July 2014

Kyle Lukoff


An Interview with Ariel Schrag

The most burning question in my mind as cartoonist and writer Ariel Schrag sat down across from me in a Brooklyn diner was, "Am I the cat girl?"

She laughed. "Maybe!" I was not satisfied by this answer.

There's a scene in her debut novel Adam where everyone is at an incongruously fancy party packed with queers in ridiculous outfits, and a drunk girl strides up to Adam and says, "My cat knows where I am tonight. And my cat does not care for it." That is something I would say, and probably have said, at similar drunken parties, and I needed confirmation that I was a walk-on in the novel.

"Dude, come on," you're probably saying. "New York has no shortage of drunken weirdoes babbling about their cats." True, but Schrag's novel is also set in the queer-and-trans world of New York City in the mid-2000s, the miniscule and incestuous subculture I've trawled the waters of for a decade. She plumbs its depths with hilarious accuracy, and set off my paranoia when I realized that her characters move from a Columbia dorm into an apartment on the exact same block I moved after graduating from Barnard in 2006.

The novel follows Adam, a seventeen-year-old straight boy from northern California, as he goes to visit his big sister, Casey, in New York City. His sister is queer, and is enamored with a trans guy (also named Casey), as well as the larger queer-trans scene he's a part of. When Casey takes Adam to queer parties, people assume that Adam is also a female-to-male trans person. When he develops a crush on a girl who says that she's interested in dating trans guys but would never date a cis guy, he studies trans identities like it was a test and starts dropping comments about how long he's been on hormones and where he got top surgery, trying desperately to pass as trans so that his girlfriend won't find out that he's not.

Over a cup of tea (hers) and fries and a strawberry milkshake (mine) we talked about airing a community's dirty laundry, the trajectory of trans politics over the past decade, and whether or not you get a free blender after listening to self-absorbed trans men explain their gender at you ad nauseam.

There's this introduction to a Dykes to Watch Out For collection where Alison Bechdel talks about how conflicted she feels about making the secrets of her subculture visible -- speaking the unspeakable, or airing our dirty laundry. One argument is that the details of our lives are unspeakable to "them" because they're ours, and we feel protective of them. Did you have any similar qualms?

I wrote the book not knowing what was going to happen with it. I just wanted to try something. I wasn't thinking: "I'm definitely going to publish this," because I didn't want to think about who was going to be reading it and what they would think. I was just so amused by this idea of a cis guy passing as a trans guy that I needed to explore it. I wrote it to make myself laugh and to comment on things I had observed in my social scene. When I sent it to my agent I had no idea what to expect -- I hadn't shown it to anyone else, I wrote it in complete isolation. My agent wrote back saying, "I loved it, this book is ready to go."

Then there was the question of whether to sell it as YA or adult, and it ended up selling as adult. We tried YA first and got several responses where people would say, "These gay characters are such negative stereotypes, I know gay people and they don't act like that!"

Not around you, at least!

It was this straight person's response of wanting the queer people to be perfect and normal, and being terrified by the fact that there are shitty queers in the book. I would say that all the people in the novel, across the board, act in shitty ways (or, you know, human). Those responses irritated me because it's people trying to whitewash depictions of any type of minority. They're saying, "I want diversity, but only this kind of diversity." I definitely expect some people to be upset by some of the depictions.

Are you worried about getting yelled at on the Internet? Because you will get yelled at. I'll probably get yelled at for this, too.

I'm thrilled. I'm excited for it. I've already read one rather harsh critique by a trans man. One of his gripes was that all the trans men in the novel are one-dimensional. But a lot of trans guys I knew, especially in the beginning stages of their transition, did fall into a specific "type" (the same way so many lesbians I know, when they first came out, acted a certain way), and that's depicted in the book. Still, it's just not true there are no three-dimensional trans male characters; this reviewer chose to ignore them. People look for what they want to find.

One theme of the book is what's called Oppression Olympics, that type of one-upmanship where people with varying intersections of privilege compete over who gets to be more marginalized. People can get very touchy and possessive of their own identities -- especially when that identity is something that has caused you pain. Someone might read Adam and say: "This isn't the trans experience. I know what it's really like, what does this dyke know? I should be writing my own story." And of course, write your own story!

