How Queer History Can Help Us Make Sense of Adam

Rhys Ernst’s new film is mired in controversy. But much of the criticism misunderstands the particular moment the movie represents.

Nicholas Alexander and Bobbi Salvör Menuez sit at a table drinking out of cocktail glasses in this still from Adam.
Nicholas Alexander and Bobbi Salvör Menuez in Adam.
Wolfe Releasing

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Adam, a new film out this month from director Rhys Ernst, is set in the dingy bars and tiny Brooklyn apartments of 2006, where title character Adam (Nicholas Alexander), a cisgender teen still in high school, spends the summer living with his queer older sister Casey (Margaret Qualley). When Adam is mistaken for a transgender man by an ethereal 23-year-old lesbian named Gillian (Bobbi Salvör Menuez), he embraces the false identity, posing as a trans man as they date. The plot whips viewers back and forth between bemused sympathy and what-the-fuck outrage.

Disturbed and alarmed by the film’s premise (and the novel upon which it is based, written by Ariel Schrag—whom, full disclosure, I know socially), many in the online queer community have called for a boycott of Adam; there’s even a hashtag expressly for this purpose. The film’s detractors, most of whom have presumably not yet seen the movie (it hits theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday), are calling Adam lesbophobic, biphobic, and transphobic. They argue that trans identity shouldn’t be treated as something that can be put on and taken off, like a costume, and this depiction buys into the hateful narrative that transness isn’t real. Others take issue with its portrayals of the uneasy kinship between lesbian culture and trans identity that was specific to the 2000s, aspects of which now feel retrograde and outdated. As a result, the film’s majority-queer cast, lesbian screenwriter (Schrag also penned the film adaptation), and trans director have all been accused of promoting “dangerous” and self-hating content.

This unfortunate situation is due, I think, to a misreading of genre. Indeed, the current turmoil might be mitigated if we understood the movie as a historical drama rather than a comedy (either of errors or of romance). This category error is contributing to a misunderstanding not only of the movie’s plot, but of the particular period it refers to. Adam inserts itself into two major moments of reckoning in American LGBTQ history: deciding what kind of space the queer community could and should occupy on the national stage; and the queer discussions around trans bodies that were inextricably linked to class, masculinity, and privilege. Taken in this context, both the movie and book’s rendering of more distressing aspects of our recent queer past makes far more sense.

Viewing the film as a queer art historian whose work focuses on “othered” spaces, it’s clear to me that Adam’s narrative timing is no accident. In the mid-2000s, trans identities became more visible and accessible within coastal queer communities. Fort Lauderdale plastic surgeon Charles Garramone began devoting his practice entirely to providing top surgery (the double-mastectomy procedure some trans men undergo to have a more masculine chest) for transgender clients, becoming second only to the legendary Dr. Michael Brownstein in San Francisco. For people all along the trans spectrum, there were new challenges to talking about their identities—to families, to queer partners who feared that a partner’s transition would erase their own queerness, to themselves—along with seemingly endless possibilities for shaping their bodies to match.

There was binding (mashing down breast tissue to give the appearance of a flat chest), packing (using soft dildos to re-create the shape and weight of male genitalia), hormone therapy, top and bottom surgeries, depilation for trans women, and voice training, among other strategies. The medical-based approaches were not covered by insurance at the time (many still aren’t, even now), making the trans experience a rich landscape of expensive procedures and low-cost DIY efforts to bring external presentation into better alignment with interior feeling.

In a hair-raising scene in the film’s second half, a fellow bar patron (a trans man played by trans actor Jac Bernhard) asks Adam where he had his top surgery performed. “I got mine done with Brownstein in the Bay,” he says. “Where’d you get yours?” We wait an agonizingly long time for Adam’s answer, until finally he blurts out the name of a doctor he’d researched on the internet. Some older queer viewers will recognize the conceit here: This is how trans people in the mid-2000s often talked about their surgeries, like Upper East Side ladies discussing facelifts and boob jobs. However, unlike any other surgery, crucial facts about transitioning could only be found through these informal conversations or deep dives into online message boards and YouTube videos.

At the same historical moment, as we see in Adam, the modern gay rights movement’s priorities swerved broadly toward marriage equality. In 2005, Connecticut became the second state to approve same-sex unions, and New Jersey would be the third eight months later, starting a landslide of court challenges that by 2014 would topple the Defense of Marriage Act. But not all queers were so fervent; many felt marriage amounted to heteronormative assimilationism. Adam serves up slices of this tension when Adam and Casey find themselves caught between anti-marriage queers and eager twentysomething supporters at a pro–gay marriage rally.

With tender but relentless precision, Adam re-creates the injustices, triumphs, and shames of this era in queer culture, while also tracking the community’s own bumbling learning curve with regard to trans issues. The movie’s clubs and apartments host offensive arguments, teachable moments, and bitter complaints. As a middle-aged queer myself, I remember many of my New York and San Francisco friends bitching that all the butch lesbians were “turning into men.” Meanwhile, some femme lesbians fetishized trans men and their bodies, leaving cisgender butches to wonder whether they were man enough. While we now recognize these ideas as noxious and transphobic, they were bubbling up at a time when queer identity was changing profoundly and the community was learning—clumsily—about itself.

Queers fussed over who was transitioning, who was considering transitioning, who was taking hormones, who was getting surgery, and why certain body parts even had to be linked to gender in the first place. Choices were seemingly everywhere in this decade, but the inroads to masculinity became more and more closely linked with simulating “biological” (the word “cis” was not in common usage in 2006) trappings of gender, like flat chests and penises.

In the film, Adam’s penis, ironically, is something he must conceal in order to make his charade work. Like a trans man binding his breasts, Adam binds his penis under a layer of ACE bandages when he goes on dates with Gillian, where he uses Gillian’s strap-on to have sex. In one scene in Gillian’s bathroom, Adam holds the purple dildo in his hands and looks at it with dismay, creating a hilarious visual parallel: He’s as inept at using this device as he is with his own adolescent genitalia.

And herein lies this movie’s most remarkable achievement: It denaturalizes gender, isolating all the parts, sounds, gestures, and appendages that our culture tells us could constitute masculinity if we just bound/sewed/smushed it up into a credible enough performance. When Adam’s straight cis friend Brad (Colton Ryan) visits near the end of the summer, ogling Adam’s beautiful girlfriend and mis-gendering his friends, it is Brad’s privileged cis approach to masculinity itself that feels like the lie—something not quite right, fucking things up with its fraudulence.

The film’s detractors claim that Adam cheapens trans identities by showing a cis person using transness as a disguise. This reading ignores the film’s historical portrayal of queer self-actualization and the hard work involved (especially then) in parsing ideas of gender, sexuality, and selfhood. Our efforts to understand ourselves were messy; they lacked the deeper understanding of trans identity that we all benefit from today. Adam demonstrates in intimate detail how far we’ve come in the last decade, and how much was new and unknown then that we now take as a matter of course. By holding representations of our remedial past to standards of the present, we’re left only with idealized, one-dimensional representations of queer life. With nuance and humor, Adam shows us that our previous dogmas and mistakes are always worth another look.