This is who we are and there is no stopping with Suyane Oliveira

In this episode, we talk with Suyane Oliveira (she/they) about the book Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg. Suyane told us, “Books don’t really make me cry and this book made me cry so many times. It just pulled something out of me. I’ve never cried so much while reading a book.” We discuss how Stone Butch Blues opened up a whole new world for Suyane and how it inspired the work she does at the New Haven Pride Center. Episode transcript is below!

A big thank you to Archie A., Bill S., and Paul K. for being This Queer Book Saved My Life’s first Patreon supporters. Their sponsorship level directly supports transcription services that ensure the podcast is accessible to our deaf and hard of hearing audiences. Patreon supporters help keep us on the air and promote accessibility. They receive a variety of benefits, including shout outs in our episodes, social media mentions, access to live-streaming events, virtual lunch with me, or even better, bring me to work day where I can do a talk and Q&A around queer diversity, equity, and inclusion. You can subscribe at patreon.com/thisqueerbook.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

J.P.: Hey everyone. This is J.P. and before we get started I want to thank our promotional sponsor Quatrefoil Library for their work in spreading the word about this podcast.

Quatrefoil Library is a community center that cultivates the free exchange of ideas and makes accessible LGBTQ+ materials for education and inspiration. Located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, visit them at qlibrary.org

That’s q library.org

This month, we have some great guests for you including Zaylore Stout author of Our Gay History in these 50 states, Paul Kaefer Senior Analytics Engineer and Vice President of the Quatrefoil Library board, and I talk with legal advocate and national speaker ellie krug about the memoir She’s Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan, and Jenny joins us for that conversation! Stay tuned for more details, you can find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram @thisqueer

This episode was recorded prior to the destructive Supreme Court decisions stripping persons of their constitutional rights to abortion and setting the stage for local and federal governments to take away the rights of queer people, not only to marry, but also to be in relationships and have sex. In our conversation today, we talk about organizing and coming together, continuing forward and not stopping. You probably know a queer person in your life who could use the books we talk about each week. Please find ways to share these books and our episodes with your friends and family. You may not know that you’re sharing a book with someone on Instagram that’s going to save their life. Let’s uplift the readers, writers, and books on this podcast together.

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J.P. On today’s episode

Suyane: Books don’t really make me cry and this book made me cry so many times. It just pulled something out of me like I’ve never cried so much while reading a book!

J.P.: I talk with Suyane Oliveira Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg. It’s a classic novel that gave new voice to the complexities of gender and is a classic of LGBTQ writing. In 1994 it won the American Library Association Stonewall Book Award and Lambda Literary Award. For Suyane, it was a compass, pointing the way.

Suyane: That book continues to inspire my work, centering people whose voices are not heard even within. the queer community.

J.P.: My name is J.P. Der Boghossian and you’re listening to This Queer Book Saved My Life!

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Let’s meet Suyane Oliveira. Her pronouns are she/they. And I’ll be using she/they pronouns for Suyane throughout this episode.

Her parents immigrated to the United States from Brazil and she grew up in a Portugeuse speaking home. She and I had a little bonding moment about growing up in multilingual homes with immigrant parents. The Box Car Children books were a favorite series of hers growing up. Her parents were religious and enjoyed reading to her from the Bible. After she got a library card, she began bringing home books like Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Which she loved, but because they were horror and with scary covers, Suyane had to keep them hidden from her mom. One time her mom found those books and called them devil stories. That was another bonding moment for us as my mom did the same thing.

Suyane went to college for English. But when the program made them read The Canterbury Tales they got turned off, which, come on, let’s be honest, that’s fair.

Since the Pandemic started, they got back into reading, and queer memoirs are their favorite these days. Or, as they told me, anything gay. If you’re a queer person recommending it they will take it and read it. Suyane describes herself as a “hearty trauma reading person,” instead of light and fun. But, that can burn you out, so she recently read Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem which was beautiful and something she really needed.

She has a little pit bull named Hank. He’s the love of her life, along with her wife.

Suyane is the Women’s Program Coordinator at the New Haven Pride Center. They call it their dream job. They put on panels and events for non-men and queer women, along with fundraisers to support the Pride Center. They shared that one of the aspects they like about their position best is the ability to create spaces for queer women and non-men to be together, but then also to collaborate to create spaces that unite, helping us stick together. 

They told me they can’t even believe that they get to wake up in the morning and do this work.

Here’s my conversation with Suyane.

J.P.: So tell me what is the book that saved your life.