There were definitely a few scenes that I read and thought, "Shhh! Don't say that! We don't like that!" For example, your description of boy Casey shirtless, his hips and top surgery scars, or how another guy had a patchy beard, little hands, and a funny voice.

I wanted Adam to have those judgmental moments. That felt real. Also, I thought it was funny that he's using trans identities, and getting so comfortable with it, that he also becomes irritated by it. It's a book that focuses on trans subculture, but it's not actually about transitioning. I think that may be a misconception about the book. There are relatively few novels with trans characters, so people may want this novel to explain the experience of transitioning to them, but that's not what it's about. It's about a boy using this subculture for his own purposes and trying to find his own identity.

The way you used the character's brother-sister relationship to explain the context was really well done. You used her character to present some basic information about trans people, but it was perfect because she did it in the way an obnoxious older sister would explain things to her clueless little brother.

There is a lot of didacticism going on with Adam's sister, Casey. It's a common experience to leave for college, start dating a trans guy, then go home and gradually let it come out to your parents. When they get confused you have the chance to spew forth a didactic tirade.

I never did that! [Clears throat conspicuously.]

So, it's not a novel about transitioning, or even about trans issues -- it's about someone who isn't trans, named Adam, which is why the title is Adam. But it is a really trans-focused novel. One major theme that stood out to me was how complicated you turned the issue of disclosure [telling people you're trans, especially before sleeping with them]. I get frustrated when people tell me that I'm obligated to disclose to everyone; I believe that I don't have to tell anyone if I don't want to. But then when Adam started allowing people, especially the girl he was sleeping with, to think that he was trans, I found myself having to rethink some of my own assumptions. But you don't leave us with any clear statement on the issue.

That issue really fascinates me. Stone Butch Blues was a seminal text for me. There's that scene where Jess has sex with a woman using a dildo and the woman thinks it's a flesh penis. That scene always fascinated me -- I became fixated on it. I was obsessed with the idea of what it means if someone has sex with someone with a flesh penis but he or she thinks it's a dildo. Is that different? And if so, why?

That's also one of the reasons I chose to make Adam this straight, white, privileged boy. He's not someone who can claim marginalization. He's weird, but he's not somebody that you see as the outsider, he's absolutely the mainstream. What does it mean when the mainstream infiltrates spaces and identities that are marginalized? How do the rules shift?

Also, it's not that Adam is pretending to be a lesbian. Plenty of lesbians look like teenage boys. There is no lesbian who hasn't either accidentally checked out, or been mistaken for, a teenage boy. But that's a different deception, that's actually saying you're a gender that you're not. Adam is always saying he's a man. What exactly is he lying about? That was an interesting question to me. At its core, what is his lie?

It's the difference between lying outright, and not correcting people's assumptions.

If she never touches his penis, or sees it, it's like the tree that falls in the forest.

It was really interesting to see Adam develop into a solid ally at the end, even though --

And he finds his interest in science! He never has much of an identity at all -- he's this middle-of-the-road character with a lot of emotions but without much to define himself. But through "being trans" he realizes he's interested in science and gender. I like the idea that a cis person would go on to study gender. It shouldn't just be people in our community; people should be interested in people outside of themselves.

Even though he only met jerks! I appreciated how honestly unlikeable so many of the trans men were, like that Riverrun character (which is the best trans guy name ever). I can smell him from here. He's probably a white kid who identifies as two-spirit.

[Laughs.] He absolutely identifies as two-spirit.

They're allowed to be superficial characters. They're allowed to be people just milling around. So often when you meet a trans character in a story, they show up to teach you a lesson about being trans and then the reader has some revelation about what that means. It's that process of othering trans people. In Adam, trans people flit in and out, being jerks, stupid, sexist, and then they go away without ever redeeming themselves and that's often the way it is.

Why are queers so narcissistic?

Because they're oppressed!

Also, how many ad nauseam "no one understands my gender" conversations have you sat through? Do we get a blender for those or something?

