When Rhys Ernst’s directorial debut, Adam — adapted by Ariel Schrag from her 2014 novel of the same name — premiered at Sundance this past January, the film got good-to-great reviews. The Hollywood Reporter called it “sweetly subversive.” According to Film Inquiry, Adam is a “surprisingly hilarious, complicated look at a pivotal moment in queer culture.” That praise extended from more mainstream press to LGBTQ outlets; a reviewer at Out magazine wrote that “Adam is one of those films that works well, both as a learning lesson and a conversation starter for transgender issues.”
But now, weeks before it’s scheduled to hit New York and Los Angeles theaters in mid-August, Adam has accrued an abysmal 1.7/10 rating on IMDb, multiple Change.org petitions are calling for its release to be canceled, and hundreds of posts across Instagram and Twitter have demanded that we #BoycottAdam.
Adam, from the beginning, was bound to court controversy. Schrag’s novel and her adaptation tell the story of an awkward teenage boy, who’s straight and cisgender, during the summer before his senior year of high school. The titular Adam (Nicholas Alexander) moves in with his cool older sister, Casey (Margaret Qualley), a college student and a lesbian. It’s 2006, and Adam is swept up in Casey’s joyous, chaotic, and complicated world in New York City, one in which young queer and trans people are riding on the shifting tides of love, sex, and identity.
One night, at a party, Adam starts talking to Gillian (Bobbi Salvör Menuez). Hours after they’ve begun awkwardly hitting it off, Adam realizes that Gillian thinks he’s trans. Presumably, as a lesbian, she wouldn’t be into dating a cis guy, but even though she’s never dated trans men before, she says she’s completely open to it. In that first moment, Adam decides not to correct her misconception, and for the rest of the summer he’ll keep deciding not to.
Director Rhys Ernst, 36, who is himself trans, was well aware when taking on this project that Adam’s subject matter would be immediately off-putting to many LGBTQ people. In a Medium post from last year, he wrote that when he first saw the script, he was “admittedly apprehensive” and “ready to be offended.” Instead, he writes, after he read it, “I was stunned and pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t at all what I had expected.”
At a Q&A after the film screened at the LGBTQ film festival Outfest in July, Ernst addressed mounting criticism: "I knew it would be challenging work, at least at face value, to [have the movie] come out in 2019. But I kind of am pushing back on that — that trans filmmakers or queer filmmakers have to do safe work. That we shouldn’t push boundaries, and we shouldn’t make people question things or be uncomfortable.” He suggested that LGBTQ filmmaking today suffers from a “war on nuance.”
#BoycottAdam began in earnest last month, when a July 13 post by a queer YouTuber and writer named Theo began circulating on Tumblr: “Do NOT Support ‘Adam’ When The Film Comes Out.” They called the original novel "the most disgustingly transphobic and lesbophobic narrative I’ve ever come across,” and encouraged any potential viewers of the film to be aware of the source material’s “dangerous” content. “I’d like to tell people to boycott it,” they wrote, “but I can’t tell you what to do.” The post has 57,000 notes and counting, and has been screenshotted and shared hundreds of times across Twitter and Instagram.
Another recent viral message, this time a thread on Twitter, accused Adam’s production team of being “slimy, dishonest, and exploitative.” The Twitter user, Al, who worked as an extra on the set, wrote that he was “lied to” about what the film was about, and that he and other queer and trans people were subjected to constant misgendering by the crew. That thread has now been retweeted over 22,000 times.
This controversy swirling around a small independent movie with a majority-trans and -queer cast — one that has yet to be released in theaters — makes a perfect sort of sense in 2019, when trans rights in the US are more endangered than ever; when Hollywood continues to reckon with its historic lack of marginalized voices and devaluation of marginalized labor; and when online outrage and misinformation campaigns can fuel so-called cancel culture. It’s also a debate about the role of boundary-pushing artwork by and about underrepresented communities in a world increasingly hostile to those communities’ humanity.
Evan Schwartz, the vice president of content at Wolfe Releasing, who stands wholeheartedly behind the film, said he hopes that Adam will push trans representation forward and “help shatter the ceiling for LGBTQIA+ artists to be simply artists.”
“I can get bored and frustrated by affirmation and representation for representation’s sake,” Ernst told me in a recent interview. He resents the idea that, because he is trans, he should only tell stories that are clear-cut, positive, and affirming. “That would be disenfranchising to me as a creative.” Ernst added that he is “very much committed to progress and parity for trans people, and filmmaking is a way to do that … but I’m also very much tied to the goal of challenging cis people’s notions of what transness means, and expanding the idea of what trans subjectivity and storytelling can be.”