Suyane: Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Fienberg saved my life. Well I’d heard about this book I think a lot of queer people have heard about this book. It’s like a unicorn where you hear about it. But you never ever see it. You know like you never see it in stores like you never see people reading it. It’s a very rare book to find, especially the edition with Leslie’s face on it because it went out of print a long, long time ago. Then there was like a whole big court battle that she was fighting. So it’s free online on a pdf on transgenderwarrior.org. I’m not an online person reader I don’t like Kindles I like to feel the book I love to smell the pages of the book you know are you are you one of those people who just likes how it smells so good?

J.P.: Yes. It’s the only way, only way.

Suyane: It’s so great and then when you think back to it. You’re like ah that’s the particular smell!

So I wanted a copy of Stone Butch Blues I didn’t want to read it online I wanted to like be present with my book in the moment and read it. I was over at a friend’s house and I was looking at her library and she had Stone Butch Blues! I think we’re at a dinner party. I like completely checked out of the dinner party. I was like, oh my gosh can I please, please borrow this book? I’ve never seen it before ever in my entire life! This is so special and she said yes and this was during the pandemic. I read it. And actually I read it once and I put it down and then I read it again immediately like immediately! I tried reading it another time because I wanted it translated into Portuguese which I started to do but I haven’t touched that project in months.

And it’s just one of those books that, I don’t know about other people but for me, books don’t really make me cry. I’m more of like a visual and I’m a big like I’m a very emotional person like if I’m watching a movie I’m crying definitely but books don’t really make me cry and this book made me cry so many times because I felt so aligned with our protagonist, Jess.

It just pulled something out of me like I’ve never cried so much while reading a book! Some was because the scene was sad , but other times it was just because I was like, I understand this, I completely understand how you’re feeling. I mean it really was incredible. So let me tell you what it’s about actually because I should have started with this. Okay, so Stone Butch Blues is complicated.

J.P.: How would you describe this story to someone who hasn’t read it yet?

Suyane: It’s a historical fiction about a working class Jewish Butch Lesbian named Jess Goldberg. It spans out a few decades and it starts off in the late 50 s and then ends in the early 90s. It’s a pretty complex book in terms of its themes. It’s very easy to read so it’s written by a working class person for a working class person. When working class people write books for working class people, it’s just like for me like thank you, because I cannot with queer theory understand what those big words mean! I don’t need that you know? I think it’s Elitist sometimes. But also you know Academia! When it’s written by a working class person for working class people, it’s very easy to read. But it’s very complex in terms of its themes. I think that people would classify this as a postmodern book. There weren’t many books at that time being written about the complexities of gender that’s like so in your face. The way that Leslie writes about gender in Stone Buch Blues. But basically, we follow our protagonist Jess on her life’s journey. We see her find chosen family! We see her struggle with being a working class Lesbian. We see her struggle through unionizing; through the Vietnam war. We follow her trauma. We follow her bliss. I mean there’s like nothing that the book doesn’t encompass honestly. There’s a lot of police brutality. We talk about racism in the book. We see examples of homophobia within and outside of our community. I had never experienced homophobia inside our community. But then once Leslie opened my eyes to it I noticed all of the micro aggressions that queer people put upon ourselves like towards others. That was like eye opening for me. It’s a roller coaster of a book Leslie can juxtapose an incredibly traumatic scene with a beautiful and tender and like caring scene.

That just amplifies the intensity of it all. The queer experience. I mean this book was published in the 90 s.  I hope that other people know that just because this book was published in the 90 s that they think it doesn’t happen to queer people today. It absolutely does. That would be my long elevator pitch about Stone Butch Blues. It’s so complex. Which is why I love it so much because I can pull anything from it. If you want to talk about anything, I’m pretty sure Stone Butch Blues has something to say about that!

J.P.: Every guest interprets this question of saved differently, so I’m curious how do you feel the Stone Butch Blues saved you?

Suyane: I would say that the book opened up my eyes really. I wouldn’t say that it saved me but I would say that it means a lot to me, specifically because I aligned myself with so many aspects of Jesse’s character and Jess’s character changes traumatically throughout the book. So you see a how Jess just evolves as a person which is my life mantra is to be a better person or try to do the better thing. Or just like grow. Like grow for myself. Grow from a community. Grow for my chosen family. I think that’s what we see in the book. She’s just growing. She’s learning. She’s doing it herself. She’s pretty much all alone throughout the entire book and I mean you could attest to this that like immigrant parents are like, you have to do it. You have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. That’s a very American thing but I think immigrants feel that a lot because we’re coming here with nothing. You have to grow like you have a strap from the bottom and grow and just does that and we see. Ah, her growth throughout her entire life like the book starts from when she’s a young, young girl to maybe her late 30 s. So I related a lot to Jess. A lot of my trauma was very closely related to her trauma. and Leslie sort of put what I couldn’t, into words if that makes sense? The title of the book is Stone Butch Blues and we really discover what stone butches are.

