Laura Jane Grace’s Trans Punk Rebellion
The Against Me! singer and star of ‘True Trans’ talks about transitioning in the heavily male world of rock, her separation from wife Hannah Hannoura, and her AOL Web series.
Laura Jane Grace, lead singer for punk band Against Me!, made history two years ago by becoming the most high-profile musician at the time ever to come out as transgender.
Until then, she had lived as Tommy Gabel, a tall, shy punk heartthrob known for his ferocious singing voice, anarchist philosophies, and whirlwind stage presence. Then, in an explosive Rolling Stone profile, Grace, then 31, revealed a lifetime’s worth of depression and isolation resulting from gender dysphoria, a condition she describes as “a feeling of misalignment” with one’s biological gender. She soon began hormone therapy and started living openly as a woman, while remaining married to her artist-designer wife of five years, Heather. That June, Grace performed with Against Me! for the first time in a miniskirt. “If 13- or 14-year-old me could see this…” she remembers thinking.
Still, as she’ll readily tell you today, she’s not looking to be anyone’s role model.
“I’m kind of a fuck-up,” Grace says. “I don’t want to be a fucking role model. I’m guaranteed to fall on my face a couple more times before I die. But I do recognize that I have a platform so that I can talk about this. It’s something real to me.”
Grace’s newest platform is her Web series, True Trans With Laura Jane Grace. The AOL Originals series follows Grace through her personal history, from a childhood plagued by gender dysphoria, to punk stardom, to her transition into life as a woman. While on the road with Against Me!, Grace meets with an dazzling array of gender variant people, including MMA fighter Fallon Fox, adult performer Buck Angel, and acclaimed trans writer Julia Serrano—author of The Whipping Girl, a book that was instrumental to Grace in the weeks before she came out. Grace says the goal of the series is to show that being trans is just one part of a person’s life. “I wanted to showcase a real mixture of gender variant people who are doing cool things, just living their lives and moving on,” she says.
Grace has said that the most terrifying part of coming out was breaking the news to her wife, whom she met pre-transition while on tour in Nevada in 2006. The two spent a summer together on the Warped Tour, tattooed each other’s names on their bodies, and married a year later. Together, they are raising a small daughter, Evelyn. Though Grace and Heather initially stayed married through the first part of Grace’s transition (at the time, Heather said she was simply relieved that coming out didn’t mean Grace was leaving her to date men), the singer says the two have now been separated for over a year.
“Obviously, we’re still parents, we still have a daughter together and so we still have a relationship and it is what it is,” she says. “You know, being in a band, transitioning, life, everything is fucking complicated. It’s hard to keep shit together. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to think any ill of her or anything like that, or to second-guess any reasons why things fell apart or anything like that. It is what it is. Things change.”
Grace hopped on the phone from her tour bus in Albuquerque to talk to The Daily Beast about True Trans, life in transition, sexism, and following her muse.
What was the best part of working on True Trans for you?
LJG: It came along at a time for me when I really needed it. Talking to someone like Buck Angel—who started transitioning in the late ‘80s—or Julia Serrano, and hearing where they are now and how they’re feeling… from my point of view, they seem so much further ahead. But hearing from them that they’re still figuring it out and they’re still in transition was really reassuring to me. Like, OK, I can take my time, I can do this at my pace and make the moves that feel right. I’m really lucky to be able to do what I do, I fucking love playing music, I love traveling around. But often times I’m just sitting on a tour bus in the middle of nowhere with no way to really advance and transition in some way other than mentally. You have to really focus on the day-to-day and not think, ‘OK I have this plan, a check list, and I’m gonna do this and this and that.’ You kind of just gotta go out, live your life, and be happy with who you are. Hearing that from everyone else, it was just like, ‘What a fucking relief.’
You’ve said before that rock helped you cope as you were growing up because you saw it smashing gender roles. Which performers in particular inspired you?
LJG: My first moment of real self-recognition was watching Madonna perform when I was 4 years old. That was the first time I was like, ‘Woah, I want to do that and that’s who I want to be when I grow up.’ I want to play on stage, I want to play music—and then realizing immediately that there was a misalignment, that I was a little boy and I was supposed to grow up to be a guy.
Then around the time I was in elementary school, which was in the mid- or late-‘80s, I stumbled into hair metal. I remember seeing pictures of bands like Poison, Warrant, or Guns N’ Roses in Hit Parader or whatever. I would stare at those magazines for hours, obsessively, because often times I couldn’t tell if they were boys or girls. You know, back in the day, Poison were very pretty. They may not be now, but they were beautiful. And then I got into David Bowie, all the long-hairs, everything like that. At the time, that was a monumental thing for the era, culturally. Even to a young mind far removed from [that time], I could see that gender roles were being smashed there, that there was a rebellion happening.