One of the biggest problems that Adam’s critics have with the movie is its reliance upon a plotline of gender deception. The viral Tumblr post centered this issue: “To imply that our identities are just costumes for other people to put on erases who we are as people. More than that, to imply it is done to trick people into sex is a dangerous lie that literally gets us killed.”
When I followed up with the post’s author, Theo, they elaborated that although “in this case the cis boy is pretending to be a trans man, it can't be ignored that [the plotline] so directly mirrors transmisogynstic ideas of cis men pretending to be trans women in order to assault lesbians.”
Theo isn’t alone in critiquing the long-established Hollywood tradition of cisgender actors playing trans characters — Chris Sarandon in Dog Day Afternoon, Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl — which gives credence to the harmful idea that trans men and women are just dressing up in drag. (Not to mention that those are star-turn roles that could go to actual trans actors.) Even more dangerous is the idea that trans women “trick” men into having sex with them — as seen in Soapdish, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Hangover Part II, the list goes on — which has serious implications for trans women in the real world. Dozens of trans women have been killed in the last few years alone by their intimate partners, men who’ve felt ashamed and angered by their stigmatized attraction.
Ernst, a longtime artist and filmmaker — he was a producer and director for Amazon’s Transparent and created the 2016 web series We’ve Been Around — is well aware of the conversation he’s joining. “There is a long, storied legacy of the trans deception trope,” he said, which can be “unwittingly foisted on actual trans people” in damaging ways. Growing up in the ’80s, he remembers watching comedies like Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman and Ladybugs with Rodney Dangerfield, a rash of stories told via the cis gaze which presented gender deception in titillating and fetishizing ways. He pointed out that you can trace them all the way back to Shakespeare.
But, as Ernst wrote on Medium, what drew him to making Adam was the way in which Schrag’s script “flipped the ‘trans deception’ trope on its head. It was poking fun at, but also challenging, cis people’s obsession with transness.”
Ernst told me he thinks that Adam “is nodding at the issue of cis actors playing trans — kind of in a meta way — because a fictional character is literally playing trans.” Ultimately, the movie reveals how “playing trans” doesn’t actually work. Adam’s central tension lies in the fact that the further its protagonist goes down the trans rabbit hole (googling transition YouTube videos; researching trans surgeons; learning how to wear a strap-on so he can have sex with Gillian) the closer Adam comes to being found out as the plain old cisgender dude he’s been all along.
Ernst wanted to be able to tell this story from a specifically trans perspective. “I also really love the idea of making the cisgender, heterosexual white guy the outsider,” he said. “I think that conceit of the story — about Adam getting mistaken for a trans guy, then leaning in — creates a metaphor for transness [that] a cis audience can experience. It’s not to be taken literally, it’s not a morality tale, it’s not a manifesto about how one should act — but it’s a thought experiment, in a delicious and subversive way.”
In Adam, Ernst points out, the trans characters feel completely sure about who they are. It’s the cis characters, like Adam and his sister Casey, who have to do the most soul-searching. Tired cinematic tropes about transition as identity crisis — like repeated shots of trans people staring at themselves in a mirror — have now been reapplied to a cis character like Adam, who, in the film, is constantly interrogating his own image.
“Trans people have an intentionality to their gender that a lot of cis people don’t,” Adam’s writer Ariel Schrag, a 39-year-old cisgender lesbian, told me. The character Ethan, played by Leo Sheng in his debut film role, is a perfect illustration of that idea. Ethan is one of Casey’s roommates, who becomes a mentor to Adam as he starts dating and having sex for the first time, lending Adam shirts and giving him pointers about the clitoris. Slight spoiler: Throughout most of the film, Adam doesn’t even clock Ethan as trans, in part because Ethan is so comfortable and natural in his gender presentation; Adam wishes he could be that comfortable. “His masculinity is intentional,” said Schrag, “and he has so much to teach Adam about what it means to be a man.”
