In His Own Image
Second Phase, Mentasm, 1991
Ariel Schrag’s Adam explores the ambivalence of trans men’s newfound cachet.
Ariel Schrag Adam Mariner Books (320 pages)In 1993, a 19 year old trans man named Brandon Teena was raped and murdered in Humboldt, Nebraska. His attackers pulled down his pants, revealing his assigned gender—what they thought of as his lie. After Teena was murdered, much of the mainstream press continued to focus on the disconnect between his assigned and presented genders. Playboy featured Teena in an article called “Death of a Deceiver.” Aphrodite Jones presented his story in a true crime book called All She Ever Wanted: The Girl Who Became a Boy but Paid the Ultimate Price. Many articles referred to Teena with his female name and pronouns. His grave, which lies only a couple miles from my house in Lincoln, immortalizes him with the wrong names: daughter, sister, friend.
Twenty years later, Ariel Schrag has published a novel that provocatively reverses this scenario. A dorky high school “bio guy”—man assigned male at birth—spends a summer in New York City hanging out with his queer sister’s collection of lesbian, gender-fluid and trans friends. At a party, he ends up telling a lesbian he’s attracted to that he’s transgender, knowing this is the only way she’ll consider sleeping with him. In order to keep her, Adam must scramble to maintain the lie. He researches everything related to transitioning and manages his social circles to avoid overlap. Brandon Teena stuffed socks into his pants crotch; Adam Freedman ACE bandages his penis to his belly. When a character mentions Brandon Teena towards the end of the novel and Adam, his secret not yet out, reacts with guilt, Schrag makes the connection explicit.
Adam’s own guilt is the worst punishment he’ll get for pretending to be someone he isn’t. Schrag reverses the deception as well as the overall tone of the story: Brandon Teena’s end was of course a tragedy, while Adam maintains a tone of quasi-farcical lightness undergirded with basic sincerity. The novel has the kind of premise that invites readers to call it insensitive—the kind of premise that moves product. Adam is a needed correlative to didactic queer fiction that treats its protagonists with unexamined reverence, the sort of fiction that tends to proliferate in the wake of hate crimes like Teena’s. Schrag calls this kind of fiction “precious.”“On TV and in YA novels, there’s often this sort of preciousness around queer characters…I just find that boring.”
Schrag has written an anti-precious novel. She has also gotten at a necessary truth: though Brandon Teena’s story made Adam possible, it is no longer the trans male story.
It isn’t so hard to be a trans man anymore, especially if you are the kind that populates Adam: white, of affluent or comfortably middle-class parentage, a graduate of an elite college, living in a city in the first or second decade of the 21st century. In fact, sometimes, it is very good indeed. Part of Ariel Schrag’s job in writing what Stephen Burt aptly calls “Trans Literature for the Masses” is to give a narrative gloss on the intricacies of a particular subculture—the focus on pronouns, preoccupation with bodily modification, particular lingo, what opinions are considered acceptable and unacceptable to voice regarding hot-button issues like gay marriage, sex parties with dildo blowjob contests, people named Riverrun, Le Tigre. A crucial component of this cultural introduction also necessitates giving the lay reader a sense of the trans man’s peculiar cachet.
Here I should out myself: though I use my given name, I identify as transgender/transmasculine. Part of the process of coming to this realization involved, and continues to involve, coming to terms with the privilege I enjoy. Think of this essay as one manifestation of that process; not an exercise in guilt but an exploration. For I am what the trans men in Adam are: white, of comfortable parentage, a graduate of an elite college, a lover of ironic fashion. Like the trans men in Adam, my gender is both real and hard-won, but also that most incendiary of descriptors, the one no one wants to apply to themselves: trendy.Ariel Schrag on trans men in Bookslut: “Something can be absolutely real and true and also be trendy.”
For people in the queer community, especially those Schrag’s age (35) and younger, the novel’s claim to trans male trendiness will come as no surprise. “I mainly date trans men,” the actors in a (deleted) parody video called “Shit Radical Queers Say” repeat in a running gag. In the queer web comedy “The Slope,” Desiree’s trans male friend invites her to a rave in the “back of a textile mill.” “The only people cooler than bisexuals are transgendered,” Desiree tells her girlfriend when the latter says she doesn’t want to go.
This 2007 Village Voice article, which played a major role in catalyzing my own gender journey, introduced me to both the idea that I could have my breasts removed (I have since done so), and to the idea that this could be considered cool, a reason for a party. Among urbanites top surgery parties have progressed from radical to cliché. The trans woman who is the protagonist of Imogene Binnie’s novel Nevada considers crowd-funding her rent: “I guess that’s no moochier than a top surgery party,” she thinks. The implication: gender dysphoria is real, but so are the consequences of a minimum wage job. Why is only one sexy enough for a party?