At the same time, rock ’n’ roll and punk are still mostly boys’ clubs. What has the transition to becoming a woman in punk been like?
LJG: You know, I don’t even know how to really explain it because it’s so complicated. But the bands that I was initially attracted to in punk rock were anarchist punk bands. They were bands striving for revolution. They were feminists, they were all about squatters’ rights, they were anti-capitalist, they were really hard-line and that’s what attracted me to it. The culture that my band initially was born into was the radical activist network scene, going to protests in the late ‘90s like the WTO riots in Seattle. But part of that global movement was wiped out around 9/11 when Homeland Security really ramped up. I think that punk obviously has been perverted and twisted into whatever other people say it is because that’s part of what punk is: It should mean what it means to you and that doesn’t have to mean the same thing to someone else. But at the same time, that often results in a boys’ club and it often can be really misogynistic, it can be really racist, it can be really homophobic, it can be really shitty all around. It’s always up to the individual to not take that and strive to change that. It’s tough, you know, but it’s not beyond doing.
Were there parts of being a frontman before that were particularly dysphoria-inducing?
LJG: Totally. Totally. [It was] the whole experience as my band got bigger, especially being signed to a major label and being pushed into that world where you’re doing photo shoots for magazines that have a real “type.” You see those other bands [on the covers] and it’s really stereotypical, like there’s the male front singer, covered in tattoos, with a little bit of a scruffy beard, and he’s kind of angry and kind of confused and very dark and very emotional. (Laughs.) You know? With like, this is the way you should talk onstage, you should get up there and be all like, ‘What’s up motherfuckers, how you doing tonight?’ Just a really aggressive male front person. Being pushed into those situations, I didn’t know what to do. I was so depressed by it and so lost, it completely sucked all the joy out of playing music for me.
Both men and women experience stereotypes and unfair expectations. Have you gone from experiencing one type of sexism to another?
LJG: Yeah, totally. I mean, I exist in a weird place though where when I’m not in the context of my band and I’m just in my everyday personal life walking down the street in Chicago and no one knows or gives a fuck who I am, [people] look at me and there’s still that blurred line where they think I’m just some kind of rocker. I realize I have that kind of luxury.
At the same time, in some situations—I don’t wanna name names or shit-talk people or anything—but I’ve found that when I feel very strongly about something in a work environment, in a studio or something like that, and I’ll be really insistent like, ‘This is what I wanna do,’ I feel like sometimes people will look at me like, ‘Oh, well, you’re just crazy.’ Not like, just an ‘artist’ or something, it’s like a, sit-down-and-shut-the-fuck-up type of deal. I don’t know.
How has transitioning meshed with raising your daughter, Evelyn?
LJG: That’s something where I really try to take a hands-off approach, like if my daughter wants a toy, I’m obviously not going to be like, ‘You have to buy a fucking doll.’ She can get whatever she wants but seeing, often times, what she’ll gravitate toward is scary because you don’t necessarily know where those influences are coming from. Like when she wants a fucking Barbie. I often find myself in the toy aisle, having an existential crisis. (Laughs.) I mean, she loves Ninja Turtles, but she loves dolls, too. Right now, she’s all Frozen. I’ve seen Frozen three times.
LJG: I know, I’ve been absurdly lucky.
That sounds close to the age where kids start asking a million questions a day.
LJG: I find that kids are really easy with that, where they’re not looking for a complicated answer. Being at a park, the first time that little friends of hers come up and are like, ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ The first time [a kid asked me that], I was like, ‘Oh shit, this little kid is totally calling me out.’ And then you realize you can just say, ‘I’m a girl.’ Or, ‘What do you think?’ And they’re like, ‘OK!’ And they go back to playing. They don’t need a fucking huge explanation.
Are you writing new music while on the road?
LJG: Yeah, actually, we have a day off coming in Memphis and we’re gonna go into a studio there to start working on some stuff. Then in the break between legs of the tour we’re on now, we’re in the studio. We have a live record in the works that’s all recorded from shows from the last couple months of touring, we’ll put that together at some point. In addition to all that, I’ve been finishing a book that hopefully will be coming out next year, by Crown Publishing. There’s a lot of down hours on the road. (Laughs.)
Do you ever feel pressure to keep trans issues at the forefront of your music, like Against Me! did this year with its newest album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues?
LJG: You know, I really don’t even wanna be aware of that, because then I feel like you start getting into the whole like, ‘OK, so maybe some people want you to keep talking about really trans-centric issues and then there’s some people who really don’t want you to.’ I kind of just gotta follow my muse and figure out whatever feels inspiring to me—even if that’s like, writing an album about baseball, you know. Wherever your brain takes you, you gotta go.