Adam’s sister Casey, meanwhile, has always identified as a lesbian woman. And when she starts dating a trans guy, “Boy Casey,” followed by a trans woman named Hazel (Dana Aliya Levinson) — two trans people in a row — some of her friends start calling her a “tranny chaser.” Casey’s the perfect encapsulation of how some cisgender queers might view transness as a hot new trend to the point of fetishization — not just because Casey dates trans people, but because she also seems desperate to adhere to whatever queer orthodoxy is the most popular at any given moment. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Adam is marching with Casey at a protest in favor of same-sex marriage. But as soon as she sees Hazel and Boy Casey protesting against the “homonormalization of the LGBTQ movement,” she immediately abandons her position and starts handing out their “Queers against gay marriage” flyers.
Schrag said she wrote the novel Adam, and then the screenplay, about her own experiences in queer and trans circles in New York City in the mid-aughts — a time when ideas about gender and sexual fluidity were much more limited. “So everybody was kind of struggling,” she said. “Someone might transition, then their partner would say, ‘Do I still get to be a lesbian? Am I straight now?’ I wanted to explore that, in the novel especially, in a way that’s hopefully accessible to cis, straight people, but it’s more of an insider novel — there are more inside jokes for people within the community, exposing our own hypocricies.”
One of the ways the film explores these tensions and hypocrisies is through another cis character, Adam’s love interest, Gillian. Shrag based Gillian on Constance McMillen, a real-life Mississippian who drew national attention when she was barred from attending prom with her girlfriend in 2010. Gillian is famously gay, someone known countrywide for her sexuality and activism. So if she’s now dating Adam, what does that mean for her identity?
Another spoiler here: Gillian reveals, toward the end of both the film and the summer, that she actually realized Adam wasn’t trans long before he finally tells her. But she also let herself believe for so long in Adam’s lie because she wasn’t yet able to confront what it would mean if she were attracted to, and fell in love with, a cis man. “Which is pretty fucked up and transphobic when you think about it,” she tells Adam; if she’s willing to date trans men but not cis men, is that because she doesn’t think trans men are “real” men?
Adam’s critics think that Gillian’s plotline falls into another harmful queer stereotype: that of the lesbian who is “cured” of her lesbianism when she has sex with a cis guy. Schrag said she directly addressed this criticism in her adaptation by getting rid of the novel’s most controversial scene: the last time Adam and Gillian have sex, when Adam uses his flesh penis instead of the strap-on. “In the novel, Gillian knows he’s cis, and he knows that she knows,” Schrag said. “It’s a fine line, but I did consider it consensual, just psychologically complex … and it was just not possible in the movie to depict that complexity in a successful way.”
Even without that scene, it’s clear that Gillian has found herself truly, genuinely attracted to Adam, straight and cis as he is, and she has to come to terms with her own bisexuality. “I first came out as bisexual at 15, then as a lesbian, and I still identity as a lesbian,” Schrag said. “But over the course of however long that’s been, I have watched many of my friends and partners who identified as lesbians come out as bi and end up in relationships with men. I wanted to show Gillian as this gay icon, and the shame and betrayal she might feel when she’s attracted to a man.”
Gillian’s unwillingness, at first, to identify as bisexual is understandable, since — as Schrag points out — prejudice against bisexual people, as well as against trans people, has long plagued the lesbian community. In an early scene in the movie, Adam joins Casey and her friends at a watching party for The L Word, and everybody groans over the lesbian character Tina turning to men; Casey says no one wants to see Tina “trawling for dick.” The group also pokes fun at the horrible mistreatment of The L Word’s lone trans guy character, Max, a tragic figure played by a cis actor whose facial hair far exceeds what would actually be possible, given how short a time he’d been on testosterone.
Actor Jac Bernhard, who plays one of Casey’s trans friends, Lionel, told me he appreciates this particular scene, because those criticisms of the TV show are “a nice little touch — a little meta nod” to how little trans representation (let alone good representation) there was in mid-2000s pop culture, when he was growing up. What Bernhard loves about Adam is its willingness to explore uncharted territory.
“I mean, isn’t it crazy I was given permission to be funny?” he said. “What trans narrative is hilarious, that you’ve seen? Let yourself laugh! You know what I’m saying? We deserve a good time. I got to make a joke — it’s even in the trailer — and be in a comedic setting [with] specific top surgery jokes. … We just don’t have anything like this yet.”
Scenes filled with many different kinds of queer and trans people are Adam’s greatest strength. No single character has to represent their entire community; rather, we see a diversity of identities and experiences. Some trans people might be obnoxiously self-involved, like Boy Casey — and like virtually any other kind of person. Meanwhile, some trans women might be confident butch tops, like Dana Aliya Levinson’s Hazel.
