Rhys Ernst is just about the last person I would expect to get canceled.
Ernst, a trans filmmaker living in LA, has spent most of his career making stories about trans people. In 2014, his and his then-partner, a trans woman named Zackary Drucker, were featured in the Whitney Biennial for their photo series documenting their physical transitions. A New York Times art critic wrote that the couple “put queer consciousness on the front burner,” and they later turned the work into a book.
Not long after, both Ernst and Drucker went on to work as producers on Transparent, the groundbreaking Amazon show featuring Jeffrey Tambor as a trans woman who comes out in her 60s. Part of their job was helping creator Jill Soloway hire trans people, and together, they created what the Advocate called the “most trans-inclusive production in Hollywood history.” Ernst continued that effort with Adam, his first feature film, which is now in limited release across the U.S.
Despite his history of advocating for trans people and their stories, Ernst has faced a massive backlash for Adam. The film is based on a 2014 novel by Ariel Schrag in which is a cis guy pretends to be trans. Ernst says he was wary at first, but when he read the screenplay, which deviates significantly from the book, he decided it was a story that needed telling. Still, even before the film was out of production, there were petitions to have it (literally) canceled, and queer activists and allies have called for boycotts. The Advocate, which lauded Ernst’s previous work, called the film “dangerous”—and they did not mean it as a compliment.
I’ve known Rhys for a while. I don’t know him well, but we’re both from North Carolina, where it seems like queer people are generally separated by just a couple of degrees (or by an ex), and when I saw that he was taking heat online for being “transphobic,” I was not a little bit shocked. Of all the people I would predict to get canceled, Rhys Ernst would be at the very bottom of that list, and so, when Slate’s Mike Pesca recently asked me to guest host The Gist, the person I really wanted to interview was Rhys. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation, but you can hear the interview (and a whole lot more) over at Slate or wherever you get your podcasts.
First off, why don't you describe this movie Adam for us. What is it about?
Adam takes place in 2006 and is about a kind of hapless 17-year-old boy who is living at home with his parents and has one more year of high school left but goes to live with his older sister in New York for a summer. His older sister is a lesbian and is in the hipster, queer lesbian scene in Bushwick in 2006. He's trying to keep up with their conversations and doesn't really know what they are talking about but thinks they are pretty cool and is just trying to fit in. Before he realizes it, he gets mistaken for a trans guy and he doesn't even totally realize what that means until it's too late. He ends up meeting a girl that he really hits it off with and she is like, "So, here's my number but just so you know, I've never dated a trans guy before," and before he has the chance to correct her, she leaves, so he finds himself caught in this lie and is trying desperately to get out of it, and failing.
It's playing with the mistaken identity story that we've seen before in things from 12th Night to Tootsie but inverting it and putting it through a queer lens and making the cisgender, straight guy the outsider.
What I love about it is that you really captured 2006 queer land really well. It might not be something that everybody recognizes but for those of us who lived in that world, there's all these small moments, like L Word watching parties, which was totally a thing that we did back then because nobody had Showtime so you would get your friends together and watch the L Word together. Or, for instance, calling cis men "bio men," something that today is considered very offensive but was actually what people said back then. So, I'm curious, does the movie reflect your personal experience growing up in that world?
Yeah, it very much does. I didn't have a lot of familiarity with the project before I received the script. It was based on a book that I had not read, and I kind of had apprehensions just based on the premise alone. I sort of thought, “God, is this going to be offensive? How is this going to be handled?” I was kind of nervous just opening to page one. And then when I read through, not only was I really surprised that it was actually really subversive and taking on so many really meaty, interesting ideas, I was also surprised by the fact that it featured these spaces that I'd spent a lot of time in my kind of years coming up. I actually lived in Bushwick in 2006 and was part of the queer/trans/lesbian community. I was in all those spaces. I really recognized the world. I really recognized the characters. I really recognized the language, which, exactly like you said, is kind of horrifically outdated in some ways.
It's interesting to tell a period piece at this point. I feel like queer years are like dog years because the changes between now and 2006 are kind of astonishing. A younger audience who maybe wasn't a part of the scene in 2006 will find some of this stuff unrecognizable and almost shocking, but that's kind of the point, to look back at this history and show it and not run from it.
I want to talk about the backlash, but first, tell me what the reaction has been from audiences in person when you've been to screenings.
There's been this very interesting, very 2019 thing that's been happening. I feel like I'm living in two disparate realities because every time I've screened the movie with an audience—which has been well over a dozen times, maybe a dozen and a half times at this point—the audience reaction is really positive. I'm talking about from mixed audiences from 70-something heterosexual couples to young nonbinary teenagers. There's been, generally, a very positive, very warm, enthusiastic response from audiences who've seen the movie.
Online, from people who've not seen it, there's a very different response happening, which is that people are kind of afraid of what might actually happen in the story. And there's some misinformation, unfortunately, being passed around about what actually may or may not happen in the movie, and that's just sort of a 2019 thing that we are all dealing with, culturally. There are these different realities. The internet is one reality.