I just couldn’t put into words what I was feeling and what my emotions were in terms of like stoniness. I found those words in Stone Butch Blues or It challenged a lot of my thoughts. For example, you know people talk a lot and Lesbians specifically talk a lot about the butch and femme relationship dynamic and how heteronormative that is. I subscribed to that. I was like yeah, butch and femme relationships are very hetero. We’re trying to pass quote unquote you know? But Stone Butch Blues challenged that and it did it in a way without even being aggressive about it. It just told me this is the relationship between a butch and a femme person.

It’s beautiful and loving and caring. Then I changed my mind. I was like no butch and femme relationships are like not about passing as a straight couple you know? This book just is all around like I learned so much about Lesbian history and about how much Lesbians had to work and fight for unions in the 50 s. A lot of them worked in factories. Jess worked at like at a bindery. She worked at a car factory. A lot of dangerous factory jobs. She had to fight for her unionizing and that to me is just like incredible. The entire book. It’s really hard for me to pinpoint because it’s so broad. It’s just an incredible book. I would read it every year. I just feel like every time I reread it, I pick up something new that I didn’t see before.

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J.P. After a book blows open our worlds, seemingly changing everything, how does that show up in our lives? After this break, I’ll talk more with Suyane about how Stone Butch Blues showed up for her work at the New Haven Pride Center.

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J.P.: A big thank you to Archie, Bill, and Paul for being This Queer Book Saved My Life’s first Patreon supporters. Their sponsorship level directly supports transcription services that ensure the podcast is accessible to our deaf and hard of hearing audiences. Patreon supporters help keep us on the air and promote accessibility. Patreon supporters receive a variety of benefits from this podcast, including shout outs in our episodes, social media mentions, access to live-streaming events, virtual lunch with me, or even better, bring me to work day where I can do a talk and Q&A around queer diversity, equity, and inclusion. You can subscribe at patreon.com/thisqueerbook

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J.P. If you’re a doom scroller on social media, it’s important to protect your mental health. But is the only option to turn off the news? What can bring some hope? Here’s more of my conversation with Suyane.

J.P.: So, you finally get your hands on a copy of Stone Butch Blues, what was different for you after reading it? What was new or possible for you to do in life?

Suyane: That’s a good question. That’s a very good question I think I would say that it made me more present with my chosen family. Chosen family is something that we talk a lot about in the queer community and. I don’t think I’ve ever taken my chosen family for granted. But it just made me think about how special our friends and our chosen family are as queer people and I think after reading this book I was much more present. I was thinking a lot about  the history of Lesbians in small towns. This book takes place in Buffalo New York which now is like a bigger town but before it was a small working class factory town. It made me want to learn more about Lesbian archives, Lesbian history. Queer history. I enjoy reading memoirs so much because it’s like being a part of history. A part of someone. I think those two things being present with my chosen family slash friends and then also wanting to learn more about the history of Lesbians. There was a Lesbian history archives in New York where I used to live and I didn’t even know about it. They’re closed because of the pandemic now. But as soon as they open, I’m going to be spending hours there and I’m definitely going to find something about Leslie Fienberg in there for sure. Here was an instrumental activist in in the trans and queer liberation movement. I would be surprised if I didn’t find anything about Leslie in there.

J.P.: Could you share with me how this book shows up in the work you do?

Suyane: Stone Butch Blues did inspire my very first day. The pride center multiple days of a mini conference almost. So as soon as I got hired, I had a few months to put together the Lesbian Visibility Day of Action and it was all inspired by Stone Butch Blues. I lead a book club there as well. For our first book, we read Stone Butch Blues. That was the most successful book club we’ve had I think. A lot of people understand the importance of this story and so it was a wonderful discussion. We read Stone Butch Blues for lavender lit book club and then Lesbian Visibility Day maybe two weeks after that was inspired by Stone Butch Blues. Our surrounding themes for the day was DIY working class and radical queers. We opened up with a reading. A volunteer read a passage from Stone Butch Blues.

In the end of the book where Jess gets up on stage for the first time in front of a crowd. Jess is living in Manhattan I think and gets up on a stage and it’s queer people just telling their stories on a microphone. The passage we chose was when Jess talks about being so tired of being alone and asking her peers and strangers if we can work together. If we can stop fighting this battle alone. If we can come together, it would be easier to fight. The chances of us winning are higher. We chose that passage.