There are more trans men now than ever before, due to various factors: increased self-identification due to greater awareness and visible models, easier access to surgeries and hormone treatments and greater public acceptance. Brandon Teena, in the early ‘90s, supposedly carried around a worn copy of a brochure explaining intersex anatomy in his pocket. Twenty years later it’s possible to be much younger than him and experience a shock of recognition in a young adult novel, at a pride parade or, more likely, stumbling on one of hundreds of YouTube videoslike these that earnestly document the specifics of trans male transition. The specter of stories such as Brandon Teena’s—i.e., the narrative of trans tragedy—lie behind a 2013 New Yorker article about a new kind of trans youth, those who “live in prosperous suburbs, have doting parents, attend good schools, and get excellent grades while studding their transcripts with extracurricular activities.” The subtext of the article: You think transgender life is hard. It’s not that hard! The article’s focal point is a trans boy named Skylar (“Everyone on the Internet had names like that,” Adam thinks. “Lionel, Elias, Aiden, Asher, Tucker, Tristan.”), who, aside from some generalized body dysphoria, has had the charmed life all teenagers deserve. When Skylar medically transitions, his parents initially worry he’ll be ostracized. Instead, he finds his social status elevated. The article ends with an image of Skylar at a youth leadership conference with “several girls following him around, giggling and smiling over their new crush.”
What makes trans men cool? The lesbians Adam’s sister introduces him to assume Adam is trans because he looks younger than guys their age. He is—he’s 17. In addition to helping him seem authentically trans, Adam’s youth reflects an important aspect of trans male cachet. Trans men are boyish, at least for the first couple years. This boyishness makes us less threatening, especially in the context of a lesbian community where men might not otherwise be welcome. (Trans men are tacitly accepted at the infamous Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which bans trans women from attending.) “Trans bodies are seen as an in-between option” for all sexual orientations, says a student quoted in Ruth Padawer’s New York Times Magazine exploration of Wellesley College’s trans male population. If we choose to have medical procedures such as surgeries or hormone shots, we typically need or accept help from loved ones (often women), intensifying our aura of childlike vulnerability. “‘You’re a fucking trend,’” a belligerent lesbian named Kate tells Adam, “‘and everyone kisses your hairy asses for it and comes in their pants at the idea of giving you your shot.’”
Kate doesn’t extend her criticism of trans male trendiness to trans women: “‘trans girls…That shit is real.’” Despite the unsavory tone of her comments, she’s right. A recent Barney’s ad featuring trans women notwithstanding, trans women do not share the trans male cachet. Trans women take longer to be “read” as women, and the in-between space is far less acceptable. Trans women are vulnerable for their whole lives to street harassment; one in eight trans women of color end up murdered. A person who wants to appear as a woman must sometimes have as many as a dozen expensive surgical procedures, while testosterone’s strength ensures that trans men generally only need to take hormones for a few months to be visible as men.
Then there’s the patriarchy. In her influential book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Politics of Femininity, Julia Serrano coined the term “transmisogyny” to describe the confluence of anti-woman and anti-trans attitudes that form the crucible of discrimination against trans women. She emphasizes that this particular form of prejudice is less about reifying the gender binary than punishing expressions of femininity. “Those who wish to ridicule or dismiss me do not simply take me to task for the fact that I fail to conform to gender norms—instead, more often than not, they mock my femininity.” Echoing this sentiment, Orange is the New Black actress Laverne Cox tweeted in response to #YesAllWomen, “The ways I have experienced street harassment are as much about misogyny as transphobia.” Schrag has foregrounded the issue of transmisogyny by placing the real-life author Serrano, with her real-life monologue “Cocky,” at the climax of the novel and the site of Adam’s psychological awakening. Trans men may be satirizable, Schrag suggests, but that doesn’t mean we should disregard trans rights.
People like to say that trans rights are the new civil rights. In fact, the old civil rights are still the new civil rights. They are only different iterations of the same old struggles: those of women and people of color. In the United States in 2012, all transgender people murdered were trans women, and 73% of LGBTQ murder victims were people of color. If the mainstream gay rights movement has historically denied transgender people a voice, this disavowal is less about the problematic gender binary and more about how intractable these “old” civil rights issues are.