It's really easy for things to get passed around Twitter that are maybe not 100 percent true. There's a lot of confusion out there, and I think that, on the one hand, it's kind of this cultural zeitgeist moment that we are living in, and on the other, you have this reality, which is that trans people have been so poorly represented on screen for so, so long that they are appropriately cautious. There's a lot to talk about the movie and I'm sure it's going to spark a lot of interesting conversations. And not everybody is going to like it equally. Some people are going to love it, some people will be less enthusiastic or dislike it, and that's totally fine and totally normal, but it has been skewing really positive from people who actually go to the theatre. I think it's important to actually see this work and then discuss it.
You're a trans guy. You've spent your career working to make Hollywood a better, more welcoming, more available place for trans people, and now you're being called transphobic by people who don't know you and who don't know your work and who haven't seen the film. Emotionally, what is that like and how do you deal with that?
It's been a really weird time for me personally, but I feel like everybody is having a really weird time right now. The temperature is on really high in every direction, so it's hard for me to separate that from the larger cultural thing that is happening. But, yeah, personally, it sucks for me. It's been a bummer. It's been frustrating and upsetting. Cancel culture in this example—and I'm sure there are other examples too—I don't really feel that it is working in the direction of overall social justice. I know that it seems like it is but let me give an example real quick: We are in a culture war, obviously, right now in many ways, and there is a fog of war. It's hard to separate the friendly fire from the actual enemy right now, and to me that feels like an apt metaphor for what's going on with this "cancel Adam" moment. I totally get why there is confusion and I have empathy for why this is happening, but I think it's all going to come out in the wash and in six months or even sooner there's going to be a totally different kind of look backwards on this moment. I think once people actually start to see the movie, they will see there's nothing to fear. That said, not everyone will like it but the scary transphobic monster in the movie is not actually in the movie. I don't think anyone could watch it and feel like it's transphobic. They might have different issues with it, but I don't think anyone will see this movie and walk away thinking it's transphobic. I just really don't believe that's going to be the outcome.
Because so much of the criticism of you is coming from ostensibly queer people, has this changed your feeling about the queer community, which you've been a part of for a long time?
I think it's coming from parts of the queer community and trans community but I also think a lot of the backlash is coming from allies who are kind of recent additions to the conversation. What's interesting to me about that is that the movie kind of deals with this question of when allies go to far and take up too much space in the conversation. I actually think it's kind of funny because it's kind of happening in a meta way in the conversation around the movie. What does it mean when allies show up and kind of, you know, claim it for themselves? If you take your straight friend to Pride and they are like, "Yeah, this is for me, this is for everybody," is it for them? I'm not really sure what that answer is and I think it's not black and white. I think it's complicated. But I wanted to point that out because it's kind of an interesting phenomenon that's happening that is mirrored in the film.
In terms of how I'm viewing the queer community, I mean, the queer and trans community is obviously not a monolith and is so diverse in every imaginable way, including thinking and political affiliation, but I am noticing a sort of generational divide that is happening right now. Queers and trans people who came out before the trans tipping point I think are having a really different reaction to the idea of the movie than people who have come out since the trans tipping point.
Absolutely. The generational divide doesn't surprise me at all because people who are older were there. The cultural markers that you include in the movie are very real and they might be offensive now but they're very true to life.
One that keeps on coming up that I've found kind of surprising is that there are a lot of young queer and trans folks on the internet who have really pointed out that the movie depicts a lesbian dating a trans guy. They say, "Well that would never happen, and it's inherently transphobic because it would suggest that a trans guy isn't a real guy." I've been really scratching my head over that one because I'm a trans guy, I used to date lesbians, and I came up through the lesbian scene. If you were around in the mid-2000s or before, you know that lesbians dating trans guys was incredibly common. That was practically the norm or the default. It's kind of amazing that that particular issue has generated such blowback from people who are just shocked that that could ever happen. That's a really good example of a generational disconnect.
Do you think there is an upside to this film being "canceled," at least metaphorically? The movie is getting a lot of press, in no small part because of the backlash.
I guess so. I would honestly have never chosen this path for myself or the movie but now that it's happened, I do feel like it's all for a reason and all kind of cosmic and had to happen this way. I believe that this is leading towards some kind of unexpected examples of social change, of people questioning internet thinking or black and white thinking. The conversation around the movie, I think, is important. And the question of cancel culture and half-truth information campaigns, all that stuff is really resonating right now. There has been a lot more attention on the movie than what would have happened if it hadn't been called out on the internet. I didn't wish that upon it but, you know, this is where we are and people are talking about it and now there is kind of a thing where you have to see it yourself to have an informed opinion, you know?
We're still in the middle of the story of what happens with this movie and I wish I could skip to the end and find out what happens. I have that impulse every day, like, what will the story of this movie be like in six months? What will the story of this movie be in a year and a half or five years? It's clearly going to be different than it is right now. I'm aware of the history of how representation works onscreen and I'm trying to push us into the next step of trans representation. We had such negative stuff for so, so, so long, and right now we're in the affirmational chapter, which is great and important, but I'm also really excited for the next chapter, which is going to be the more complicated, messy representation chapter, by trans filmmakers, hopefully. That's the goal. That's the way this stuff evolves. I think the story of Adam will change over time. We're still at the very beginning, or the middle of the beginning, so we still have a long way to go before we know what it all means.