By John Payne
The obstacles facing a "man" or a "woman" who has made the decision to switch sexes are huge. Consider, then, how tough -- and how liberating -- the process of becoming a woman has been for a musical star negotiating the ruff, tuff, macho world of hardcore rock 'n' roll. This is the life of Laura Jane Grace, singer of raging punks Against Me!
"Deciding to transition didn't have anything to do with being brave," she says. "It was about running for my life, trying to survive, and trying to live a more authentic existence."
Against Me!'s new record is called Transgender Dysphoria Blues. The title gives a heads-up regarding the headspace of the band's founder, formerly known as Tom Gabel, heretofore referred to as Laura Jane Grace.
She's a "transitioning transgender person," to use one rather clinical term for it. And the difficulties of this most major of life changes are hugely complicated, especially given her place in the spotlight. If you could, just imagine the slings and arrows Grace has been on the receiving end of from family, so-called friends, and all those muscled man-boy fans and internet chat dolts.
"Transitioning can be stressful," Grace says. "I don't want the added pressure of, 'If you fuck up, then you are fucking up on behalf of the entire trans community' or any notion like that. That's too heavy."
The new record is the band's debut with Grace as a woman, so right away, you're thinking, well, with a title like Transgender Dysphoria Blues, it's gotta be a concept album, right? Or that somehow the band's trademarked anthemic whiplash Ragnarök is going to be taking an abrupt left turn into stylistic fields pretty strange and foreign to the very (clichéd) concept of this, uh, "thing" we call hardcore punk-rock music.
Neither is the case, exactly. The album, while substantially impacted by Grace's "new" identity as a woman, is more like a bridge over from the band's roaring punk-pop/other hybrid sound, a sound where, if you listen carefully, you'll hear a band that has never hewn too closely to the punk-rock playbook. Against Me! has always -- in hindsight -- been at its core about one man/woman's rocky path to enlightenment and liberation, and that has meant forging extremely personal paths through the musical minefield of punk and its stylistic, er, brethren.
Straight out of Gainesville, Against Me! started off in 1997 as Gabel's anarchist solo performance. With the addition of three heavily thrashing backing dudes, Gabel's band didn't take much time to gain notice for the scorching wickedness of its live shows, his supremely ear-cocking songwriting skills, and shockingly self-lacerating stage persona. These were all reliable assets that made the band a prime instigator on the punk scene pretty much nationwide. The band has toured its butt off for 16 or so years now -- averaging something like 200 gigs annually in the past decade -- and released several well-received albums, including 2002's nicely titled Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose, 2003's Against Me! as the Eternal Cowboy, and 2005's also superbly named Searching for a Former Clarity. Its 2007 major-label debut, New Wave, was recognized as Album of the Year by Spin magazine and earned the band an ever-growing fan base.
It was following 2010's chart-topping White Crosses that the band broke with Sire, its longstanding label, and that Grace, after much reflection and self-appraisal, decided to transition to womanhood and to go public with the devilishly complex gender issues she'd been wrestling with since the earliest days of her memory.
The son of a military man, Grace grew up on Army bases feeling alien, unsure of herself, very, very alone. She'd been bullied at school; she'd been plagued with the sense that she was different -- just different, though she couldn't quite put her finger on what precisely it was. She knew one thing for sure: She felt a bit "girly."
In later years, her decision to go full-on with that feeling -- which she'd come to accept as her true self -- came relatively easy. Grace's "authentic" existence, further and further from the painful detachment and crippling shame and guilt she'd lived with in her previous life as a man, simply beckoned and would not, could not, be denied. And at least going by some of the lyrics in songs like the new album's title track, "True Trans Soul Rebel," or "FUCKMYLIFE666" ("No more troubled sleep/There's a brave new world raging inside of me"), facing this new life entails a lot of pain, hefty doses of anger, a touch of despair, and sheer loads of utter defiance.
How does one punk-rock musician's "new" identity change the way he/she views the meaning of life itself or the texture and dynamics of his/her relationships with friends, family, and fans or in the way they'll be dealing with, you know, come what may?
"I've become more aware of how precious time is, and I've become more appreciative of my friends," she says. "I've realized I need to be more prepared for the future."
That's a future, she says, that none of us can predict. "I feel like I'm heading into a great unknown much more so than I ever have before in my life."
A few particulars regarding Laura Jane Grace's transitioning, because you know you want to know: Yes, she's getting hormone injections, which means she's growing breasts, and her hips are getting a bit wider. And yes, she is in fact a married father in the process of gender reassignment, and that entails both hormonal and perhaps eventually surgical adjustments. As far as her sexual relations with her wife, it's probably best just to think of them as a lesbian couple. And beyond that, maybe it's none of your damned business.
Or is it? If Grace has agreed to fully publicize her coming out as a woman, maybe the whole thing is out of her hands at this point. It does, after all, raise a lot of questions.
Should someone in her position be shouldered with the responsibility of being a "role model" as such? Shouldn't she be allowed the freedom to experience her transformation to her truer self as a strictly personal undertaking, secondary to the reality of her influence as an artist? Or is her new self somehow inextricable from the music she creates?
"If by sharing my story it helps someone in their journey," she says, "then I'm happy to do that. But I always try to stress to people that I don't know all of the answers. I'm figuring this out as I go, trying to live one day at a time. I'm also human. I have my flaws. I've fucked up in the past, and I'm sure I'll fuck up again in life."
Fair enough. Meanwhile, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, on which Grace is joined by longtime guitarist James Bowman, ex-Offspring/Rocket From the Crypt drummer Atom Willard, and former the (International) Noise Conspiracy bassist Inge Johansson, is a joyous, heartbreaking, deeply felt, and, yes, liberating blast of punk-rock noise. All the fanboys and fangirls might enjoy musing a bit about how Grace's transition to her fully flowered womanhood -- and is that a "feminine" self, and if so, just what does it really mean to feel and act "feminine"? -- will directly color the music itself, if at all. (We note that Grace, by her choice, still sings like a big, bellowing "man.")
She is still sussing all that out. "As for how all of it will affect the music? I'm not sure. I do know that I won't have any shortage of life experiences to draw from. It's going to be a long time before anything in my life feels stale or routine."
Against Me! With the Sidekicks and the Shondes. 7:30 p.m. Sunday, January 26, at Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $17 plus fees. Call 954-564-1074, or visit cultureroom.net.
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