relationship, or a community, or a movement consists of the lines drawn between us by history, by labor, and by commitment to an idea of family much deeper than origins, because these new ones are families we make and nurture and refuse to see sundered.
Feinberg’s generation of transgendered activists claimed their connection to gay and lesbian, feminist, and civil rights. Although Feinberg never places her characters in specific age groups, they acknowledge that a younger generation has come up after them whose issues and lives are different in myriad ways. Yet another of the hopeful moments in the novel comes at the team’s climactic march for gender rights in Sheridan Square, the historic site of the Stonewall uprising in 1969. Ruby fights a cordon of obstructive police to join her cohort with a younger generation of transpeople working their way toward them to protest by their sides. That commitment to trans-generational thinking and coalition demonstrates Feinberg’s insistent faith in the potential for change.
In fact, Max’s belief in possibility resurrects itself over the book’s arc. By the end, despite their incarceration and the uncertainty of their release, Max and his friends are planning their next demonstration and making more connections to others who are disappeared or dispossessed. A loud, aggressively supportive, activist crowd lobbies for them on the station house steps.
Throughout the book, Feinberg writes obliquely about each characters’ race and gender; for example, we don’t know if Deacon is female or male, black or white. We know Max is “he” and Jewish; that Thor is a drag king; that Ruby dresses like a woman; that Jasmine, too, dresses like a woman and is Asian. But their chosen names conceal their bodies and identities of origin on the page, requiring us to accept them according to what they call themselves and by the gender and sexuality Feinberg tells us they perform.
Only at the very last moment of the novel do we hear their birth names, as each of Max’s family of friends is called out of the common jail cell in which they’ve been conveniently held. As policemen come to collect each character individually, the officers read from clipboards their original names: The stolid Thor, who took his name from the Norwegian god of thunder, is called out of the cell as “Carol Finster.” For the glorious, glamorous Ruby, they call “Tyrone Lanier.” The enigmatic Deacon is harnessed to the prosaic “Ronald Jackson.” And finally, as he dreams of the resurgence of community in which the living mingle once again with the dead (the literary equivalent of the fantasy party that ends the first gay film about HIV/AIDS, Longtime Companion), an officer comes for Max, sneering at his Jewish surname, then attaching it to his first, calling, “Maxine Rabinowitz.”
With these final two words, Feinberg drives home how far “Maxine” is from describing Max and his world, and let’s us feel that the state’s investment in this official identity (which Max has long since overthrown) is superfluous, ridiculous, and archaic. And yet by that name, Max remains affixed to state power as closely as a photo is laminated to a driver’s license, always subject to its ability to maim her physically, emotionally, and politically. Hence the need for drag kings to dream.
Drag Queen Dreams isn’t great literature. But it does manage to bring home how ideology pierces our flesh, and to illustrate how the complications of identity overflow the apparatus of a state (and a body) that would contain it neatly and enforce it brutally.
The Feminist Spectator