Music

In Her New Memoir ‘Tranny,’ Laura Jane Grace Documents The Hardships Of Being A Pioneer

In some ways, January 2014 doesn’t seem so long ago. But in terms of visibility for transgender Americans, it might as well be a different era. At the time, Caitlyn Jenner was still known as Bruce. The debate over so-called “bathroom bills” restricting access to transgender citizens was not yet an overriding concern on par with gay marriage. (A bill similar to legislation introduced earlier this year in North Carolina was brought forward in Arizona in 2013 with nary a blip on the national radar.)

The media in general was unaware of its incorrect pronoun usage, and essentially ignorant of matters concerning gender identity. It’s safe to say, for instance, that Colin Jost could’ve made a crack about Tinder recognizing gender nonconformity on Saturday Night Live with minimal blowback. Back then, it wasn’t just that transgender men and women were scorned — they were virtually invisible in mainstream culture.

This was the context for Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the sixth studio album by the fiercely political (and somewhat star-crossed) Florida punk band Against Me!, which was released that month. The band’s frontwoman, Laura Jane Grace, had become a minor celebrity in the wake of a 2012 Rolling Stone profile in which she came out as transgender. The story created a media groundswell for Transgender Dysphoria Blues that far exceeded the attention normally given to stridently leftist punk groups, or transgender musicians.

Fortunately, the album justified the hype — to this day, playing Transgender Dysphoria Blues for the first time remains one of my favorite listening experiences of the decade. A thrilling marriage of cathartic rage and shiny pop-punk hooks, Transgender Dysphoria Blues was a gut-wrenching first-person account of a woman overcoming years of internalized hatred and societal prejudice in order to scream her truth to the world. It was brutally honest, but equally important, it also rocked like a bastard.

Three weeks before the release, I blasted Transgender Dysphoria Blues at an ungodly volume approximately 27 times as I drove five hours through a snow storm from Milwaukee to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Against Me! was playing that night. Before the gig, I was scheduled to interview Grace for an hour backstage.

My impression of Grace was that she was warm but weary, appreciative of the media recognition (especially in light of the fact that Against Me!’s previous album, 2010’s White Crosses, was largely ignored) but also unsure of her newfound spokeswoman status. Grace understood that by giving interviews, she was also raising the visibility of tens of thousands of marginalized people. But Grace had her own problems too, some of which (though certainly not all) were related to her ongoing transition.

Against Me! was back to putting out its own records again after having been chewed up and spat out by the major-label system. Even having a record to put out was a miracle — Grace’s band had fallen apart and been pieced precariously back together during the making of Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Worse — though she didn’t discuss it during our interview — Grace’s marriage had also essentially ended. Turns out that coming out did not mark the triumphant climax of Grace’s story. Life had moved on, unsteadily.

Sitting backstage in Grand Rapids, Grace spoke thoughtfully about her transgender experience, and she also rightly squirmed against being defined only as trans. While Transgender Dysphoria Blues was being discussed by music critics strictly as a statement about her transition, Grace centered on the album’s “universal themes — alienation, depression, not being happy — that I think that everybody can really identify with.” Like all great rock stars before her, Grace was using her personal experiences to build a bridge to a larger world. She didn’t want to lecture people. She wanted to connect, in the same way she connected later that night with a largely blue-collar audience that eagerly slam-danced to new songs like “True Trans Soul Rebel” that it hadn’t heard before.

“That’s kind of the point of doing this, in doing interviews, and to be visible, is to make it something that is common,” Grace told me. “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.” In every part of her life — on her album, on stage, on the record in our interview — Grace was fighting for nothing less than the right to be seen as human.

I was reminded of my brief encounter with Grace while reading her lacerating new memoir, Tranny. Co-written by an editor at Vice’s Noisey, Dan Ozzi, Tranny is composed of contemporary reflections on Grace’s life and career, as well as excerpts from personal journals dating back to her teens. At the start, Grace observes that she knew she was a woman as early as age 5, when she strongly identified with her favorite pop star, Madonna. “That’s me, I thought, clear as day,” Grace writes. “I wanted to do that. I wanted to be that.” From there, it’s a torturously long road to Transgender Dysphoria Blues.

