Chasing Gillian – A critique of Adam by Ariel Schrag

Well, this is problematic.  I don’t have anything against Ariel Schrag, per say like I do Norah Vincent (the reasons for which I could describe at length). Schrag is a talented writer.  Adam opens with a crushingly awkward and awesome scene where Adam, the 17-year-old protagonist tries to make out with a pretty girl in her bedroom while she IMs her other friends.  It sucked me in, I’ll admit.  When I picked the Advance Reading Copy off of a pile in my hallway to break my reading slump, I thought I was in for a light young adult novel – and it is, really – teenage protagonist, absent adults, adventure to new city, first-time sex.  Plus the blurb on the front was written by none other than Alison Bechdel, I mean holy crap, I love pretty much everything she’s done.

Synopsis:  Adam, socially awkward, 17 year old virgin moves to New York to live with his older (lesbian) sister Casey for the summer.  While there, he and his sister become involved with a group of friends – lesbian, bi and trans.  Adam is mostly on the periphery of the group, following them to clubs and parties, until he meets Gillian, a 22 year old lesbian, who mistakes him for a transman and starts dating him based on that assumption.

The story started out ok.  I even thought Schrag had broken into my head and lifted some of the awkward thoughts and panic attacks out of it and committed them to paper as she followed Adam through his social interactions.  And make no mistake, I remained sympathetic to Adam for pretty much the whole book.

Even as the story progressed, I found myself laughing at the posturing and posing of the 20-something scene in NYC, especially the Marriage Equality March scene where Schrag deftly and humorously illustrates the complicated and sometimes contradictory allegiances within the LGBT community.

Where this went off the rails for me is where Gillian, who is a 22 year old lesbian with more world and relationship experience than both Adam and Casey combined, mistakes a 17 year old high-school student for a 22 year old transgender man – not just once when she’s drunk at a party, but for a sustained relationship.  Why?  Because this pokes at a very sore spot for me as a transman.

Do sparse facial hair, acne and social awkwardness define trans for Schrag?  What about obsession with sex and body image? How about emotional immaturity and desperation for inclusion?  Because those are the only things about Adam’s character that Schrag draws upon to make her case that he is a passable transman.  The other transmen in the story are one-dimensional stereotypes obsessed with their bodies and masculinity who casually hook up with women like Casey and then break their hearts.  (Then, of course the confused woman (Casey) realizes she’s really into butch women and abandons the idea of transmen altogether.)

This premise is insulting to all involved.  In real life, Gillian would have figured out she was dating a teenage boy who had never even kissed a girl immediately.  Transmen have the unique experience of being socialized as girls.  Adam once sneaked his best friend to a place where they could watch his sister have sex with her girlfriend.  I sincerely doubt that same person could pull off even one day in the company of a group of people including other (real) transmen.

During the course of their relationship, Adam crams like he would for an exam so that he can pass as a transman.  He memorizes testosterone doses, surgeries, doctors, research and the shorthand lingo we use in online forums. He recites them in his head as one would before the big test, and throws out the bits of intelligence he’s gathered at strategic places so he looks like he knows what he’s talking about.

In other words, rote memorization without the experience – which is what Schrag’s treatment of the trans experience reads like.

Even still, the story held my interest for the day and a half it took for me to read the book.  And then the end of the story happened.


Gillian finds out Adam isn’t trans, is ok with it, decides she wants to date a 17 year old boy, then loses interest and begins a relationship with a cis gender man.

Sooo, what I’m hearing is that relationships with transmen (or people one thinks are trans) are only useful to clarify someone’s sexuality so that they can pursue a (real) relationship with the butch woman or cis gender man of their dreams.  So glad we can be of service. You’ll pardon me if I don’t let my partner of 12 years in on that secret.

I finished this book thinking, “Why can’t I find more good stories about trans people written by trans people?”  I suppose I should get to work.


