What the “Adam” Controversy Reveals About Trans Folks and Free Speech
In an interview on his directorial debut Adam, Rhys Ernst compared calls to boycott the film to book-burning and fascism. From the moment I left the set as an extra, I felt uneasy about the movie and worried about what I knew would result in a difficult conversation for our community. Still, I was prepared to hear Rhys out as a fellow transmasculine person.
And I did just that. I read his oft-cited Medium article, and I’ll admit I was intrigued by his argument in defense of the film.
I just couldn’t help but bristle at that f-word: fascism. It’s a word that reverberates, especially for marginalized people. It’s not one to be used lightly, especially in the Trump era. Was that me? Was I simply voicing dissent or was I actively trying to silence the people who brought this film to fruition?
But here’s what hit me: this whole “controversy” began as a conversation about the harmful content of Ariel Schrag’s novel, which is the real tea (the book notably includes an act of corrective rape and a whole lot of casual racism and transphobia). The concern has always been about the danger of Schrag’s ideas, not her right to express them.
However, in a genius act of prestidigitation, worries about the film’s narrative transformed into yet another eye-rolling allegory about “cancel culture” and the right to free expression. That, more than the content of the film itself, is what’s driven the New York Times, the Daily Beast, and BuzzFeed among others to write articles about Adam.
It’s the controversy that’s generating attention for the movie, and we all walked right into the trap. We live in a time when bad publicity is good publicity. Controversy gets butts in seats. So, if you ask me, this whole thing was very well played.
As a trans person, I know this isn’t anything new. Some of you might remember the Free Speech Bus that travelled the East Coast in 2016. The bus, which touted itself as a beacon for free speech, read “It’s biology: Boys are boys and always will be. Girls are girls and always will be. You can’t change sex. Respect all.”
The “Free Speech” bus was the subject of protests for its harmful message. But it made headlines by painting trans folks as tyrants intent on silencing anyone who doesn’t agree with us.
Sure, lots of people protested and made it difficult for the people on that bus to get around. But nobody ever had them arrested or physically silenced for voicing their opinions. All we did was shout, “Hey, this is really hurtful and it’s the kind of logic that gets us killed. Could you not?”
That is a long, long way from fascism. Likewise, our critiques of Adam are expressions of our right to free speech, not a dictatorial silencing of the folks involved. We’re also allowed to not like your art. Especially when it causes us pain.
And if anything, Schrag and Ernst’s voices have been multiplied by this whole charade while the tendency to discredit trans people — particularly the most marginalized — lives on.
In reality, I don’t think many of us are truly calling for this movie to be banned. We’re certainly not trying to create laws that prohibit trans artists from creating challenging work (I mean, have you seen Pose?!).
Even the YouTuber Theo, credited as one of the #boycottAdam fire-starters, was ambivalent about a boycott. They wrote, “I’d like to tell people to boycott it, but I can’t tell you what to do.” Their Tumblr post is a coherent list of problems with the book only meant to inform younger trans folks about the story before they go see it.
And while several articles have sensationalized the “thousands of signatures” garnered for petitions against the film, the reality is far less exciting than that. Seven thousand online signatures is a molehill, yes. But a mountain? I think not.
What I want — and I think many of us want — is a little recognition of the ways this movie might cause material harm to real live trans folks. A little humility. Some accountability.
By making this a conversation about free speech rather than about the dangerous transphobia and sexual assault at the heart of her story, Ariel Schrag served us up on a platter for the trolls, TERFs, and red pills to devour. All while ignoring the heart of the matter.
And once Adam hits streaming, you can bet it will rack up the views from folks who think trans people are a bunch of loud, angry SJW snowflakes who are never satisfied.
Ultimately, that’s all I think Schrag — using Ernst as her mouthpiece — wants. Ernst himself recently said, the story is a “Trojan horse” meant to, “bring in audiences outside the trans and broader LGBTQ communities.” There’s a whole lot more coin to be made from cis people than folks like us — even more if you insist that people have to see the film to form an opinion.
This movie isn’t for us the same way Schrag’s novel wasn’t. It’s just another story about trans people filtered through her cis gaze. It’s justified by its mere inclusion of trans people. A pile of trash dressed up in glitter.
So spend your trans dollars on seeing this shit or don’t — it’s up to you. But don’t let anyone tell you that expressing your opinion and exercising your right to protest is fascism. Just keep speaking your truth.