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Armond White

JT LeRoy, A Drag Act in the Worst Sense


A critical perspective on con-artist doc that takes queerness to the gutter press.

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"The transgender community wants to lynch you!" That provocative warning is blurted out on one of the many phone calls that writer Laura Albert secretly recorded while committing her infamous hoax as JT LeRoy. And no wonder. When Albert's fraud was finally exposed (after she wrecked the credibility of several publications, book companies, a film studio--plus many gullible readers) the reaction was justifiably angry and strong--though it's largely forgotten by now.

The new doc Author: The JT LeRoy Story brings back Albert's hoax but leaves out the warning and the anger. It's a peculiar and unacceptable attempt to rehabilitate a con-artist who exploited queer experience in order to fulfill the celebrity ambitions that began in creative writing classes and personal journals then morphed into active, visual deceptions: As Albert took on a pen name, her sister-in-law played the part in shadowy public appearances. On screen, Albert narrates her saga directly to the camera wearing punkish, sluttish leather as if auditioning to play a dominatrix.

Writer-director Jeff Feuerzeig tries hiding Albert's dishonesty first by following her misleading guises and fanciful evasions instead of insisting on a fact-based biographical account. Feuerzeig is complicit in accepting Albert's fantasies about adolescent identity, sexual dysfunction, gender confusion and emotional abuse. This routine has become the basis of many queer social appeals and political movements but the JT LeRoy figure was unserious about them.

Never an activist, always a fame-whore, Albert became the pet of allies in journalism and publishing who were susceptible to lurid tales about sex, transgression, and self-pity disguised as civil rights.

Posing in her writing as "a blond, blue-eyed boy that a man would love and want to fuck," JT LeRoy made fools out of celebrities (from Dennis Cooper and Debbie Harry to Bono, Courtney Love, Billy Corgan, and numerous publishing industry mavens). Above all, she cheated anyone who wanted to believe, empathize and defend queer social casualties. This should make gay people think twice about having their struggles turned into fodder for politicians or any kind of media or "artistic" exploitation. The days of inspiration by the likes of Jean Genet, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg are over.

Feuerzeig joins Albert's irresponsible enablers when his doc perpetuates confusion, at times by pretending that JT LeRoy (and other alter-egos) are real; he lets Albert read her fiction-as-autobiography in a phony Southern accent; or intercuts footage of her misadventures as if seeking to find comedy in a labyrinth of lies. He fails to investigate the subplot of sister-in-libel Savannah Knoops sexing both actor Michael Pitt and actress Asia Argento (who comply with the ruse), treating the low-life scam as if it's a normal part of showbiz corruption or a transgender remake of Zelig--Woody Allen's 1983 satire about a man who "wanted to assimilate like crazy."

By indulging Albert's sociopathic behavior, the doc makers are party to the most complicated misunderstandings of queer; indulging the most sordid, pathetic, self-serving behavior like Michael Moore, one of the defrauded celebs, collaborating with Maury Povich. I was writing at New York Press when one of the JT LeRoy career stunts became a cover story (a mash-note about actor Michael Pitt headlined "Pillow Lips" describing Albert's entry into gay filmmaker Gus Van Sant's clique). It's bad enough that Albert deceived a reputable alternative press outlet, reducing it to what used to be called "the gutter press." Anyone victimized by one of Albert's salacious fantasies might be personally offended at how protective the doc is for allowing her continued self-justification: She alternately switches guises and perspectives throughout this screen test. It becomes a "scream test" when, as a final insult, Albert claims she has suffered body shaming and then blames her crimes on being molested by "Uncle George."

Albert, Feuerzeig, and "JT LeRoy" contribute to the oppression that queer people suffer, reducing them to the most pathetic stereotypes. They make a mockery out of the travails of queer life yet still want to be pitied and envied as if their pretense was legitimate. More people than "the transgender community" should be enraged by this doc. It is a drag in the old-fashioned sense.

Author: The JT Leroy Story is out in theaters and available on demand now.

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Armond White