In May 2012, Rolling Stone published a profile of Tom Gabel, the singer-songwriter for the Florida-based punk band Against Me! The crux of the story was Gabel’s previously secret, lifelong struggle with gender dysphoria.
“The cliché is that you’re a woman trapped in a man’s body, but it’s not that simple,” Gabel told journalist Josh Eells. “It’s a feeling of detachment from your body and from yourself. And it’s shitty, man. It’s really fucking shitty.” As the article unfolded, it was revealed that Gabel had recently started living as the woman she always sensed she truly was, and would now be known as Laura Jane Grace.
Eells reported Grace’s coming-out process in real time; she hadn’t even told her dad as the story went to press. But in spite of the raw and startlingly fresh emotions involved, Grace — and her wife, Heather, with whom she has a 4-year-old daughter — put up a brave and dignified front. It was hard not to admire.
From the moment the article hit, Grace did indeed garner plenty of admiration. Not unlike Jason Collins’s coming out as an active gay basketball player in Sports Illustrated one year later, Grace braced for a negative reaction and was instead greeted with an enthusiastic embrace by a culture eager to display its newfound tolerance of the LGBTQ community. The story quickly went viral. Thousands of tributes were tweeted and retweeted. It was a story people could feel good about being enlightened enough to feel good about.
For a while, anything Grace did was news. Her fame briefly eclipsed the modest prominence that Against Me! acquired after 15 years as a hard-touring and intermittently commercial group. Not normally an outlet given to caring about punk bands, MTV widely promoted an exclusive on-air interview with Grace in which she reiterated the major points of the Rolling Stone story. Reporters were dispatched to Grace’s first post-interview Against Me! concert in San Diego. Grace was invited to appear in Cosmopolitan and on MTV’s House of Style.
Eventually, magazines, websites, and TV networks moved on to the next story. As far as the media was concerned, Laura Jane Grace had been sent off into the sunset, a hero redeemed by an understanding public and sensitive press corps.
In reality, Grace’s music career was in serious danger.
Against Me!’s most recent album, 2010′s White Crosses, had been buried in a massive personnel turnover at the band’s label, Sire. Out of frustration, Grace and her bandmates decided to temporarily break up in October of that year, which led to the dissolution of its relationship with the label. (Based on the timeline of Eells’s story, this was close to when Grace also decided that she could no longer live as a man.) Then, in the wake of the Rolling Stone article, Against Me! started work on a new album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, that was made and then remade over the course of a year in the midst of two band members leaving. (Guitarist James Bowman is the other fixture in Against Me!’s lineup.) In a twist of near-biblical proportions, a storm sent a tree through the roof of Grace’s recording studio as Blues neared completion in 2013, which necessitated yet another audible.
“The record almost fucking killed the band,” Grace told me two weeks ago as we sat backstage before a concert in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “It was me and James who finished the record at the most depressing studio you’ve ever been in in your life in Valdosta, Georgia. The walls were all painted black. And, literally, the engineer had a gun strapped to his belt the whole time. It was just, like, the end. It was fucking weird.”
Fortunately, while Laura Jane Grace’s story is far from resolved, this chapter ends happily: Transgender Dysphoria Blues isn’t only the best record Against Me! has ever made, it is one of the more extraordinary rock records of this decade. Whether Grace’s stiff cocktail of primal scream therapy and slicked-up guitar hooks moves you is a matter of subjective opinion; that Transgender Dysphoria Blues is utterly unlike any other album currently brushing up against the mainstream pop world is indisputable fact.
Blues represents the most successful execution of a musical formula that Against Me! has honed over the course of six albums. Lyrically, it’s a brutal self-interrogation of Grace’s fears and weaknesses. It quakes with anxiety and vengeful rage. Like all Against Me! records, it purges all the bile that occupied Grace’s headspace when she was writing the songs, only this time it’s even heavier and more unsparing. References to depression and suicidal impulses — some but not all of which stemmed from Grace’s gender dysphoria — populate the record. “Yet to be born, you’re already dead / You sleep with a gun beside you in bed / Follow it through to the obvious end / Slit your veins wide open, you bleed it out,” Grace sings in “True Trans Soul Rebel,” and that’s arguably the album’s shiniest pop tune.
