Your tells are so obvious / shoulders too broad for a girl
Punk can be a boys club at the best of times, let alone at its worst. But it has often found space to comment on and critique gender, from early antecedents in glam to riot grrrl’s brand of feminism.
So no one really blinked an eye when, at various points in their career, Florida-bred punks Against Me! recorded songs with lyrics like “Confessing childhood secrets of dressing up in women’s clothes,” on 2005’s Searching for a Former Clarity or “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman,” on 2007’s New Wave. Against the backdrop of the band’s anarcho-leftist political views, such statements played like punk provocations, subversions of the subculture’s masculine tendencies.
In reality, they were the not-so-secret confessions of Laura Jane Grace.
Living as a man (Tom Gabel) from birth through Against Me!’s rise from an acoustic solo project to a modestly successful, critically acclaimed major-label rock band, Grace’s earliest childhood memories are of her dysphoria — feeling disconnected from the male sex she had been assigned at birth. She remembers wanting to be Madonna, playing with Barbies, and sneaking away to wear women’s clothes. As Against Me!’s following grew, she found release in her writing, weaving subtle references to her struggle into the band’s songs, but on stage the disconnect remained.
“What felt wrong was that you’re singing these songs up there on stage where you know what you’re talking about, and you’re looking at the face of someone screaming them back to you,” Grace explains, speaking on the phone before an Against Me! show in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. “You’re thinking, ‘Do you know what I’m talking about? And if you did know what I was actually talking about, would you still like me? Would you still be here? Would you still be singing along?’”
In May 2012, Grace revealed her gender dysphoria in a Rolling Stone feature story, announcing her intention to transition and live as a trans woman. She’s continued to be similarly open and candid since, from penning a transition blog for Cosmopolitan to answering hundreds of sometimes-awkward questions from journalists like me.
Now, she finally has a new album to talk about. But she’s still discussing her transition, in no small part because there’s no separating it from Transgender Dysphoria Blues. On songs like “True Trans Soul Rebel” and “Paralytic States,” Grace lays bare the fear, pain, and uncertainty of feeling separated from one’s given self: “You want them to notice the ragged ends of your summer dress,” she sings on the album’s title track. “You want them to see you like they see any other girl; they just see a faggot.” Familiar Against Me! themes of death, loss, and politics make appearances, but they’re openly expressed through a different filter now. Yet even in its darkest moments, the record sounds triumphant.
“Songwriting and playing in a band and playing shows and everything has always been cathartic, an outlet to do something positive and creative with negative emotions,” says Grace. “It doesn’t necessarily feel any different now but, at the same time, the ability to be more open and more direct and not have to hide what you’re talking about is liberating, [as is] being up on stage and feeling completely comfortable with myself. There’s no mental barrier between me and the audience.”
Laura Jane Grace by Eddy Berthier
Grace is hardly the first transgender rock musician of note — the list includes everyone from Larry Zenith of RZA to Canadian artists like Rae Spoon (who, after a decade of living as a trans man, now uses the neutral “they” pronoun) and the Cliks’ Lucas Silveira — but she may be the most well-known, and particularly notable in that her band rose to fame and acclaim prior to her coming out.
“I’d be put in these situations where I’m doing a photo shoot for a magazine, or doing an interview, when I felt like I’m being framed as something I’m not, being framed as a male frontman for a band,” she says. “It would put me on edge, it would make me defensive, and it would make me continually unhappy. So you’re playing shows where you feel like that, and you feel like the dysphoria is fucking crippling, mentally, and that translates — people get that vibe off of you.
“So to be able to be perceived in the correct context just makes me a lot better person, makes me a lot nicer to be around,” she adds with a laugh.
If it’s beginning to sound like Grace’s personal story is overshadowing Against Me!’s music, don’t worry: Transgender Dysphoria Blues can more than hold its own. At a blisteringly efficient 28 minutes, the album strips back some of the sheen of the band’s previous two Butch Vig-produced major label albums, but loses none of their anthemic power.
Besides, by this point Grace is probably used to her music having to fight for its place in the conversation. From the point the band signed to Fat Wreck Records for its second album, 2003’s Against Me! as the Eternal Cowboy, the band has been tagged with the dreaded sell-out tag, a chorus that only grew louder when it signed to Warner Bros-owned Sire Records for 2007’s New Wave. (Preceding this move, the band released We’re Never Going Home, a tour doc about an onslaught of major label interest in Against Me! and the band’s reluctance to sign.) Complicating matters is that despite their critical reception — Spin named New Wave album of the year, ahead of records by Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem and Kanye West — neither of the band’s major label records sold gangbusters, and after being lost in the shuffle when 2010’s White Crosses failed to register on the charts, the band split from the label.
“It wounds your pride, in a way,” says Grace, about the lack of support from the label, “but it felt really insulting just because it was like, ‘Sure, maybe our record didn’t sell a lot of copies, but I really stand by the songwriting. To be judged in that way, it pissed me off, and it made me want to still do something where it was, like, ‘I don’t want to make a safe move, I don’t want to make a predictable move, I don’t want to settle for something.’ So the only alternative really felt like, just take control, just fucking do it yourself. Because you’re going to be excited about it; fuck them if they aren’t.”
The band self-released Transgender Dysphoria Blues on its own Total Treble label, but that may be one of the easier aspects of the album’s genesis, given that Grace says making the record almost killed the band. In particular, Against Me!’s rhythm section — longtime bassist Andrew Seward and more recent recruit drummer Jay Weinberg — quit partway through.
“That was a lot of it: making a record where half the band leaves and you feel completely uncertain of the future,” says Grace. “When it was the end of the record, it was me and James [Bowman, guitarist and Grace’s best friend since high school] in the studio in South Georgia which — don’t get me wrong, they have really pro gear and the engineer knows what he’s doing — but it’s like, the walls are fucking painted black, and the engineer’s wearing a gun on his hip, and you’re in South Georgia and the fucking bag boys at the grocery store are telling you you’re going to hell, and you’re fucking scared people are going to break into your fucking hotel room at night. It was bleak at points. You aren’t even thinking beyond. The only thing you’re thinking is, ‘I have to finish this. It has to be finished. Figure out everything else afterwards.’”
Now, with Rocket from the Crypt drummer Atom Willard and The (International) Noise Conspiracy bassist Inge Johansson in the ranks, Against Me! is back in road-warrior mode. Grace is also back in publicity mode, which she says is equal parts about doing her job — promoting a band and a record she’s proud of — and trying to help move people to a place where her status as a trans person becomes a non-issue.
“In general, there aren’t many trans voices in the media. There aren’t many people in music representing that part of society. I want to represent that in an effort to push things forward, culturally. The idea is that you talk about something and educate people. There’s no such thing as a stupid question — just ask the fucking question. If you don’t know the answer, just ask in a polite way.
“My hope is that if enough people are visible, and enough people talk about it, that eventually it will become commonplace and people won’t care anymore. It will just be an accepted thing.”
It’s along the lines of what Grace told Rolling Stone two years ago: that she was putting herself out there to the world, “hoping people understand, and hoping they’ll be kind.”
I ask her if she feels her hopes were well placed.
“I do,” she says. “I’ve been humbled. People have been more than cool.”
[magazine month=”February” year=”2014"]