The Troubling Gender Politics and Cultural Appropriation of Author: The JT LeRoy Story

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The Troubling Gender Politics and Cultural Appropriation of <i>Author: The JT LeRoy Story</i>

You hear a lot of aphoristic-sounding one-liners in Author: The JT LeRoy Story. We’re given a title card bearing a Fellini quote: “A created thing is never invented and it is never true: It is always and ever itself.” We’re offered excuses wrapped up in intellectual acrobatics: “A metaphor is different than a hoax.” We’re even presented with book titles that double up as hedged explanations: “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things.” These are all thrown at the audience as ways to preempt our criticisms, or to sidestep them altogether. What seem like playful postmodern evasive maneuvers about the “author” in question are more troubling once you realize they function more forcefully as Hail Marys that seek to obscure the troubling gender politics at the heart of “JT Leroy.”

You see, JT LeRoy, author of the 1999 cult favorite novel Sarah, and friend of the likes of Winona Ryder, Courtney Love and Gus Van Sant, was unmasked as a fiction in 2006. The person many had been introduced to as Jeremiah Terminator (aka “JT”) was a young woman by the name of Savannah Knoop, the sister-in-law of Laura Albert, a Brooklyn-born, San Francisco-dwelling writer. Albert, who had often presented herself as LeRoy’s roommate-cum-manager Emily Frasier, also known as “Speedie,” was the person who had written the books that made LeRoy a sensation in the early aughts.

At the heart of the “JT LeRoy Story” is a tricky proposition about the fluidity of gender identity that remains the thorniest aspect of the whole thing. In a New York Magazine article that initially cast doubt on the veracity of LeRoy’s existence, Bay Area writer Stephen Beachy posited that since we “can never know for sure who’s on the other end of a screen name or a phone line, and given that these were LeRoy’s two chosen media, the possibilities of his identity seemed endless.” Of course, even that gendered reference feels ill-advised. After all, gender fluidity wasn’t only embedded into LeRoy’s own fiction—Sarah, promoted as a fictionalized version of LeRoy’s life, centered on a young boy who becomes a cross-dressing truck stop hustler—but was enacted in the bodies of the two women who made up his public persona: Laura, his voice, and Savannah, his face.

Any clear distinctions between male and female prove increasingly dubious when one begins to parse out the layers upon which LeRoy’s identity rested, especially once they’re blended through the sexual ambiguity that LeRoy nurtured: “When I wrote Sarah, I was male-identified,” LeRoy told the Village Voice back in 2001, “and now I’m not. I don’t know what I am.” In Jeff Feuerzeig’s film we see a photograph of actor Michael Pitt kissing Savannah-as-JT. We’re reminded he’s straight and felt he was experimenting. When Albert speaks of her encounters with Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, one of the few celebrity fans who knew the truth behind the LeRoy ruse, she admits that LeRoy spoke of his attraction to Corgan. She even talked to Corgan in person as LeRoy, whom the musician described as “part-man, part-wannabe woman, all androgyne” (and “as real as you, or I”) in the new foreword to Sarah. In her book Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy, Savannah admits she told Asia Argento, the Italian actress who would go on to write and direct an adaptation of LeRoy’s second book, that she’d taken hormones and had undergone gender reassignment surgery. “Wow, they make really good pussies these days,” Argento later boasted to the crowd at the New York premiere of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. By the time the New York Times confirmed Beachy’s suspicions in a 2006 article, Savannah had reframed the entire adventure in Warholian terms: “I started out being JT to help [her half-brother] Geoff and Laura get their music and writing out there,” she told Vanity Fair. “But eventually it evolved into this exploration of gender, and it gave me permission to play with my identity.”

Except, when it comes to discussions of identity in terms of gender and sexuality, the lived-in body is hard to shake off—and so very rarely merely a game. And here is where the idea of a trans (and, in many accounts, an HIV-positive) person writing about turning tricks having been concocted by a cisgender woman becomes a tad more troubling. Albert may protest and remind viewers that a “metaphor is not a hoax” but that only serves to further the point that, in essence, minority voices (be they gay, be they lower-class, be they HIV-positive) remain disembodied abstractions up for grabs by those gifted with a modicum of privilege. And yet, the personal story excavated by Author suggests that the empathy LeRoy elicited rested in no uncertain terms on his own affront to patriarchal standards of conduct—what made Albert’s reveal all the more vexing. Feuerzeig’s film gestures to these more complicated and overlapping critiques, layering on Albert’s biography over LeRoy’s story, crafting in their contiguity a clear connection. In Feuerzeig’s telling (which functions like an authorial self-portrait, really), Albert emerges as a wounded young girl marred by sexual abuse, scarred by the indifference of her parents (who would go on to relinquish custody, making her a ward of the state), and painfully afflicted by her own body image issues. JT LeRoy—who came to her in a dream as “a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy turning tricks, living on the streets” and who had an alluring voice that eventually seduced millions of readers—was, in Albert’s telling, a way to project a cool version of herself that she knew she could never inhabit.

Albert’s account implicitly suggests her autobiographical grafting of her life onto LeRoy’s was driven by something beyond herself, as something she couldn’t control. Nevertheless, LeRoy’s story resonated with readers precisely because it billed itself as an authentic narrative about the fluidity of desire within one’s body; once that was stripped and laid bare as the ruse it was, all that’s left is the exploitation of those whose bodies don’t understand their own gender and sexual disparities as anything but their own lived-in reality. Knoop’s playful gender identity game is safeguarded by the safety her own cisgender privilege afforded her, while Albert’s LeRoy ploy was all but indifferent to the actual life it was claiming to embody.

In her controversial keynote speech “Fiction and Identity Politics” at the Brisbane Writers Festival earlier this month, author Lionel Shriver spoke heatedly against any circumscription when it came to writing: “Taken to their logical conclusion,” she argued, “ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are ‘allowed’ to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.” The argument is precisely what’s at the heart of Albert’s story. Shouldn’t she, as an “author” (as Feuerzeig’s title reminds us) be entitled to write up whatever she dreams up—in LeRoy’s case, the fictionalized biography of a young boy brought up in a truck stop by a prostitute mother who loves and envies him? The answer—as Yassmin Abdel-Magied puts it in a scathing rebuttal to Shriver’s one-note attack on identity politics—should be, in a utopian world, yes. Alas, we do not live in that world. In a line that could very well apply to Albert’s LeRoy, Abdel-Magied asks, “How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity?”

That Albert went further than the fictional advocacy presented by Shriver—she didn’t merely write about but actively sought to embody and represent an underrepresented identity—means she was, to some extent, in uncharted territory. This wasn’t just about using a pseudonym to get your work read (though she did) but about mobilizing and appropriating an identity that by the very nature of the publishing establishment was necessarily kept on the margins. Here, Abdel-Magied’s issue of access becomes precisely the issue. “The reality is that those from marginalized groups,” she writes, even today, do not get the luxury of defining their own place in a norm that is profoundly white, straight and, often, patriarchal.” JT LeRoy’s stories may in themselves push against these very norms but in doing so from the relative comfort of an educated, cisgender woman (one with access to a phone and a fax no less, the one piece of information that always baffled even LeRoy’s most ardent of fans) is what needles those who see in them yet another example of a privileged woman profiting off yet another marginalized group. The film may be a captivating if puzzling portrait of a female artist as a cherry-lipped young man, but the revisionist story it attempts to paint ignores the blatant cultural appropriation that made LeRoy a star and Albert a hoax.

Manuel Betancourt is a New York-based writer who has contributed to Film Comment, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic and Esquire.