As you can tell, Blues is not subtle. Grace has never been a subtle writer.1 It’s doubtful that Grace would’ve been allowed to be subtle about being transgender at this juncture. As far as the words are concerned, Blues is deliberately caustic. Then there’s the music: Grace typically writes the lyrics first, so she’s used to setting her most intense journal entries to rousingly boisterous rock and roll. But Blues represents a breakthrough in Grace’s downbeat lyrics/fist-pumping music songwriting dichotomy. Coming off the musically expansive White Crosses, which veered into Springsteen/Strummer classic-rock pastiche, Blues pares Against Me!’s sound back to stunningly propulsive pop-punk. The record ping-pongs from one shout-along anthem to the next. If this were a world where rock radio programmers didn’t blanch at heavy-riffing singles in which the chorus asks, “Does God bless your transsexual heart?,” Blues would be blaring out of car stereos everywhere for the next 18 months.
“We want to be subversive like that, especially knowing that a good portion of our audience aren’t trans or haven’t ever been exposed to those issues, or it might make them uncomfortable,” Grace explained.
She was sitting with Bowman next to a craft service table loaded with all the essentials — hummus, salsa, and Jameson — in Against Me!’s dressing room. The clothes clinging to her rail-thin, lanky frame were strictly punk-rock standard-issue: black hoodie, black stocking cap, black jeans, big black boots. The only makeup I could detect were two thin lines of black eyeliner, which stood out amid pale, delicate features framed by reddish brown hair that extended well beyond Grace’s toned shoulders. She affected a hunched-over position in her chair, which I suspected was her way of bracing against the oppressively omnipresent freeze. (It’s cold everywhere in this part of the country in January, even in heated dressing rooms.)2 Grace’s speaking voice, as evidenced by the familiar full-throated howl heard on Blues, is perhaps a little softer than it was before her transition, but otherwise remains essentially unchanged.
Good songwriters often draw from their own experiences when creating music, but great songwriters are able to make those personal reflections seem universal. While Transgender Dysphoria Blues stakes out a highly specific point of view right in the album’s title, the songs are relatable for any kid who feels alienated from the pecking order of assholes at school. Take the album’s most furious track, “Drinking With the Jocks.” It’s a song about a transsexual punk-rock misfit yearning for empathy from the people least likely to give it to her. In a way, it’s also about how everyone feels like a transsexual punk-rock misfit sometimes.
“Dealing with depression is really what a lot of that’s about,” Grace said. “On the surface level, the album may be transgender-themed, but underneath it, there are those universal themes — alienation, depression, not being happy — that I think that everybody can really identify with.”
The desperation in Blues stems from the bulk of the songs being written while Grace was working up the nerve to go public as a transgender woman, though she acknowledges that the record still reflects her current state of mind at times. The song that I was most interested in asking Grace about, the barreling pub rocker “Unconditional Love,” was written last, and it acts as a kind of capper for the record.
“Even if your love is unconditional / it wouldn’t be enough to save me,” Grace sings in the chorus. This message permeates Transgender Dysphoria Blues: Finding acceptance — whether it’s from your band or the jocks or the readers of music magazines — is nice, but not really a pathway to redemption. In the end, all that matters is whether you can achieve a peaceful détente with your own heart. And while coming out as transsexual was an important step for Grace, it wasn’t a cure-all.
“It doesn’t work out every issue that I have as a person,” Grace said. “Like, sure, that’s better, and that was a step in my life that needed to be taken and it definitely was progress. But it’s not enough to rely on other people to save you. You have to save yourself.” Later, she offered a sad, knowing rejoinder: “Life’s complicated, you know?”
