New New Wave

Against Me! Singer Tom Gabel’s Sex Change Choice

Against Me! singer Tom Gabel stunned fans by announcing plans to live as a woman. Chris Lee says Gabel’s song lyrics illustrate a years-long struggle.

05.09.12 10:49 PM ET

Late Tuesday, Tom Gabel, lead singer and songwriter for the Florida punk quartet Against Me!, stunned rock fans worldwide by announcing in an online article excerpt from Rolling Stone his decision to begin living as a woman. According to the story, that process will begin with a treatment of hormones and electrolysis before Gabel decides whether or not to undergo sexual reassignment surgery down the line.

But judging from Against Me!’s discography, maybe the real shocker was that it had taken the singer so long to formalize the news with a public announcement.

Evidence of Gabel’s difficulty with gender identification has been hiding in plain sight for at least half a decade. In the article, he says he has battled “gender dysphoria” since childhood. And as far back as 2007, Gabel specifically addressed the issue via music, most directly on the song “The Ocean” from Against Me!’s breakthrough debut album New Wave:

If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman,” Gabel sings on the song. “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.”

Moreover, Gabel began performing a song earlier this year called “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”—the title track for a new concept album of the same name about a transgender prostitute.

Unlike such gender benders as Genesis P-Orridge or JD Samson, Gabel stands apart as the first major rock star to transition from male to female in the full glare of the public spotlight. But then, the performer has never been shy about rattling the pop-cultural cage to voice strong opinions about a variety of hot-button issues. Fans have come to identify Gabel as a political firebrand who used his throaty growl to address governmental malfeasance, social woes, and even question the punk community itself.

Against Me!’s 2005 song “From Her Lips to God’s Ears (The Energizer)” manages to coax a chorus out of the name “Condoleezza.” The lyrics for “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” address some of the singer’s aspirations and fears head on: “You want them to see you just like every other girl,” Gabel sings forcefully but plaintively. “They just see a faggot.”

Although the heavily-tattooed performer will now go by the name Laura Jane Grace, Gabel reportedly plans to remain married to wife, Heather, and will continue to raise their 2-year-old daughter. “For me, the most terrifying thing about this was how she would accept the news,” Gabel said of Heather. “But she’s been super-amazing and understanding.”

The singer went on to say he’s “hoping people will understand and hoping they’ll be fairly kind.”

August Brown, a pop-music critic for the Los Angeles Times who has written several profiles of Gabel and reviews of Against Me!, said he does not foresee the notoriously macho punk community ostracizing the singer–especially at a cultural tipping point when the president has voiced support for same-sex marriage on Wednesday.

“Unlike other transgender artists who have presented as androgynous or as the gender they identify with, Laura had a long career performing as Tom before this news, and I think her particular courage here will be inspiring to fans going through something similar, and encourage empathy in straight and cisgendered fans,” Brown said. “As evidenced by Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage today, the arc of public opinion on these issues is bending towards love and acceptance, and I can only imagine the punk and music communities will be first in line to embrace Laura for her bravery.”

Across social media, reaction to Gabel’s choice has been overwhelmingly positive. “Thank you all so much for the support and love,” Gabel tweeted Wednesday afternoon. “It’s honestly humbling, inspiring, and life-changing for me.”