Naming her book after a transgender slur is a textbook punk move, but Grace has said that it reflects one of her memoir’s primary subjects, which is her lifelong battle against internalized transphobia. The journal entries chart Grace’s heartbreakingly slow acceptance of herself, documenting the numerous clandestine getaways in hotel rooms and rehearsal spaces where she could safely “become her,” even as she was living a double-life as a husband, father, and leather-voiced singer in an aggressive punk band. Grace’s secret pushed her into a punishing tour schedule, as the rigors and excesses of the road provided a distraction from the side of herself she was having trouble hiding.

For those who feel that increased awareness of the trans community is to blame for President-elect Trump — that was the premise of Jost’s controversial Weekend Update jokeTranny offers many painful rejoinders. Growing up in the ’90s, Grace was so desperate for information about transsexuals that she turned to a installment of the notoriously gory home video series Faces Of Death, because it included footage of a sexual reassignment surgery.

This marginalization instilled in Grace a sense of hopelessness and profound fear. “I can never be anything more than a pervert dressed up in women’s clothes,” reads one journal entry from 2004, around the time when Grace should’ve been riding high from Against Me!’s ascendent career. “I do not care if I’m alive or dead.”

The ways in which identity can be turned against you by outsiders — sometimes willingly, but often via sheer oblivious ignorance — as both a lethal weapon and a stifling prison is a major theme of Tranny. But, again, as in her music, Grace resists being reduced to any one type. The subtitle — Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout — points to the book’s other identity narrative, about Grace’s rocky journey from the punk underground to the (mostly miserable) rock and roll promised land of major-label contracts and Foo Fighters’ support tours.

Before she was lauded as a transgender pioneer, Grace was pilloried by self-righteous punks for signing with Sire Records in 2005 and making two albums with super-producer Butch Vig, 2007’s New Wave and 2010’s White Crosses. For Grace, who was raised on ’80s arena-rock before becoming a Crass fan in her teens, going the major-label route squared with her “build a bridge to a larger world” philosophy. She wanted Against Me! to matter in the same way Springsteen and the Clash had. Unfortunately, Grace’s moment came right as the corporate structures that had previously supported big-time rock bands rapidly disintegrated. Meanwhile, long-time fans railed against Grace’s careerism, ostracizing her from a community she was once called home, provoking another identity crisis.

The rare moments of levity in Tranny come courtesy of Grace’s ill-fated attempts to navigate the failing major-label system. In the wake of New Wave becoming a big critical hit, Grace meets with a prospective manager who previously worked with Axl Rose. The guy tells Grace that Against Me! is his favorite band, but he can’t name any of the band’s albums other than New Wave. “That kind of knowledge isn’t really important in this business,” he deadpans.

Later, Against Me! goes on tour with Blink-182, one of the groups that inspired Grace to form her own punk band as a teen. The experience is yet another disappointment. “Blink-182 all have separate dressing rooms,” Grace writes in a journal entry. “There are signs backstage instructing crew and security under no circumstances to stop them, talk to them, or look at them in general.” Grace’s candid recounting of the fleeting highs and frustrating lows of a career marked by million-dollar lawsuits, botched album rollouts, cocaine binges, and disgruntled fans plays as a nightmarish cautionary tale for young musicians, with Grace as the perpetually misunderstood iconoclast undone by the conflicting expectations of her audience and record company.

Against Me!’s fine 2016 album, Shape Shift With Me, doesn’t have the drama or punch of Transgender Dysphoria Blues, mostly because it’s not supposed to. Shape Shift With Me is a divorce record. Many of the songs seem to plainly address — with alternating fury and tenderness — Grace’s ex-wife. There’s also a pronounced lusty streak that speaks to Grace’s recent status as a single woman. It’s an album about what happens after the hero supposedly walks off into the sunset, when the messiness of real life crowds out the final credits.

Tranny has a similar arc — the ending isn’t exactly happy, but it is guardedly optimistic. Grace wraps her book around the time that I met her almost three winters ago. She admits that she’s “still paralyzed with self-doubt.” She mourns “everything my transition has cost me,” including her marriage, her relationship with her father, and many friendships. She admits fantasizing about escaping to a small, faraway town and trying to pass again as a man, because it seems so much easier.

But Grace knows she can’t go back, so she commits herself to moving forward, doubling down on rock and roll. “For more than half of my life, Against Me! had been the thing that pushed me forward, the thing that held me back, and the thing that almost killed me,” Grace writes at the book’s conclusion. “But this time, it was the thing that saved me.” As a woman and as a punk, Grace survived. And, for now, that’s a lot.

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