Before the “the singer is transgender” narrative hijacked Against Me!’s press clippings, everything written about the band tended to focus on whether it was “really a punk group.” Launched in 1997 as a proudly amateurish aggro-folk outfit, Against Me! was composed of Grace and a drummer who kept time on repurposed pickle buckets. This sounds like the most punk-rock thing ever. But it doesn’t necessarily fit the rigid criteria of “punk rock” that many in the scene still cling to. An independently released debut LP, Reinventing Axl Rose, came out in 2002, but even as Grace built an audience from relentless touring, her stridently leftist politics and unapologetic contrarianism still made her an oddball among people who love oddballs.
But it was Grace’s decision to sign with a major label in 2005 — and hire Butch Vig to give 2007′s New Wave a big-time rock sheen — that really made Against Me! a lightning rod in punk circles. New Wave transformed Against Me! into an “it” band in the mainstream rock press — Spin declared it the album of the year, and Bruce Springsteen started name-checking Against Me! in interviews.3 But the album also stigmatized Grace among her old fans. While New Wave was hardly a commercial smash — it peaked at no. 57 on the Billboard albums chart — Grace was branded a sellout by the one demographic (which I’ll somewhat reductively classify as “young men who own multiple Bad Religion T-shirts”) that still cares about such things.
For all the guff that Against Me! took from dime-store Marxists for its record deal, nobody was disillusioned more by the experience than Grace. After New Wave failed to sell big, it seemed a foregone conclusion that White Crosses would suffer the consequences.
“We weren’t naive. Going into it, we knew, just because of the size of the contract we signed, if our record doesn’t sell a million copies, there’s no way they’re going to push a second record,” Grace said. “It’s just, contractually, you have to do one, but there’s no work that will be put in behind it. And then, especially when the company collapsed afterward, we knew it was going to be a standstill and that nothing was going to happen at the company behind any record until the new team was in place and everything was rolling there again, which we knew would be months, and way after our record had its chance.”
White Crosses came out in June 2010, and after months of inaction by the label, Grace and her bandmates were pushed to the brink. “We were in Los Angeles. We were supposed to leave the next day to go to Australia to go on a tour, which then immediately went into a U.K. tour. We had a meeting in the hotel room, and it wasn’t a fight, it wasn’t a bunch of fuck yous. It was just, ‘We’re done. We’re screwed right now until we work out everything that’s happening and get out of this contract. So let’s just quit to make things move.’ Then we had power again, because people were like, ‘Oh, but could you please still do these obligations that you made?’ And then it was like, ‘Well, maybe.’”
The breakup lasted only a week, and Against Me! continued to play shows. But Grace otherwise unplugged from the band for an extended period. The professional stress was compounding the personal hell she was privately enduring. “I’m fucking drinking myself to sleep every single night. I cannot deal with this stress. I need to get back in control of this, and I need to get the fuck away from it for a second,” Grace recalled of this period. “And I literally went home and I canceled my cell phone contract. I didn’t have a phone. I’m not going to answer my emails, no one will be able to get ahold of me.”
For a year, all Grace did was “drink beer and not give a shit about anything.” When she was ready to reconvene with Against Me! to work on songs, Grace introduced her latest material as a concept record about a transsexual prostitute.
“A lot of that was feeling uncomfortable with what I was doing, trying to shift it as if it was not autobiographical,” Grace said. “Oh, these songs aren’t about me. They’re about some other conceptual character. Coming off of a major label, I was kind of feeling like a bit of a whore.”4
Grace didn’t come out to her band until February 2012, three months before the Rolling Stone article. Against Me! was still rehearsing its would-be concept record at the time, and her bandmates didn’t fully understand the songs yet. “I remember asking about [the title track]. ‘Are you yelling ‘faggot?’” Bowman said. “And she’s like, ‘Yeah, you know — concept record. We’re doing a concept record.’ And it was just like, ‘All right, that’s weird.’”
All the dark depths that Laura Jane Grace plumbs on Transgender Dysphoria Blues pale next to talking about a record like Transgender Dysphoria Blues with two chuckleheads from the local radio zoo crew.
