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.