Against Me!: Me Against Me
Laura Jane Grace is fizzing with energy down the line from Elkton, Florida, where she’s putting the finishing touches to the forthcoming Against Me! album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues. “I’m literally right now in the studio in front of the computer working on some guitar,” she enthuses. “We have a little bit more to finish up and hope to be done before the holidays. We’re just doing some guitar and vocal parts, you know, stuff like that.”
So the record will be in the bag before the Big Day Out tour?
“Well, that’s the idea. I’m trying not to jinx myself, but I’m hoping so.”
It’d be the perfect way to put the cap on what has been a very significant year for Grace. Up until May this year she was known as Tom Gabel before announcing via a watershed interview in Rolling Stone that she was transgender and would be beginning the transition to living as a woman. People asked a lot of questions: did this mean the band were splitting up? How about Gabel’s marriage to visual artist Heather Hannoura? How would this affect their three-year-old daughter Evelyn? Will she be getting surgery to get rid of her man-parts? What the hell is “gender dysphoria” anyway?
So, to quickly run through those: no, the band are continuing (obviously, what with the aforementioned album and BDO visit); Hannoura is 100 percent supportive and the couple are still together; it’s changed nothing for Evelyn; she’s not sure about surgery as yet; and gender dysphoria is a condition in which one’s gender is at odd with one’s biological sex.
It’s traditionally been reduced to shorthand descriptions like “a woman trapped in a man’s body”, but it’s rather more complicated and subtle than that. Many transgendered people (including Grace) speak of feeling that their body is not their own, of feeling detached from themselves. It’s a complicated condition to explain, and very easy to stumble with our highly-gender-specific language – and as a high profile trans person – especially in the overwhelmingly masculine world of punk rock – Grace is presumably bracing herself for a future as a de facto go-to spokesperson for trans issues, and issues of gender generally.
“Um… I don’t think I’m a go-to…” she hesitates. “I mean, there’s other people in bands, other trans people, other trans role models that I’ve had growing up…” She sighs. “Look, I don’t know. I’m not trying to think about it in that way, because it’s not a decision motivated by anything like that. It’s just a reality for me: this is what I do, and this is what happened.”
And music journalists are far more used to talking about sweet gear and the rigours of touring than they are the complex issue of gender identity. It must get exhausting to gently lead writers along as they stumble over pronouns and indelicate language.
She laughs at the suggestion. “Well, you know, I mean at this point we’ve been a band for 15 plus years, and you realise after you do interviews for a while there’s always something, they always focus on something, they’re always going to talk about something. And this is the reality for me. This is my life. It’s something that’s going to be in my music so I don’t mind talking about it. I mean, it is what it is.
“And part of what happens when you decide to do something like transitioning is that in a lot of ways you become an educator, just by default. And you really can’t get upset or anything. To be honest, the thing that someone can do if they have a trans friend is to just ask: if you’re unsure as to how someone wants to be called, like he or she, just ask them, as opposed to just skirting around it and being unsure. That’s something you realise after a while is that it’s a lot better to be asked bluntly, and not take anything personally. I’m fine with that.”
The band’s fans have been very vocally supportive – in fact, for long-time followers of Against Me! the announcement may not have even been that big of a shock. As far back as 2002 Gabel was referencing his struggle with his gender: Searching For A Former Clarity’s title track contained lines like “confessing childhood secrets of dressing up in women’s clothes/Compulsions you never knew the reasons to”, while their major label debut, 2007’s New Wave, laid it all out on “The Ocean”: “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman/My mother once told me she would have named me Laura/I would grow up to be strong and beautiful like her/One day I’d find an honest man to make my husband”.
Given the politics of Against Me!, fans are unlikely to have completely flipped out in any case: it’s not like the band are an ultra-right wing militant combo…
“It would have been funnier if we were!” she laughs. “I’ve been humbled by the amount of support I’ve received. I didn’t necessarily expect a bad reaction from our fans, I just didn’t know what to expect. But I’ve been overwhelmed.”
And times of personal upheaval are, traditionally, an amazing time to get writing. Every comedian knows that today’s shattering break up is likely to end up as next year’s festival show.
“I get that. I’d say it’s more correct to say that this has just been a creatively fertile time, not necessarily just narrowed to writing. Like, I’ve been working a lot and not paying attention to much else.”
So what was it like walking on stage as Laura Jane Grace that first time: how did it feel fronting your band after all this time but playing as… well, as yourself?
“Well, when people say ‘playing as myself for the first time’ or something like that, I think it’s just false,” she counters, “It was more like, ‘OK, this is the first gig after the Rolling Stone article came out,’ or ‘this is the first gig after I shared a part of myself with people’. It’s not like, ‘OK, I totally feel like a different person up here on stage! I have transformed, look at me!’ she laughs. “It’s not like that.”
Even so, though, it surely must have been significant. After all, if it had made no difference then there’d have been no need to make a serious announcement in an international music publication…
“That’s true,” she concedes. “For me, leading up to making this decision I definitely felt like I hit a point on stage where I didn’t really know what to say to people, you know? I just didn’t feel confident: like, ‘What the fuck am I doing here, what do I have to say?’ Even down to existential issues, like, ‘What is my personality, who am I?’ And realising that, I did immediately feel like, ‘OK, this is the wall I needed to break through,’ if you want to put it like that.”
So did it feel… well, “liberating” seems like the wrong word…
“No, ‘liberating’ would be close. For a while I felt like I was becoming a character: like, ‘OK, it’s time to get up on stage and play this person,’ and I don’t feel that way anymore.”
But surely one of the classic things about fronting a rock’n’roll band is exactly that: creating a character and escaping oneself on stage?
“Yeah, but when you feel like that character’s confined and that character can’t become anything else…” she replies. “It feels more like there’s an element that anything could possibly happen at tonight’s show, as opposed to knowing exactly how it was going to go every single time.”
Knowing that the Rolling Stone article was coming must have been frightening in some ways. And making such a public statement ups the stakes: once that announcement is made, there’s no un-making it.
“Right, and I guess when I did the interview a month and a half before the magazine came out, and some days it couldn’t get there quick enough and other days I definitely felt like, ‘Oh my god, I never want this to come out,’” she admits.
“But at the time, James [Bowman, Against Me!’s guitarist] was having a baby so we weren’t playing as a band at that moment, so I went out and toured around Europe, me and an acoustic guitar, and I had time for myself. And it was cool, you know, it helped pass the time and I didn’t drive myself too insane.”
With the album set for release and a year of touring ahead, Grace’s major concerns are far more practical: things like how to take Against Me! around the world with young children in tow. But she’s looking forward to it. “To me, my biggest fear [about transitioning] was that I didn’t want to stop: I didn’t want to be, ‘OK, now I have to change my life completely and I have to stop doing all the things I like doing and get a normal job,’ or something like that,” she laughs. “And I haven’t.”