Air Quotes

When I started transitioning 11 years ago, my goal was to be able to wear a suit and tie without irony.  The irony is that now I rarely wear a suit and tie. If you’ve read my earlier posts, you’ll know I’m more of a Carhartt/Dickies kind of guy.

In the beginning, my needs were modest – almost embarrassing in their naivete and physical appearance-focused nature.  Flat chest, facial hair, deep voice.  As if that was all there was to being a man. As if that would open a door that I could walk through unscathed. I wasn’t prepared for the space between female and male or how no matter what phase of my transition I was in, my status would forever be qualified by invisible air quotes.

If you’re gay and live in a state that still discriminates against you, you’ll recognize the air quotes. You’re “married” to your “spouse.”  If you’re black you’ll probably recognize the air quotes surrounding words like “diverse.”  If you were born a woman, you have already internalized the air quotes around “powerful” and “competent.”

I was not prepared for the air quotes around “person.”

When I was admitted to the hospital after an emergency surgery, my attending nurse came to me in the late evening between my opiate induced naps, leaned on the end of my bed and asked, “Do you prefer to be called He, She or It?” I decided that I had to be nice to her because I was alone in my room (they couldn’t put me in a room with a man or a woman) and she was the person who would come (or not) if I pushed the button on the fob tied to the handrail. My face no doubt resembled the look my bulldog gives when he needs to pee and I’m the only one with opposable thumbs to work the door knob.  Compliant, hopeful, grateful for any scrap of dignity. Part of me wished I had a recording device so I could use it to retell the terrifying tale to sympathetic friends. Part of me planned my emergency escape from the hospital if things got too weird.  Part of me (larger than I’d care to admit) just wanted her to like me.

It’s that part – the part that wants to be loved, who hates it when people are mad at me, who cannot abide much conflict at all – that steered most of those early years.  I kept making myself smaller so that I wouldn’t be the cause of any friction. If I’m honest, that part steers me much of the time now, except for I’m better at it because I’ve discovered that most of the time, the person you’re dealing with isn’t very concerned with you at all.  They are so wrapped up in their own insecurities, fears and loneliness that they are posing for you just as much as you feel pressured to pose for them.

In the years since then, I’ve learned to be gracious without begging, to forgive slights without consenting to them, to be grateful while demanding respect.  Being trans in the world has changed, too. Even since I injected my first dose of testosterone, the climate surrounding gender difference has warmed. In many cases, trans people feel freer to buck the whole notion of having a gender at all.  It’s very exciting.  Even Facebook has now included dozens of options under the gender question in your profile.  You can pretty much customize as much and as often as you want.  The whole notion of trans and gender is deconstructed.  Screw the “please like me” impulse – we can thumb our noses at all the air quotes around “man” and “woman” as if we’re not enough of either to be human.  I should be elated!

And I am.

So why haven’t I jumped at the chance to claim my transness on the mother of all social networks? Good question.  And one I’ve been asking myself all day, even after being interviewed about it.

I’ve never hidden my trans status.  In fact, I disclosed it much to my therapist’s chagrin during a group workshop (that had nothing to do with gender) because I had some sort of neurotic impulse to be honest at all cost, even if it derailed the purpose of the session.

I’ve written blog posts, essays, letters and even Facebook posts about being trans.  I went to Washington D.C. and disclosed my status as a transman in a meeting with high-ranking officials at the Department of Health and Human Services for god’s sake. I’m not closeted.

And yet.

I’ve grown attached to my male gender.  It’s mine and no one else’s. I’m a man the only way I can be, which is different than anyone else in the world can be a man. It fits me like my Rural King hat fits me.

The door I thought would be so easily traversed represented the most difficult journey I’ve ever started, and I am no where near, even over a decade later, finished transitioning. As I write this I know I’ll never be finished. 

The truth is that none of us emerge from our lives unscathed. We grow into the people we become – and then grow again. The truth is that transition is not only a  human experience.  It’s the only human experience.

So I’m free to be the person I am.  I have a right to select the term that fits.  So, I’m male.

I also reserve the right to change my mind.