This is precisely the gauntlet that Grace and Bowman faced in November when they appeared on influential L.A. station KROQ before a sold-out show at the Troubadour. In fairness to hosts Kevin and Bean, the interview could’ve been much worse. (“There could’ve been sound effects,” Bowman pointed out diplomatically.) Nevertheless, listening to Grace being forced to explain the dynamics of her family life (or stifle a wince when one of the chuckleheads makes a “ball-less” joke) in order to secure a little airplay is excruciating.
The KROQ interview is emblematic of the intermingled personal and professional responsibilities that Grace must navigate. After all, she’s the one who made a record about her transition. Her life is fodder for her art, and therefore (fair or not) open to interpretation by strangers. Now Grace must tangle with whatever questions may come from whichever bros.
“It’s a tough situation to be put into,” Grace said. “I have to psych myself up to where I’m like, Don’t react in an angry way, because it’s possible that someone making a comment like that is just looking to get a reaction out of you. So, you put this wall up and you’re like, I’m just gonna smile through it. I’m going to go on fucking KROQ and promote our record and get through it. These guys are obviously morning-show disc jockeys and usually radio is not a fun experience, so you just kind of take it with a grain of salt.”
Grace had been asked about being transgender, in a joking way, all the way back in 2010 by Brendan Kelly of the Chicago punk band the Lawrence Arms. Grace’s reaction in this video is priceless. “He fucking outed me,” Grace said. “And then we went to the bar later on that night and had a bunch of drinks, and blackout drunk, I confessed to him. I told him everything I was going through, and that I didn’t know what I was going to do. I woke up the next morning like, Fuck. I just totally said everything to Brendan, you know, before I said anything to anyone else. And I texted him and was like, ‘Did I say what I think I said to you last night?’ And he’s like, ‘Yep.’ ‘You’re not going to tell anyone, right?’ He’s like, ‘No, we’re cool.’”
I’m keenly aware that I am the latest in a long line of heterosexual bros who have asked Grace to explain what it’s like to be transsexual. In the Rolling Stone article, Grace seemed to be courting role model status for young people dealing with gender dysphoria and looking for an example of how to live out in the open. But now you can detect that weariness over living her life so publicly has set in. Grace wants to connect with people who have been waiting for a rock star like her to connect with. But she’s reluctant to be a transgender spokeswoman when she’s still trying to figure out so much in her own life.
I’m used to talking to musicians about music, not about the particulars of their gender identities. I feel bad asking questions about stuff that’s not really any of my business.5 But I’m here as a journalist, so I ask anyway: Where are you at with your transition? Do you think you’ll have surgery?
“For most people who are transitioning, surgery isn’t really a financial reality,” she answered. “So to place these goals of in order to be happy with my body, I must do this thing is really damaging to yourself. You have to find out what makes you happy each day and try to work toward that. But transition is very much something that isn’t cut-and-dried. Some people seem to say ‘after the transition,’ or something like that, in reference to me. And it’s like, I’m still way very much in transition. I don’t know a lot of the answers. I don’t know who the person I’ll end up being is going to look like. I don’t have this big First I’m going to do this, then I’m going to do this … and check, check, check, and here’s the list. You have to take one day at a time and figure it out as you go.”
No matter how awkward the question, or how ignorant the questioner, Grace has made herself available. And protestations of ambivalence aside, her openness does seem to go deeper than the selling of a new record. Against Me! has long been a politically minded band; in the past, Grace has written songs like “White People for Peace” and “Walking Is Still Honest” about endless wars and income inequality. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is undoubtedly her most personal record, but it’s also her most political. The album is devoid of overt sloganeering, but by its very existence (and excellence), Transgender Dysphoria Blues stands as a statement against sexual repression in American culture in general and the blue-collar rock-and-roll world Against Me! inhabits.
Still, I wonder if Grace is already looking forward to a time when her being transgender isn’t the first (or second or third) thing people write about when it comes to Against Me!
“That’s kind of the point of doing this, in doing interviews, and to be visible, is to make it something that is common,” she said. “And not just myself alone, but the trans community in general, being more visible, is to make it something that you continually show to people to the point where they become almost annoyed with it, and don’t want to focus on it anymore and it becomes a nonissue.”
