Against Me!'s Laura Jane Grace on Transitioning in Florida, Smashing the Patriarchy, and Miley Cyrus
Against Me! Left to right: Inge Johansson, James Bowman, Laura Jane Grace, and Atom Willard.
Against Me! front woman Laura Jane Grace is passionate yet lighthearted, reserved in her manner but candid as she speaks about very personal topics with ease. She maintains her pleasant demeanor even when describing the uncommon aspects of transitioning from male-to-female in the spotlight.
"I went in to see a psychotherapist and was like, 'Look, I'm trans. I want to transition in a couple months. I'm coming out in Rolling Stone magazine. Can you help me?'" The attitude she received was doubtful disbelief, "'Sure you're coming out in Rolling Stone magazine...'"
When she first started the process in 2012, she was living in St. Augustine, Florida. Sadly, but not surprisingly, in the Sunshine State there are both limited resources for transgender individuals and a "system of gatekeepers" she explains.
You have to see a psychologist for a period of months. That person then presents a letter to an endocrinologist who then begins to prescribe you hormone replacement therapy (HRT). In her new home of Chicago, the process is very different. "You don't need to prove you're not crazy," she says, calling the whole process in Florida "destructive."
"Trying to prove you are who you say you are and then having to beg for permission, having to put your family through something like that and then having to build this whole weird world around it. That isn't the way transitioning really is. It's backwards and archaic thinking." Not only that, but the closest place she could begin transitioning was hours away in Gainesville.
Part of the reason she left the state involved a demeaning experience with her then endocrinologist. Grace was recording at a studio in Southern Georgia in June of 2013. She'd been having health problems not related to transitioning and a reaction to the HRT. When calling the doctor for an appointment, she was met with a receptionist that clearly hadn't received sensitivity training. "'We can get you in in August, sir,'" she recalls her saying. "I could have gotten better service at a fucking Best Buy if I was buying an iPod. Just complete disregard," Grace laments.
Something else besides a Rolling Stone article makes Grace's transitioning process different from most peoples'. She's jumped at the wonderful opportunity to help others along their journeys. There's a T.S. Eliot quote that says, "If you aren't in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?" And though including quotable quotes in articles is sort of tasteless, this one speaks well to Grace's actions. She's proven she's a giant.
Grace has taken her circumstances and made it her purpose to relate to others, to heal, and to educate. With her True Trans With Laura Jane Grace web series on AOL (released at the end 2014), she spoke with trans and genderqueer folks from all over the country, including some celebrities like gay icon and porn star Buck Angel and Our Lady J, pianist and the first transgender writer for the Amazon hit web series Transparent.
The show will make you weep with both joy and pain, and nod with recognition. "It was surprisingly not challenging to do," she admits of the filming. "My focus with doing that was in a way purely selfish because I just wanted to have those conversations with those people on the show. I was looking for the worth of their advice and what they had to say. And the fact that it was being captured for other people to see, that was just great and makes it more worthwhile."
It is in that vein of understanding and acceptance that she approaches questions from journalists. "There are no stupid questions." She sees every query as a chance to educate. "If the journalist doesn't know, maybe someone out there will also not know, and it'll reach them too." She references the camera crew on True Trans. They didn't have experience with trans people, but after a few days, she noticed that they adjusted their pronoun usage, their attitudes morphed. And those few eyes opened will serve to educate other people, and so on, she hopes. "That's how you make change."
In one of the webisodes, Our Lady J says something about watching her male privilege melt away, privileges she didn't know she had. Grace had a similar experience in this "misogynistic and sexist" society. "You're considered substandard to a cis female -- and females in general are considered substandard to most males -- that's where that stems from, and that's totally fucked up." And for how awful it sounds and true it is, in realizing this fact firsthand, she says with a real sense of enlightenment: "I'm very grateful."
Grace already had an understanding of this perspective from growing up in the punk scene. "That's what attracted me to it, that it was supposed to be about smashing the patriarchy, smashing gender roles, fighting sexism, fighting classism, fighting injustices and oppression in the world, being open-minded, thinking for yourself. Unfortunately, not all punks are like that." It was when she felt like the band fell into a punk boys club when her dysphoria was most acute.
And from that came Against Me!'s fantastically crafted and painfully honest album Transgender Dysphoria Blues. It made almost all of 2014's "album of the year" lists. Grace notes that most of the previous albums she worked on were easy and involved a checklist of items. "This was like just barely dragging yourself across a finish line, like: 'Take it away. I don't care what happens. I hope there's a band to tour with it,' and nothing beyond that."
And touring Against Me! did. The band started off New Year's Eve 2014 on the road and didn't seem to stop. Audiences all over the country felt and commented on the intense energy emanating from Grace at each concert. "I tried to look at each day as a real blessing, and I was happy to be there and happy to play a show, and I hoped that we would get to play a show the next day."
Earlier this week, the band returned to its old stomping grounds in Gainesville for two shows after having not played there for four or five years. Common Grounds, its former venue of choice, had closed down, and the other spots were too small or too big. But recently, a place opened up that both she and guitarist James Bowman worked at years ago, the Wooly. It was just the right size.
"Florida is always like that for us, a weird homecoming." The band first formed in Naples, and she and James have lived in almost every city in the state. She feels comfortable here because she knows all the roads, the ins and outs. "I know how to exist here in a weird way... Florida is one of those places. Those scars that you carry with you become a source of pride, even though you recognize the shitty things in them."
And there are so many shitty Florida things. Apparently, there's a bill on the table in Tallahassee that would ban trans people from using a public restroom that doesn't match their biological sex. "As if anyone's going in the bathroom to do anything but piss or shit," Grace rightfully points out.
Another thing Against Me! is doing to prevent more of that kind of discrimination is asking local LGBTQ groups to come out and table at their shows this tour. They want to show people how they can be allies, to get help, or support groups like Equality Florida. She's also helping out Miley Cyrus' Happy Hippie Foundation which was formed to fight youth homelessness.
She was in L.A. last week when Cyrus invited her and others over to make music. Though she can't disclose all the details, she did reveal some.
"We played some music together, all for a good cause. Right before I left, Miley gave me basically this meme she made that lays out the mission statement of her organization, like one of the most concise, to the point manifestos I've ever read... I have super respect for her. She's definitely someone out there with a good heart who's trying to do good things in the world with her celebrity. People can fuck off if they have a problem with her."
As if that's not enough, Against Me! will be releasing a live album in a few months. And Grace is working as the music director on MTV series Rebel Music which showcases protest music around the world. The show is "focused on making radical change, more specifically left wing change. It's not showcasing skinhead bands," she clarifies.
And even more recently, Grace launched an advice column on Vice called "Mandatory Happiness." The first article went live just yesterday and addressed issues related to being a parent while transitioning.
"I already spent a great deal of time interacting with people like via Twitter, taking questions anyway. It seemed more ideal to have a more public forum for it," she says. Vice sent her about 30 questions. "It's tough, going through and picking what to talk about because I'd love to answer all of them. Maybe I'll get through all of them eventually."
At this rate, it's quite possible that she will.
Against Me! in-store meet-and-greet, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., Friday, February 20, at Radio-Active Records, 845 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale. Visit Facebook.
Against Me! with Creepoid, Worriers, and Everymen. 7:30 p.m., Friday, February 20, at Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $20 plus fees. Visit cultureroom.net.
Get the Music Newsletter
Find out about upcoming concerts and special offers happening in the South Florida music scene.