Premium

The attack on Adam: why a small 'trans deception' movie is tearing the LGBTQ community apart

Nicholas Alexander and Bobbi Salvör Menuez in Adam
Nicholas Alexander and Bobbi Salvör Menuez in Adam

Based on a novel by a lesbian, directed by a trans man, and starring several trans and non-binary actors, Adam looked set to be the queer indie hit of this summer. And yet, with its release weeks away, petitions are calling for a cancellation. Why has a film with such obvious queer credentials caused such a rift amongst LGBTQ people?  

Some of the backlash must have been expected. The new film by Transparent director Rhys Ernst is a take on the coming-of-age comedy in which boy meets girl. Girl is a lesbian. So boy pretends to be a trans man in order to get girl. Taken at face value, this is a premise likely to offend anyone and everyone under the LGBTQ umbrella – perpetuating not one but two damaging tropes. One being that trans people “deceive” those they court, the other that lesbians can be “cured” by sleeping with men. The former, “trans deception narrative” can be seen everywhere from films like Boys Don’t Cry and The Hangover Part 2, to poorly aged gags in TV comedies such as Friends.

Then there’s Adam. The vast majority (if not all) of those now calling for a boycott of the film haven’t seen it. Its US release isn’t scheduled until mid-August, yet it’s already – likely through a targeted campaign by those shunning it – been ranked a 1.7/10 on IMDb. A Change.org petition to prevent the film’s release altogether has well over two thousand signatures.  

Adam premiered at Sundance in January this year, and received good reviews from mainstream and LGBTQ publications alike. “Adam is one of those films that works well, both as a learning lesson and a conversation starter for transgender issues,” wrote Danielle Solzman in Out magazine. So aside from the controversial premise – which Ernst has argued is in fact an inversion of the “trans deception” narrative – why has the unreleased film proven so divisive?

The call for a boycott can be traced back to a Tumblr post by a 20-year-old UK-based queer writer and YouTuber called Theo. The post, entitled “Do NOT Support Adam When The Film Comes Out”, heavily references the novel by Ariel Schrag, on which the film is based.

“This is the most disgustingly transphobic and lesbophobic narrative I’ve ever come across,” writes Theo. What follows is a summary of the book’s plot, in which the titular Adam has sex with a lesbian character, in which he lies to her and pretends to be wearing a strap on. Which is – unambiguously – rape; specifically “corrective rape”, intended to open lesbians’ eyes to the joy of sex (yes…) with men. Although many who have read the novel have noted that Adam’s girlfriend has clearly figured out Adam isn’t trans when they sleep together, so the sex is – in fact – consensual. Either way, Theo’s Tumblr post – from July – went viral, and now has close to 60,000 notes.

Then there was the Twitter campaign. A user called Al, who claims to have been an extra on Adam, tweeted a thread about his experience working on the film. In the post, which has over 20,000 retweets, Al – who says he and fellow extras were kept in the dark about the film’s subject matter – makes a number of other accusations ranging from trans and non-binary people being frequently misgendered on set, to the set being visited by a member of the Screen Actors Guild, who reprimanded the production company for extras’ working hours and lack of breaks.

An official statement by the production team has labelled these claims “unrecognizable” to them. In an email to me, the film’s US publicist wrote that the claim about the visit from the Screen Actors Guild is “simply not true.”

This inability to relate with Al’s post is shared by Alisha B Woods, who plays Jackie in Adam. “[Al’s] experience is the opposite of what I've experienced with being attached to this project,” she writes to me in an email, “Working on this movie and with the creatives involved has literally been a dream come true for me. Everyone on the set was hyper-aware that what we were doing was special and that it was a sensitive place to be.” Woods says she’s been upset by the negative response to the film.

“If you actually watch the movie, you are able to see that the book, the script and the finished product are their own separate entities,” she writes.

Also via email, I asked Dana Aliya Levinson, a trans actress who plays Hazel in Adam, whether she thinks the film plays up to negative stereotypes about trans people.

“Absolutely not,” she writes, “The film centres a cis[gender] het[erosexual] male who desperately wants to be a part of the trans community to find a sense of belonging. If that’s not a comment on the beautiful power of queer family, I don’t know what is.”