People like to feel special. Some queers find that through their sexuality or gender identity. Meanwhile, some straight, cis football player is finding it through being a quarterback or chugging x number of beers over the weekend. All people have some aspect of themselves they talk about in a certain way. People have their own self-mythology, that's a universal thing. Queers are perhaps more narcissistic because we're living in a world where we're oppressed, regardless of how far we've come. Queers are still going to feel othered by people, still going to see the majority of the world functioning in a way that doesn't pertain to them, and that's going to make them obsessed with themselves.

If you're going against the mainstream in some way, how can you not think about it all the time? It makes absolute sense for people to be completely narcissistic at the beginning of their transition. I think it would be totally weird if they weren't.

I remember apologizing to my roommates when I first started hormones, saying, "I'm going to be insufferable for awhile. This is a pre-emptive apology for asking you to count my chest hairs."

How could you go through that process without thinking about what was happening to you all the time? It's going to be fascinating!

One part that was so frustrating, but also so accurate, was how his sister would just pick up and then drop things. She only ever became interested in something after the person she was sleeping with mentioned it.

I thought it was important that, even though Casey is assured in her gender identity, she still flits around from one thing to the next. It shows that this experimenting with identity is taking place in so many different ways for all of the characters.

Back in the early 2000s, it would bother me when people would say that being trans wasn't a trend. Just because something's a trend doesn't mean it's not real. Something can be absolutely real and true and also be trendy. There's this desire for things to be black and white; something either exists and is true, or is a trend and is fake. That's not how it works, there's actually a lot of crossover. I know some people who ended up transitioning back to their assigned gender, it happens.

And there's nothing wrong with transitioning, and then deciding to transition again! It's not like it has to be a big mistake or anything!

Of course not! It's like when people say: "What? You can't be with a man, you're a lesbian!" The whole thing is so stupid. People should be able to do whatever they want, whenever they want. Why do you have to police it? People should be allowed to be unsure!

That's something that troubles me with the way a lot of trans narratives are depicted. Like when journalists emphatically say, "There was not a question in her mind that she was really a girl. She loved pink! And dancing in dresses!" For one, being into pink dresses shouldn't have to mean that you're a girl. Also, what if there was a question in her mind? So what? There have definitely been times where I've thought that I'm trans, or that I'm straight. I still have no idea what I am. It also depends on who I'm with. I've been with all different kinds of people and I've felt my own identity changing based on my partner. And that's fine.

One of my favorite scenes was the gay marriage march, how Casey and June were excited about it, and then got embarrassed when they realized that gay marriage wasn't a hip, radical thing to care about. I was wondering if you had another purpose behind that scene. Did you want the reader to come away with a specific opinion on gay marriage? Or to see the validity and the problems in those two aspects of the debate? Or was it just a really well utilized tool to show Casey being mercurial?

Mostly the third. I didn't want the book to push any agenda or message other than the broad message of "celebrate diversity." I certainly wasn't making a statement about gay marriage, which I have my own ambivalence about.

It seemed like you were saying that both sides can be kind of crappy.

Both sides are kind of crappy, but there is also something to be said for both sides. The main thing that interested me about the gay marriage march was how everyone was just there to socialize, and that people would completely reverse their opinion just to get a boy or girl, because that's what it's like when you're nineteen.

I was also wondering why you chose to set it in 2006. There were a few things I noticed that seemed inaccurate, like when characters used the word "cis." I don't remember people using "cis" in 2006. Also, could you talk a little about how you've seen the scene change in the past decade?

I know that I use "cis" ahead of its time. The alternative was "non-trans" -- which is what we used to say -- and originally the book only used "non-trans," but I decided it was more interesting to have the characters use the rarified "cis." Now "cis" is becoming more mainstream, but there was a period of time where it was part of that whole one-upmanship thing, like, "I know the real word you're supposed to be using!"

The book takes place when it does because I began writing it in 2007 and I was writing about my most recent experiences.

So your friends and I transitioned around the same time?

Yeah, we were probably at the same top surgery benefit at some point.

So, was I the cat girl?

[Laughs.] Everyone was drunk throughout the entire book, which I also thought was important. People were just trying to mask what they were really feeling.