We had a panel about the DIY scene in New Haven specifically. The organizers who were non-men and queer women. We had a panel about working class and radical queers in Connecticut again: non-men and women and queer women. Our Keynote speaker was fantastic. We had a Zine making workshop to celebrate the housings were basically like newsletters in the queer community especially like during the AIDS epidemic. The government officials and reporters were falsely reporting or not even reporting not even talking about AIDS and so like queer people made zines to inform each other about groups and some medications that they’re trying and it seems to be working. So, we made a Zine-making workshop and then in the end we had a indie film screening. It was all inspired by this book. All inspired about coming together, not being exclusive. Celebrating the power of working class people. The power of Do It Yourself! That book inspired that day and that book continues to inspire my work, you know? Centering people whose voices are not heard even within. the queer community.

J.P.: You’re talking about organizing and coming together, how does Stone Butch Blues help you process what’s happening in the world with Anti-trans and Don’t Gay Say legislation?

Suyane: I will say that I am a perpetual doom scroller and my mental health dramatically declines when I’m looking at the news. So, I haven’t been super up to date on current events but Stone Butch Blues just gives me hope because when this book takes place, it was in the 50 s sixty s seventy s and eighty s when queer people weren’t even allowed to hold hands on the streets. But you know the butches in the bars in in Leslie’ ‘ story and Stone Butch Blues, they just did it. They went out despite knowing that they were going to get arrested. They knew they were going to get assaulted by police officers. They knew they were going to lose their jobs. They KNEW they were going to have to make bail and it would cost them some money.

It’s just inspiring. It’s inspiring knowing that people knew that this was going to happen but were like, I don’t care! I need to be me! I’m going out to the bars and I’m going to have an hour of happiness. An hour of being me. I will take whatever crap you throw at me and they did it together. You know.

One of Jess’s first time encountering cops who were beating the shit out of her. She was with her friend. I don’t remember what the character’s name was but because she was there with this. Older Butch who she looked up to tremendously, she was like we’re doing this together and we’re going to get out of jail and we’re going to keep doing it!!

I think that message just needs to be like amplified like no matter what people try to throw at us. We’re coming together. Divide and conquer works. The Romans did it or the Greeks or whoever it was. They did it because it works. So if you divide us, it’s easier to shoot us down. But if we’re coming together. If queer people stood up to Texas officials. There are more of us than there is of them. If we come together, we can do it. There’s no stopping us. There is no stopping. There really isn’t any stopping. We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. This is our happiness. This is who we are. We should not be ashamed of it.

J.P.: I want to thank Suyane for being a guest on the show. If you are in Connecticut you need to visit the New Have Pride Center and say hello. The Pride Center has case management office for doctors providing gender affirming care, lgbt therapists, housing, there is a food pantry and community closet. if you need something it is all free. Suyane is helping organize a benefits show in August with all proceeds going to the Pride Center. Visit New Haven Pride Center.org for the info!

My conversation with Suyane reminded me of the book Eminient Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America by Christopher Bram. It’s a nonfiction book, not a novel like Stone Butch Blues, and it only focuses on gay writers, but Eminient Outlaws also looks at the period of time between the fifties and eighties. It tracks several writers, including James Baldwin and Gore Vidal.

It’s not a perfect book, and it leaves out so many necessary authors from that period, but for me, and this shouldn’t be too surprising at this point as you’re listening to this show, it is always fascinating to me to learn about how writers I admire write, the how of it, the why of it. And Eminent Outlaws tells a bigger story of what it took to write into a world that systematically silenced queer people. We queer folk all have experience with this because we’re all story tellers. We have the stories of our lives that we need to share with people. From adolescence, we start creating stories of queerness. Who am I as a queer person? How do I describe this queer life to parents, friends, grandparents, teachers, coaches, none of whom are expecting our queer stories, or know what to do with them, or in some cases, want to hear them.

In Eminent Outlaws, Christopher Bram shows the tenacity gay writers needed, and frankly, the luck that some had, and in many cases the tension of going it alone or being in a writing community.   

But, they didn’t stop. They couldn’t stop.

In the introduction, Bram writes his first sentence: The gay revolution began as a literary revolution.

And as we process this Supreme Court’s destruction, which is the result of a well-organized and well-funded far-right movement, we’re going to need another revolution.  It’s a good thing we’re already story tellers.

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Thanks everyone for listening to This Queer Book Saved My Life! Our new episodes drop every Tuesday. For all the updates follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Transcripts of this episode are available on our website. Please don’t forget to support our sponsors Best Advantage Mortgage, Park Tavern, and Quatrefoil Library. And most importantly, keep writing, and keep reading.