by Emma Ambrose | January 12, 2021
In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine that I ever thought of myself as being a man. The journals I kept during the first half of college now feel like a completed story, stored on a shelf and only taken down when I feel like laughing at a more naive version of myself. Each little clue is an invitation to roll my eyes with dramatic irony, wondering why it took me so long to piece it all together. As I get further and further away from those early days of first being out it becomes harder to understand how sad and confused they were, and how there may have been a point where I gave up my transition and turned back. I started HRT with the myth that if I wasn’t beautiful and flawless there was no real point to even trying. The first point at which that thought subsided came about two months after starting estrogen. On a whim, I went to see a little film called Adam at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco’s Castro District, and after that I never doubted myself again.
Adam is a contentious film, to put it lightly. Based on the novel of the same name by Ariel Schrag and directed by Rhys Ernst, the film follows straight cis teen Adam (Nicholas Alexander) as he spends a summer with his very gay sister Casey (Margaret Qualley) in Brooklyn’s lesbian scene circa 2006. After hitting it off with a girl named Gillian (Bobbi Salvör Menuez)at a party, she mistakes Adam for a trans man and he doesn’t correct her, allowing the relationship to continue under false pretenses. The film was met with an extensive cancel campaign and calls for a boycott both for material in Schrag’s original novel (largely altered or removed in the adaptation) and film extras alleging that they were both lied to about the content of the film, and were misgendered by film crew semi-regularly. It is a film set up to fail on all possible levels, and yet, it is nowhere close to the transphobic mess it was purported to be. It’s not a spectacular film by any stretch, and the material conditions of a film’s production always take priority over any message within the film. However, Adam is also an experiment in representation that deserves a greater dissection than it was offered.
When queer characters appear in coming-of-age stories, particularly mainstream films, they are more often than not morally ‘good’ people who primarily struggle in their interactions with straight society. When queer characters do engage in morally questionable actions they do so as a consequence of blackmail, as with Simon and Jules from Love, Simon and Euphoria, respectively. Even in a film like Booksmart, marketed on the premise of ‘good girls gone bad,’ the most morally reprehensible thing protagonist Amy does is get arrested so that fellow (upper-middle class) students can escape a party. Ironically, stories about queer characters confronting straight society often still exist primarily as a way to convince a cishet audience that queer people can be intergrated into that same society, constructing queer youth as inherently noble and brave. While largely a good thing for the public perception of queer people, there is a downside. LGBTQ+ youth often have to compete with media doubles far removed from their lived experience.
Adam has no such claims to make about the morality of queer and questioning youth, and nearly all of the film’s characters are allowed to have moments of moral failure. Adam appropriates a transgender identity and suffers for it. Casey openly abuses her roommate’s affection for her, and spends most of the film’s runtime desperately insecure about her queer identity. Even Gillian, late into the film, admits that she was initally only willing to date Adam because she assumed that dating a trans man was the same as dating a lesbian. In contrast to other LGBTQ+ coming-of-age stories, Adam is not strictly about coming out and playing nice for a cishet public. It is a film about how recognizing one’s queerness does not provide inherent meaning, and that the quest to understand one’s identity is more difficult and confused than simply coming out as gay, or lesbian, or trans, particularly within the internal politics of a queer community. Coming to grips with one’s sexuality does not come from staring longingly into a mirror and listening to the heart’s desire. It comes through interacting with other queer people who are just as flawed and confused and struggling to understand who they are.
When I first came out as trans, the last thing I felt was brave. Contrary to the vague platitudes often given by allies, coming out was not an act of self-love or showing my real self to the world. It was a desperate act of self-preservation that left me with more questions than the previous three years I had spent as a Philosophy major. I did not realize I was a woman through attempting to emulate femininity. I realized I was a woman by pretending to be a man, prying and gnawing at my masculinity until the entire construction imploded in on itself, and the only choice I had left was to kindle what little embers were left in the wreckage. Watching Adam came with catharsis because for the first time I saw a character who embodied my imposter syndrome both before and after realizing that I was trans. Like Adam, I understood myself as an awkward straight guy who managed to find himself friends with almost exclusively lesbians, finding myself having crushes on exclusively gay girls, and realizing again and again that they would never love me in the same way they loved other women. I felt disgusted at myself for wanting what my friends had, feeling like just a tourist in my school’s queer community. Despite knowing that my friends would accept me for whoever I was, I would still find myself loitering outside my school’s Queer Prom, legs shaking violently and thinking myself a predatory and self-destructive monster, unworthy of any love or friendship.
When not weighed down by the inevitable melodrama and controversy of its conceit, Adam understands this particular kind of loneliness. “What are you even doing here?” asks Casey of her brother, “at least I belong.” Adam never seems to take glee or pride in transgressing boundaries. He is isolated, alone, and caught up in his personally inauthentic performance of masculinity, digging deeper to avoid confronting himself. He knows full well that when the truth comes out, he will lose access to this newfound community, forced to return home to a homophobic mother and agressively straight best ‘friend.’ In a strangely poignant moment, Adam finds himself standing in the bathroom, gazing at the strap-on he holds in his hand much in the same way Hamlet holds Yorick’s skull, each man dwelling on the part of themselves they cannot outrun. “If the penis equals power, then I am illegally armed,” writes Julia Serano in an essay recited late into the film, “because 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. You see, I never wanted to be dangerous.”
For the longest time after first seeing Adam I struggled to understand why I had liked it when so many others found even the entire concept of the film despicable. Indeed, upon rewatching many of the jokes didn’t work as well and many of my sympathies had changed. My patience for Adam’s antics ran low. The film has so many interesting characters and ideas, I thought, why are they wasting time with this toxic sad boy? Both Ernst and Scrag were members of the community they put to screen and you can feel their longing to be back in the community of their younger days, the camera often pausing on moments of domestic queer life. It is a desire I felt that warm summer night, stepping off MUNI in the Castro for the first time, recognizing that the queer community was far broader and complex than just the small group I had been friends with at my liberal arts college. Rewatching Adam now reminds me of those first few months on estrogen, trying so desperately to be the perfect girl, learning that one’s queer identity never comes fully formed. It is a second adolescence; messy and morally dubious, but necessary, and no film quite understood my own coming out story quite like Adam, flaws and all.