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.

×