“She’s unashamed in her sexuality. She’s expressing herself masculinely. She’s passionate,” Levinson told me. “It was the type of trans character I know personally in my life but so rarely see.” So often, they said, we’ve seen LGBTQ movies that are really just lesbian movies or gay man movies or trans movies; Adam is a queer movie. “There’s such a beautiful cross section of queerness. Adam, to me, shows all of the colors. And as someone who identifies as queer, and identifies as a nonbinary femme person, that was such a gift for me to see and to be a part of.”
Still, at the end of the day, Adam is the protagonist of Adam, and many potential viewers are legitimately upset by the fact that yet another LGBTQ movie is centering on a nonqueer character.
“I think what the story in the film is doing — instead of center a cis, straight, white character — is destabilizing that character,” Ernst argued. “In a moment when we’re culturally grappling with white, cis, straight men, their power and privilege ideas of the majority and the minority, I think this is an important and optimisic and hopeful idea.”
In a scene toward the end of the film, which takes place at Camp Trans — the annual protest event set up across the street from the now-defunct Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which infamously barred entry to openly trans women — queer and trans people with all kinds of bodies strip off their clothes and take a joyous swim in the sun-dappled river. Adam sits alone on the riverbank, more and more certain that he doesn’t belong in this community, or in their refuge from the straight, cisgender world.
Before going to Camp Trans, when news hits that a trans woman of color has been killed in New York by an intimate partner, Adam’s clueless bro friend from that straight, cisgender world back home tells a tearful Casey that he’d certainly be upset if he hooked up with somebody and figured out later that she had a penis. When Adam hesitantly makes an attempt to defend his friend’s opinion, Ethan shuts Adam down, coming out to him as trans — and as someone who doesn’t always disclose his trans status when hooking up with people. The implication: Should Ethan come to harm for that too?
Adam is — rightfully — ashamed. And his friend, who abandons Adam at a boring party at the beginning of the film, only highlights how morally bankrupt and starved of splendor heteronormative life can be. Maybe, newly chastened, Adam can return to his people and — without appropriating other identities any longer — still demand something better.
Advocates for #BoycottAdam aren’t only upset about the content of the book and the film; they have also been appalled at the production’s apparent treatment of its background characters. For one thing, Twitter user Al wrote in his viral thread, “WE WERE NOT GIVEN A SCRIPT AT ANY TIME. WE DIDN'T EVEN KNOW WHAT WE WERE FILMING FOR.” He also said he and others were “misgendered constantly on set by the crew.”
According to Ernst and several actors I spoke with, shooting for the movie began every day with a “pronoun circle” — much like the one that appears in the film when everyone is at Camp Trans — so that everyone on set could share how they identified.
The misgendering incidents, Ernst said, were “really upsetting to hear [about]. I believe that it’s possible that could have happened. But if you get a hundred-plus trans people together, say, for a conference over the weekend, some people will be unintentionally misgendered. Not everyone will know your pronouns, even when you’re surrounded by a lot of trans people.” Typically, he said, “extras are not treated super well on typical sets — they’re treated like cattle, which I find problematic, so on our sets we would include extras in our morning go-around meetings, share things, share our pronouns. It was particularly inclusive.”
“I’m somebody who has worked for many years trying to pave inroads for trans people in the industry,” he added. “This work won’t always be easy … cis folks are growing and learning and there’s gonna be missteps … but it’s not a fair characterization to say we had a transphobic set. Fifty percent of people, from the crew to creative to the cast, were trans people.”
As for the scripts, Ernst said it’s “industry standard” to shoot projects under a working or unrelated title, and for extras to only be given material specific to their scenes. “Maybe they had never been on a set before, and I’m sorry if that was the case — it was not intentional to confuse them,” he said. “We were just following protocol every other set follows.”
The production team released an official statement regarding AI’s tweets, indicating that the incidents detailed were “unrecognizable to [them].” The statement also denies AI’s claims that a Screen Actors Guild representative reprimanded the set for poor working conditions, or that the content of the film was willfully withheld from extras.
“Their response that they posted publicly essentially denied that any of these negative experiences happened,” AI told me over Twitter DM, accusing the production team of gaslighting. “The experiences I described in my tweets are real and I don't care if they don't believe them or deny they happened, because the reality is that they did. A film set is a workplace and background actors are still entitled to a safe working environment.” He added that while “it may be an industry standard to conceal or otherwise code the title of a film, with a project like this, which is based on a widely dissented book as source material, I think I had a right to know what I was signing up for. So while it might have been perfectly permissible in a legal and industry sense, I still don't believe it was ethical.”
