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."