Grace has said, from her earliest memories onward, that she felt disconnected from her own body. After having spent much of her life in a touring rock band, you could say Grace also feels disconnected from her surroundings.
It’s the common condition of the working musician: Stay in one place for too long, and you’re overcome by the inevitable itch to visit the next town, the next club, the next (newly stocked) craft service table. Eventually, you end up in a place like Grand Rapids,6 playing on a Thursday night for several hundred people freshly recovered from their New Year’s Eve hangovers and ready to drink away another long night in the dead of winter.
This was the second time Against Me! played Grand Rapids since Tom Gabel publicly became Laura Jane Grace — the band’s previous gig was in June 2012, seven shows into the post–Rolling Stone interview tour — two shows out of their 101 concerts in the past 20 months. (Against Me! plays gig no. 102 tonight in Carrboro, North Carolina.) That’s actually a fairly light touring schedule by this band’s rigorous standards; work on Transgender Dysphoria Blues (as well as the various lineup changes) has kept them off the road for months at a time. Grace hopes to play twice as many gigs in 2014 alone.
“I don’t have an alternative in life. I’m a 33-year-old trans high school dropout with a criminal record. You know, what am I going to do?” she said as we exchanged good-byes over the din of the opening set by Brooklyn band the Shondes. “Going on tour for 10 years straight and playing 200-plus shows a year, you can’t ever come back from that mentally. You’re twisted in a weird way where you need that in order to be a person still. You sit at home and you fucking lose your mind. You feel, like, completely purposeless and don’t know what to do with yourself. It’s just a part of you where you want to be — being in a tour bus, traveling to a new place every day, being around the show environment, hanging out backstage, doing an interview. That’s what you know and what you want to do.”
I thought about this as I waited out in the audience. Like a lot of rock venues in midsize Midwestern cities, this place wasn’t exactly rich with ambience.7 It resembled a repurposed mattress warehouse, with its rectangular shape pitting the stage and the bar on opposite ends roughly 25 yards apart. No matter — the club was packed. Work night be damned, Against Me! was the biggest band to hit town all week. This night was going to be special.
I had asked Grace backstage whether Against Me!’s audience has changed since her transition began. “Somewhat yeah and somewhat no,” she replied. Surveying this crowd, I understood what she meant. It was frankly difficult to discern anybody’s gender, given the equalizing effect that winter coats (and leather jackets) have on those who wear them. But I imagine the audiences are similar when Against Me! plays Pittsburgh or Birmingham, Alabama. It just looked like a bunch of rock fans who came here after knocking off from work.
When Against Me! came out to perform, I noticed that Grace had exchanged her jeans for black leggings and a bluish-black miniskirt, and stripped away the hoodie to reveal a sleeveless black T-shirt. The first song was “Unconditional Love,” which the audience didn’t know yet but responded to happily anyway. After that it was “Cliché Guevara,” from 2003′s As the Eternal Cowboy, and the mosh pit erupted. By the third number, “White People for Peace,” the audience was officially going apeshit. Beer cups and twentysomething Michigan residents were being joyously tossed in the air. The workday was finally being shaken off.
Later, Against Me! played New Wave‘s closing cut, “The Ocean,” which contains a lyric8 that directly referenced Grace’s gender dysphoria five years before she came out. When the audience cheered, I assumed it was a sign of moral support for Grace. But then I thought it could’ve just as well been excitement over hearing a popular cut from Against Me!’s most well-known album. Grace otherwise did not acknowledge her transition all night, and the audience seemed too wrapped up in the music to care either way. That’s the thing about rock clubs with concrete floors and low ceilings — the words get lost in the mix. What sticks is the noise and whatever meaning you want to attach to it.
Those words are still important. But judging from the broad smile and Grace’s glowing face as Against Me! successfully rocked Grand Rapids once again — different this time but equally effective — I bet she was happy her lyrics were a nonissue. If only for the time being.