Levinson, for their part, said that being on set was “one of the most beautiful acting experiences I’ve ever had, and I credit it in large part to the number of trans people on set in front of and behind the camera.” Another queer woman who worked as an extra onset said she worked on a particularly intimate scene: “Sometimes that can be awkward — but not on Adam. I felt so taken care of [and] safe.”
Bernhard told me that the claims in Al’s tweets don’t match his experience on set, either, which was overwhelmingly positive. He was present for one particular incident that AI mentioned: “The caterer got up in front of everyone and said she loves and supports the trans community because her cat had undescended testicles surgically removed and now everyone calls him a girl. I can't make this shit up. … Ask literally anyone who was in the crowd of cast gathered around that tree stump listening to some disgusting cishet fetishizer talk about how somehow her cat is trans too and she understands our struggle. Just like let that sink in.”
“This poor lady,” Bernhard said. “She didn’t know. English was not her first language. ... It was clearly offensive, but … some people who just do background might not realize that [caterers] don’t communicate with production normally, but we opened it up to everyone. It’s exciting! Extras don’t get to do that normally. She didn’t get to do this normally.” He remembers that he wasn’t offended, but more so baffled, turning to Ernst and saying something like, “Haha, this woman, she really doesn’t know.”
A trans woman named Lillian replied to AI’s thread saying that she too had been on set, and that someone had thrown bleach on her because of what she called the lack of security. I reached out to her on Twitter for more information, and she told me a man hanging around the set during the protest scene in Brooklyn was hurling anti-gay slurs and eventually “filled an Arizona iced tea bottle with bleach and splashed it at me,” saying “he didn’t want faggots in his park.” She said she didn’t report it; “I was really afraid of seeming [too] problematic to work with at the time so I just kept quiet, regardless of how much it hurt emotionally.” She feared repercussions for her acting career; transitioning has already dimmed her professional prospects. Plus, she didn't see any security or police on set. Though she said her recollection of the incident is completely separate from her feelings about the content of the film, she added, “If I had known the plot I wouldn’t have worked on it. I think the plot really affirms transphobic beliefs.”
Ernst was surprised, and distressed, to hear about the attack. “There were personnel from the police and from the parks department, a medic, and the full team who runs the set. A bunch of people were all standing around huddled together very closely, and nobody witnessed this or reported it,” he said. “I wish that if there were issues they would have been brought up so we could address them, so we could make it better.”
Ernst said that he does understand the widespread hesitancy to embrace his film. “People feel under attack because they are under attack. There is a lot of caution and people’s guards are up, and that’s logical.” He knows that so many films have previously done wrong by the trans community, and it makes sense that standards, and tensions, would be high.
“I have no problem with good-faith criticism,” he said. “Not everyone will like [the movie] or jibe with it.” But that criticism, he said, “has gotta be based on actually having seen the damn movie.”
“The movie is not the book,” Levinson said, adding they think that great care was taken by Ernst and Schrag to address some of the more questionable aspects of the source material when adapting it. “So what I feel about all of the boycotting is I hear people’s concerns — but wait until you actually get to see it.”
Bernhard said that he’d been approached by multiple friends who said things like, “What the fuck, man? I heard your film was really transphobic.” He was surprised to hear the accusations even from acquaintances in the film world whom he barely knows. “I would be like, ‘Just wait until you see it.’” Since making the movie, he says he feels grateful to Ernst, who has become a friend and mentor.
Ernst and Schrag told me that seeing the conversation about Adam on Twitter, and talking to people after they’ve screened the movie — who have largely reacted positively — feel like “two different realities.” And Ernst has been shocked at how often he and other trans people who are in the movie have been targeted online “by really abusive language and tactics.”
“The idea of boycotting or condemning projects before they’re released is not progressive or beneficial,” he said. “It reminds me of Gamergate, of attempts to shut down a female Ghostbusters movie. … I don’t think I believe in boycotts of cultural products, of art. There are other ways of engaging. I think, you know, burning a book, even the most vile book I can think of — I find that too close to fascism. I’m sorry. I don’t believe in that.”
Audience members this month will ultimately have to decide how they feel about Adam’s fraught place in the New Queer Cinema canon — whether or not they choose to see it.
But these “downvoting” campaigns, Ernst insisted, “are not in service of social justice. Shutting down marginalized artists is not to me a way to create a more progressive and just world.” ●