When Ariel Schrag was living in New York City in the early 2000s, she found herself in an interesting time for the queer community. She was dating a trans-identified woman and many of her friends were transitioning into men, so she was entrenched in a community of varying gender expressions and sexualities.
“I was really obsessed with it for a while,” the out writer said during an interview at the Abbey in West Hollywood. “My girlfriend was actually one of the organizers of Camp Trans so it was all very in my mind.”
The kinds of things she learned through her friends and from her own experiences went into her new novel Adam, which is already upsetting people who haven’t read more than its premise. What’s so upsetting to some is the that the title character, Adam, is a 16-year-old middle class white teenage cisgender boy who pretends to be a female-to-male transman in order to date an older woman he meets while spending the summer with his lesbian sister in New York City.
“It’s been really interesting just kind of seeing responses and so many people just read the premise and then stop. Like, ‘No. No, I’m offended. I can’t move forward from this point,'” Ariel said. “Which is, if you think about it, really, like, the reason I wrote it. Because that’s disturbing and I wanted to see what that meant and explore it. And it feels so weird to me that somebody would see something that rubs them the wrong way and not find that interesting. I wouldn’t want to read a book just about something I agreed with. That’s not interesting to me.”
Known primarily for her work as a graphic novelist, Ariel has been publishing her work since she was a teenager. Her memoirs Likewise and Potential are her most famous, and also landed her a spot the writing team of The L Word for two seasons. But it was writing a novel that interested her most as a project she kept close to her heart, and even her closest friends didn’t know what it was about until it was ready to go to print.
“Because I didn’t want to talk about it and I didn’t want other peoples’ opinions to taint it,” she said. “I didn’t want anybody to say ‘Oh you should be careful’ and be nervous. I just kept the idea inside my head for the five years that it took. And so because of that, there was always the idea that ‘OK, if I think this is too weird, I don’t actually have to publish it. I’m just going to try this.'”
Adam is a coming-of-age-story about a teenage boy who isn’t as closed-minded as his peers, but enters into a world he knows little about with a balance of curiosity and naiveté. His older sister, Casey, is an activist in Brooklyn who hangs out with other queers at gay bars, sex clubs and L Word viewing parties. When Adam goes to live with her, he is invited along and gets an inside look at a community that is generally privy only to those who identify as one or more parts of the LGBT acronym. Because it’s so rare a 16-year-old straight teenage boy would find himself in these situations, Adam is mistaken as a transguy by two different women who are interested in getting to know him better, including a breathtaking girl named Gillian. In an effort to keep up the charade and continue to date her, Adam researches everything he can about transitioning, and all of the facts he learns helps readers to understand basic information about trans identities that they might otherwise not comprehend.
“I wanted to make the story as grounded and naturalistic and real as possible. It was such a bizarre idea that a teenage boy would do this that I had to make it as real as possible to make it actually seem believable, “Ariel said. “I didn’t want it to seem like a stretch our outlandish or crazy. The whole book was really me creating this extremely real world and cratfing–doing everything I could to make you say ‘OK I understand how this could happen.’ It’s like the hook of the book is that he pretends to be trans to date this lesbian but that doesn’t even actually happen until page 200 so much work was done getting him to that point.”
Adam is bigger than the plotpoint that has some up in arms, as Ariel includes characters, conversations and subjects that aren’t often touched upon in mainstream or queer novels alike. In one gay marriage rally scene, a small group of queers are protesting against marriage altogether. There’s a lot of gender, sexuality, classism and racism policing, and none of the characters are without their distinct flaws.
“I’m including myself in those people. When I was in my early twenties, I couldn’t jump fast enough to put people in their place about what the right politics to have were,” Ariel said. “I was thrilled to know, to be able to say ‘Well gay marriage isn’t necessarily good’ or ‘Michigan is bad because of this.’ And part of it was because I politically believe in those things and part of it was because I got a jolt of power and excitement getting to school someone. I think that’s, on the internet, there’s all this schooling and calling out. I don’t know that it’s always pushing us in the right direction.”
The scenes set at Camp Trans and Mich Fest are interesting in that they are set in 2006, but reveal a conversation that we are still having as a community today.
“I obviously think trans women should be welcome at Michigan, but I was always fascinated by the thrill that people get from, ‘Oh my politics are more sophisticated than yours,'” Ariel said, “and I also thought it was disturbing the way they would put down these older lesbians who had been through so much and experienced things that these young kids hadn’t experienced. And I felt like there was a lack of respect. Even though I did agree with what kids at Camp Trans were saying, I did think there was a lack of respect and I kind of wanted to comment on that as well. The sort of brattiness you find in younger queers these days.”