Do you know those books that come into your life exactly at the right time? Minnie Bruce Pratt’s memoir S/he is just that book for me right now. Although she’s a woman from quite a different time and place than me—she’s a white woman from the Southern States who came out as a lesbian in 1975—I found myself feeling like she was expressing a lot of what I’ve been thinking lately for myself in terms of my gender and sexual identity. I would especially recommend this book if you’re a lover of butch/androgynous/masculine women and trans folks. Also, I really appreciated it as a queer woman who’s (re)claiming and exploring femininity. So if either of those things sound like you, then find yourself a copy of S/he.
You might know Pratt as the partner of Leslie Feinberg, author of the lesbian and trans classic Stone Butch Blues. Pratt is a powerhouse writer in her own right, though, and this beautifully written memoir is proof. In fact, Pratt is a poet, and this work is extremely poetic, but not at all in an alienating way. What Pratt wants the book to do, as she explains in the introduction, is to talk about feminist and queer theory in the real world. She writes: “But we can not move theory into action unless we can find it in the eccentric and wandering ways of our daily life. I have written the stories that follow to give theory flesh and breath.” What is really great about the way that she does this is that Pratt mostly just actually tells stories and doesn’t directly refer to theory at all. She just lets her writing speak for itself—and you lets you decide where and what the theory is.
The writing itself is phenomenal. I find it interesting that Pratt writes that this book contains stories, because to me it felt like a collection of vignettes or sketches. Each ‘story’ is only about a page long. That’s shorter than even Ivan E. Coyote’s stories! Also, these sketches don’t have the kind of narrative trajectory you expect from a short story. They’re more like captured moments and memories, strung together through theme or association or sometimes for a reason I couldn’t quite figure out. Pratt jumps back and forth in time, recounting her early heterosexual marriage, her coming out, her many lovers, her work—teaching at universities, writing, and as an activist, and her relationship with Leslie Feinberg. As a reader you eventually absorb a lot about her life, but in a gradual, meandering kind of way.
Throughout the memoir, Pratt focuses on the policing of gender, of where the borders of masculinity and femininity are. These boundaries, of course, intimately connected to the ones between hetero- and homosexuality. Pratt also pays really close attention to race. One thing I really identified with was Pratt’s expression of feeling not quite like a ‘real’ lesbian because she a) didn’t know she was queer from the time that she was five and b) she’s attracted to gender non-normative women. She writes that the feeling that “No ‘real’ lesbian would be attracted to as much masculinity as I prefer in my lesbian lover” has plagued her. Similarly, Pratt struggled with her gender identity and pressure to ‘look’ like one of these so-called real lesbians. She chronicles her gender identity journey back to femme after dressing like a ‘lesbian’ for years in men’s clothes.
I loved this book. In fact, I take back what I said about this book being for queer women attracted to masculinity/androgyny and/or who are exploring femininity. It’s for everyone. The beauty of this passage should explain why:
Under you I watch your eyes, all I have to cling to, that hold me steady as my body becomes molten, all words melted down into sensation. I become nowhere and everything as you tell me over and over that you love me. Thought dissolves, thought turns to feathers of ash rising from a fire. I am nothing and everywhere as I carry us into the depths of my body.