Levinson also points out – regarding sensitivity to trans identities on set – that more than 50 members of the cast and crew were invited to join a “pronoun circle” (when people introduce themselves with their name and their preferred pronoun).

“I really don’t think there’s any useful conversation we can have about this film, without people having seen it,” director Rhys Ernst tells me.

Adam, set in New York in 2006, is a film in which – Ernst argues – the cisgender white male is made the outsider. In many films with trans plotlines, we see trans people try and “pass” as the gender with which they identify in a world that doesn’t accept them. In Adam, we see the reverse. A cis teenage boy spends a summer with his university student queer sister, in which he enters her world. A world in which queerness is the norm, and a straight cis guy like Adam is – for the first time in his life presumably – other.

Adam’s response to this, of course, is deeply problematic. No one, including Ernst, thinks for a second that trying to “pass” as trans in order to sleep with a lesbian is OK. Ernst says that, going purely by the premise, he would have said no to the film.

“I was really concerned and apprehensive I was gonna hate this project,” says Ernst, “But once I started reading [the script] and seeing it in my mind, I realised how different it was to the premise.”

One of the most important differences in plot, between the novel and the film, is that – in the latter – Adam (Nicholas Alexander) does in fact use a strap-on rather than his actually penis, while having sex with the lesbian character, Gillian (Bobbi Salvör Menuez). Although this doesn’t make these scenes any less uncomfortable to watch. I felt conflicted while watching Adam. I had a profound “what the hell is wrong with you?” moment when I caught myself almost rooting for the protagonist and his deeply offensive and creepy ploy.

As a gay woman, I didn’t feel represented by any of the supposedly lesbian characters, two of which have relationships with trans men – which is doubly offensive as it makes both the assumption that lesbians are on some level attracted to men and that trans men aren’t real men to begin with. Although this is something that’s acknowledged by Gillian at the end of the film, in which she realises she’s bisexual.

But the film is also funny and moving in parts. There are a lot of in-jokes about divisions within the LGBTQ community, which I recognised and appreciated. Especially the scene in which Casey, Adam’s sister, is at a rally for same-sex marriage. When confronted with queer counter protestors, who believe marriage is a conservative and heteronormative institution, she immediately switches sides.

The cast of Adam

“It all depends on how this story is told,” says Ernst, “And it could be a little bit of a leap of faith or stretch of the imagination to imagine that this story was told with great care, from a trans perspective.”

 I ask Ersnt how much, as viewers, we’re expected to sympathise with Adam.

“I think different audience members are going to have a different experience and entry point to the movie,” he says, “One of the things the film is dealing with contextually is when cis allies in queer and trans spaces kind of overstep and take up a little bit too much space.”

Although he says the film isn’t intended as didactic or a “transplainer”, Ernst argues that cis people could learn a lot from Adam.

“I feel like Adam is a challenging movie at a challenging point in history,” he says, “But I also think it’s a kind of Trojan horse that can reach a wide audience and, ideally, bring in a lot of people from a lot of different perspectives to a trans way of thinking.”

Rhys Ernst Credit: Wynne Neilley

Ultimately, Ernst says that Adam is a film about cis and straight people learning their place in the fight for trans equality; that they should be there to support marginalised communities, not take up space themselves.

This brings to mind a particular scene in the film. At a protest event called Camp Trans, one woman reads a poem by trans writer Julia Serano, which contains the line, “when a man is defined as that which is not female, and a woman is defined as that which is not male, then I am the loose thread that unravels the gender of everyone around me.” From Ernst’s perspective – I can see – Adam itself is a similar “loose thread”, which calls on cis people to take a much deeper look at their often unquestioned relationship with gender.

“It seems self-defeating, frankly,” says Ernst, “to call for a boycott of work from a marginalised community, by that same marginalised community, especially before it’s even been seen.” He references “cancel culture” and says the situation with his film is “very 2019”, very zeitgeisty.  

Then again, at a politically turbulent time in which violence towards trans people is on the up, he sympathises with the hyper-vigilance of those calling to boycott Adam.

“People feel under attack because they are under attack right now,” he says.