I do think it's very different now than it was a decade ago. Transness is more visible, and my guess is that that subculture does not have the same kind of self-righteousness that we had back in '04. In '04 you really felt like you were doing something that no one outside the bubble would understand, and even if you tried to explain it to someone you would still feel extremely unique. Now, especially in urban areas, it's just not the same. I've met parents whose teenagers are transitioning, and they're helping them, going to support groups and everything. It's great that it's more visible and transitioning is more accessible to kids. The difference is that you're not going to have the same attitude in the subculture. The tone of the novel is specific to that time.

What's happening to trans identity now is similar to the way gay identity has changed over the past decade. Obviously, there is still oppression and homophobia, but for urban gays living in a place like NYC, the sense of identity has drastically shifted. Most gay New Yorkers now would never in a million years act like being gay is the thing that makes them special. Being gay is the boringest thing on earth! What could be more mundane than being gay?

They're practically the enemy!

The June character in Adam represents someone from the middle of the country who hasn't quite caught up with the way queer identity has changed. She arrives in NYC from her oppressive hometown and tries to fit in and be cool, but instead is just this boring lesbian wearing rainbow beads, voicing her outdated politics, and not understanding why no one is interested.

And now we have to deal with Internet communities and activism. Tumblr, for example, and that whole world of call-outs.

The wars about what language is appropriate or not stem from a good place -- language is meaningful and it's important to educate people. But too often, someone's intent gets ignored and "call outs" are more about people wanting to get that specific jolt of power that comes from chastising somebody.

Also, speaking of the changes in the past decade, I noticed that no one in the novel was being terrible to trans women. There was that problematic worship of trans men, and they outnumbered the trans women in a way that's still an issue, but I liked that Adam's sister was really crushed out on a trans dyke who went to the same parties and had just as much fun. To be honest, that seemed inaccurate to me, just from hearing trans women talk about their experiences in the scene, but it was an inaccuracy that made us look better than we really are, rather than worse.

My girlfriend for about a year when I was twenty-three was a trans woman, so that was partially based on my experience. While a lot of my friends were trans men or dating trans men, I probably knew more trans women because I had a trans girlfriend.

That depiction of the community makes it look slightly less awful than what a lot of people have experienced.

Debates around transmisogyny and the exclusion of trans women were something I wanted to explore. One of the main reasons people freak out about trans women is penises. Penises in the shower at Michigan [Womyn's Music Festival], etc. It's all about penises. So the idea that Adam is pretending he doesn't have one was interesting to me. I wanted to address this freak-out about something that is or isn't "just a body part."

Another part that seemed really accurate was how his sister was enabling the boy she liked to mistreat her -- explaining that he was neglecting her because he was "exploring his gender."

That situation is murky. I'm intrigued by the power that can come along with certain kinds of oppressed identities, and the idea that that power can be abused. It's interesting to watch less-marginalized people be scared to call marginalized people out on shitty behavior. It's a weird kind of power divide. I see it playing out in many contexts, but especially in that situation in the queer community, with trans men and cis women, and there are whole other conversations about femme oppression. Everyone's experienced some sort of oppression, and it becomes this back and forth, like --

"I win!"

Right, the winner of the Oppression Olympics.

I always get so annoyed when cis writers treat trans characters as an extended metaphor for the human condition, or something equally trite. I'm really grateful that you didn't do that at all, except for the points where it seems really organic and authentic, and based in something deeper about being human rather than just a cheap statement about how "Everyone is different!" or "Everyone changes!"

I thought it was interesting that there could be parallels between the experience of transitioning and Adam's experience. He was doing all this new stuff, feeling like he was becoming a different person, and of course it's not the same, but in his mind, he was dealing with similar feelings.

And all we really have is what's in our mind, right?

Exactly. Everything comes down to the feelings in your brain, so what does that mean?

Obviously telling people that their identity is "just a phase" is awful, but you seem to deal more with fluidity, which is really different.

Calling something "just a phase" is dismissive of what somebody is feeling. Saying that something is "fluid" allows the potential for change in the future, while also acknowledging and respecting what someone is going through in the present. "Phase" doesn't respect the present.