By now, gay marriage in the United States is a done deal; a few more legislative loopholes, and gays and lesbians in all fifty states will be able to marry. Meanwhile, people of color—particularly poor people of color, particularly poor Southern people of color—are pushed further to the margins. There are certain states where policies engendered by a culture of misogyny make it nearly impossible to get an abortion. Sometimes the dissonance between the mainstream gay rights movement and the civil rights of people of color comes in conveniently symbolic packages, as in the single week in June 2013 when the Supreme Court struck down both the Defense of Marriage Act and the Voting Rights Act, advancing the progress of gay marriage while further disenfranchising Southern black and Latino voters. Even the most conservative of my undergraduate students here at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln can be persuaded to the cause of gay rights. But good luck trying to get them to countenance Audre Lorde’s anger.
In Adam, race has an interesting part to play. At a gay marriage rally Adam observes that almost everyone is white, though a certain faction of the rally insists on shaming their fellow white people into remembering the needs of “queers of color.” Casey, Adam’s sister who has had a longer indoctrination in queer ways of thinking, refers to uncool things as “so white.” Because Adam and his sister have so little contact with people of color, they find themselves paralyzed in their presence, as in one perfectly observed comic moment where Adam can’t respond to a question posed to him by a black woman because he’s too busy thinking: “You’re black.”
For the white queer characters in Adam, people of color are alien beings who nonetheless provide whites with the possibility of a more authentic reality. The queer people at the gay marriage rally see people of color as giving them a tenuous connection to subversion within a movement dominated by the much-vilified HRC. Schrag exposes the falsity of this practice while simultaneously placing people of color in a space beyond satire. Towards the end of the novel, a person of color helps Adam realize his own falsity. The housemates watch a news report on Nelly Chua, a murdered trans woman who seems to be an invention of Schrag’s. Adam has to fake a response to the event for the sake of his girlfriend, but the cognitive effort required soon becomes too much, and in a few pages the truth of his cisgender identity is out.
Along with Julia Serrano, who delivers her “Cocky” monologue at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Fest, Chua troubles Adam’s initial success in inhabiting a trans identity. Up to this point Adam has justified his deception by saying that, in some ways, he feels trans: After all, he feels like his life is just starting, that before the present moment he wasn’t comfortable in his body, that he is just coming into his authentic self. But after hearing about Nelly Chua and listening to depictions of personal struggle at MichFest/CampTrans, Adam can no longer sustain his deception. If the trendiness of transness is what catalyzes Adam’s gender deception, the realness of transness—as embodied in the corpse of Nelly Chua—is what makes him realize he can’t be.
In placing a trans woman of color in the role of catalyst for Adam’s emotional journey, Schrag risks enacting the well-worn trope where the two-dimensional character of color exists only to help the white character realize three-dimensionality. Further, the fictional Nelly Chua appears to be Hispanic, while most trans women who are murdered are black; for this reason, Schrag’s decision to write Chua as a stand-in for trans women who have been murdered in real life reproduces some of the problematic racial dynamics that exist within the trans community. Yet the metonymy itself is clear: Chua could be Islan Nettles, Diamond Williams, Domonique Newburn, or Cemia Dove, to name a few of the more publicized homicide cases. Despite the lack of a three-dimensional trans woman of color in Schrag’s novel, her central message remains necessary. In the context of the queer community Schrag so lovingly satirizes, Chua makes visible the flimsiness of post-collegiate queer self-righteousness and the valorization of the trans male body. Transness is trendy all right, but only for some.
Ariel Schrag is a few years older than I am. When I was in high school—Schrag would have been just out of college, having the New York experiences that would later inspire Adam—I read her deliriously exposed graphic memoirs of queer high school life. Along with Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For, Schrag’s comics showed me a world that was at the moment certainly not my own but that seemed like a hopeful possibility I could hang onto, a world both strange and plausibly imminent.
Adam is not the same sort of book. Though it’s about a teenager, it doesn’t seem meant for my high school self. As Schrag says about the readers who are upset that Adam isn’t punished more for his deception, the novel doesn’t have a clear moral.“I think the YA/adult divide is pretty silly and arbitrary, but YA books generally tend to have a moral or lesson at the end.” Adam, instead, has an almost anthropological feel. It’s a book written for tourists to spend a few pleasurable hours in an unfamiliar land. Most importantly, Adam allows us to say the unsayable. It allows us to say that trans men are trendy without the panic that sort of statement usually occasions. It allows readers to acknowledge the culturally privileged place affluent, white trans men occupy without denying the emotional struggles it took to get us there.
Ariel Schrag told New York Magazine: “There are so many stories where you see a misfit trying to prevail in the mainstream, so I was curious: What if the mainstream needed to prevail in the marginalized space?” Schrag’s premise works for 2006, when the novel is set. But just as the trans male story changed from Brandon Teena’s 1993 to Adam Freedman’s 2006, it has changed since. After all, we know that trends turn into norms. For readers today, Adam reveals that the marginalized is more mainstream than you might ever think.