Against Me! frontwoman opens up about gender dysphoria on new album
In the last decade few punk bands have earned as much attention as Gainesville Fla.’s Against Me! Sure the band’s singer Laura Jane Grace has received the bulk of the attention: Born Tom Gabel she came out as trans in 2011 and released Transgender Dysphoria Blues a bare-all account of the anger frustration and joy of the process in January. It wasn’t only a phenomenally important release — it was one of the band’s consensus best.
Yet even in the years prior Against Me! were a magnet to controversy. Emerging from the anarchist folk-punk scene they released an instant classic in 2002’s Reinventing Axl Rose then after jumping ship to Fat Wreck Chords and eventually a major label became the centre of debates about their ethics politics authenticity and of course their punkness.
For her part Grace has always maintained that she didn’t care. The last time Fast Forward Weekly spoke to her in 2010 she said as much: “It’s really hard being us” she said dismissively. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.”
Four years on she explains why she never cared: while dealing with aligning her inner self with her outward presentation those issues seemed miniscule. “I was in this position where everywhere around me there was this debate going on about the politics of commercializing art” she says. “None of it actually mattered to me and that’s not where my head was at. It’s like how do those things compare when you’re dealing with something like gender identity?”
In retrospect Grace never hid her struggle with gender dysphoria. (“If I could have chosen I would’ve been born a woman” she sang on 2007’s New Wave . How much more obvious can you get?) Reaching even further back she says 2005’s Searching For a Former Clarity was an album about gender identity — a truth that’s shockingly obvious in retrospect.
Indeed Grace has never been as cryptic as we give her credit for. But we ask did her approach in writing Trangender Dysphoria Blues differ now that she’d come out? “Yes and no” she says. “The record was 70 per cent written before I came out publicly. I didn’t know what the outcome would be about being so direct [about my dysphoria]. I was just writing to save my life.”
But that immediacy shows. The record’s most affecting songs display remarkable emotional dexterity with its title track tackling Grace’s frustration — “You want them to see you like they see every other girl” she sings. “They just see a faggot.” “Paralytic States” and “True Trans Soul Rebel” meanwhile balance the complexities of Grace’s dysphoria — part triumphant part fraught with anxiety. They are unquestionably Grace at her most honest and human.
But “Drinking With the Jocks” a sizzling mid-LP cut where Grace seethes that “there will always be a difference between me and you” is one of the most furious songs ever written — which has Grace tackling the misogyny of the punk scene. “It’s about selling yourself out about laughing when you’re actually the butt of the joke” she says.
“I’d reached this point where I was onstage and I didn’t really know who I was” she continues. “I wasn’t sure if the people who were singing along to my songs would actually be there would actually like me if they knew what I was really talking about. I felt such a disconnect.”
But with a new LP and a new rhythm section — Against Me! recruited ex-Rocket From the Crypt drummer Atom Willard and Refused bassist Inge Johansson to its ranks — the band is witnessing a rebirth. Grace says that Against Me!’s newest members have brought new life to old songs; meanwhile she’s received plenty of support from her fans after coming out.
“Part of the point of being visible is in hopes of educating people. There are a lot of people out there who don’t know how to be respectful when representing trans stories” she says. “But I try to have a thick skin and try to answer the questions that anyone has…. I came from a place where I felt really isolated. But I find I’ve been making a connection to a lot of people to people I have a lot in common with. And that’s really important.”