Laura Is a Punk Rocker
Laura Jane Grace and Against Me! take the stage in Belgium earlier this summer.
On a sticky night in mid-June, the four members of Against Me! walked onstage at Amos’ South-end, a narrow, two-story club just past the edge of downtown Charlotte, North Carolina. Three wore some variation on the plain black T-shirt. Laura Jane Grace, the band’s singer and star, had on skinny pants and a sleeveless black blouse that let the crowd see her lean, muscled arms, which were covered in tattoos.
At big arena shows, bands prime the audience with flashing pyrotechnics and a video intro. At dingy punk clubs, the options are limited, though a well-selected walk-on can help. This summer, Against Me! chose the opening snippet from “Gonna Fly Now,” the tune that played while Rocky Balboa trained to fight Apollo Creed. The use of Bill Conti’s trumpet riff—instantly evoking a hokey, inspirational montage—by a pop punk band with self-proclaimed hints of outcast rebellion (even though their last album debuted at No. 34 on Billboard and they’ve opened for superstar bands like Green Day) was a bit of a joke. But in the context of the show, it also made sense.
Until recently, the world had known Laura Jane Grace by her birth name: Tom (sometimes Tommy) Gabel. Gabel started to hint at a change this spring. He grew out his hair and went on a brief solo tour, previewing material from the band’s upcoming concept album, which he said would center on the character of a transgender prostitute. Still, it wasn’t until Grace née Gabel sat for an interview with Rolling Stone in late March, and the article was released in May, that the world understood he was becoming a she. Grace told the magazine about her struggles with gender identity, dating back to times as a child when she wished she had been born a woman. She announced the name change and said she would begin hormone treatments; she also clarified that she would remain with Heather, her wife of four years. Overnight, she became one of the more public transgendered stars in the country.
Onstage in Charlotte, the band launched into its opening song, “True Trans Soul Rebel,” about the upcoming album’s protagonist wandering at night, looking for companionship—an arc that finds no completion in the three-minute yarn. The song is propulsive, even joyous. At six foot two, Tom Gabel had towered over his bandmates; in heeled boots, Grace gained several inches. Black-polished nails glinted as she ran her hands across the guitar frets, and when she reached the repeated line in the bridge, “Who’s gonna take you home tonight,” the crowd latched on, carrying surfers through the air.
Before the fourth song, Grace took a break to address the crowd. “Thank you so fucking much,” she said, making sure to direct appreciation to recently minted fans as well as those who’d stayed with the band for years. The pause (it came at the same point in three shows I saw, suggesting she’d given thought to its placement) segued into “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” which charts the disconnect between how the character in the song perceives herself and what the world sees. “Your tells are so obvious/-Shoulders too broad for a girl,” the song opens, eventually leading to Grace’s scream, “You want them to see you like they see every other girl/They just see a faggot.” This could easily be read as a song about frustration and despair. But punks are misfits, and in the genre’s long tradition of twisting a potential dig into a point of pride, Grace sang the lyrics with glee, as if in the fullest appreciation that she was onstage performing as a transgender woman, not to insults but to the crowd’s welcome shouts of “We love you Laura.”
Against Me! started as Tommy Gabel’s solo singer-guitarist act in 1997, when he was 17 and a high-school dropout in Naples, Florida. He would later credit a police officer who slammed his head against a cop car when he was 14 with turning him on to anarchist views, a point often alluded to in Against Me!’s music, though without much political heft. After a few years, Gabel moved north to the college town of Gainesville and grew his act into a band. Over time, Against Me! would feature a Spinal Tap–esque cast of rotating drummers, but by 2003 the group had settled into a three-man core: Gabel, his high-school friend James Bowman on guitar, and Andrew Seward on bass. Drummer Jay Weinberg—son of E Street drummer Max Weinberg—joined in late 2010.
As it expanded, the band always remained Gabel’s project, dependent on his charisma and persona: brash and spewing onstage, known to have struggled with drugs and alcohol, but in interviews, and in interactions with fans, kindhearted and soft-spoken, a Southern gentleman. The music is credited to the band, but Gabel is sole lyricist. The songs on their first record, 2002’s Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose, express conventional suburban teen ennui in confessional-notebook style. What distinguished them was their spirit of merriment. In 2005, the band got attention with “From Her Lips to God’s Ears (The Energizer),” an anti–Iraq War anthem with all the outrage of a high-school protester that ends in a plaintive wail: “Condoleezza.” That same album featured Against Me!’s first video, which led to a Jimmy Kimmel appearance, a major-label deal, and inevitable cries of “sellout” from the corners of punk fandom that seek shelter from popularity. Still, the band kept its core following. By 2010’s White Crosses, Gabel had become a father. He’d been playing for 13 years, long enough for him to wax nostalgic. “Do you remember when you were young,” he sang in the chorus of “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” “And you wanted to set the world on fire?”
Against Me! is not the first band to start out with a loose, disjointed sound that slowly became more polished at some cost to the verve that first made it appealing. Early on, Gabel’s voice had a rolling-growl quality, as if the lyrics passed over a gravel road of emotions at the back of his throat. He maintained that rasp in live shows, but it began to be smoothed away after the band joined a major label.
Playlist: Against Me!'s Best Songs
Grace is now 31 years old and making more mature music, but Against Me!’s audience hasn’t dramatically broadened out to a wider demographic. Like many a band before—whether punk or pop—they play to an audience that is five to ten years younger, if not more. The crowd in Charlotte was mostly 20-somethings, but Against Me!’s prime audience may still be adolescents. Fan favorite “Sink, Florida, Sink” ends with a call-and-response: Grace singing, “They make all the right reasons to fuck it up,” the crowd answering with juvenile elation, “You’re going to fuck it up.”
For a while, Against Me!’s diehard fans could be found at the annual Warped Tour, a summer rite of passage for high-school scenesters. The early years of punk showcased women like Patti Smith and Debbie Harry and even transgender stars like the former Warhol acolyte Wayne County, who became Jayne. But this particular subcultural offshoot was, by the 1990s and 2000s, intensely guy-dominated—disgruntled dudes playing to crowds of thrashing moshers, all with a self-conscious physicality. When one of Against Me!’s songs appeared on the Warped Tour compilation in 2006, only 2 of the 51 bands featured on the 2-disc set were fronted by a female lead singer. “I felt more and more like I was putting on an act—like I was being shoved into this role of ‘angry white man in a punk band,’” Grace told Rolling Stone.
Looking back, you could see that Gabel had obliquely been addressing gender-identity issues for years. Songs that once struck the ear as typical in the genre of youthful alienation now seem to tell the story of a singer struggling inside an uncomfortable body. Gabel essentially came out in 2007’s “The Ocean,” with the line “If I could have chosen I would have been born a woman/My mother once told me she would have named me Laura,” a reveal that elicited rapturous applause when Grace sang the song this summer.
“When things really begin to change is when the social culture changes,” Vice President Joe Biden said in a May appearance on Meet the Press when he announced he was “comfortable” with same-sex marriage—a move that helped trigger President Barack Obama’s announcement of personal support for gay marriage a month later. “I think Will and Grace probably did more to educate the American public,” Biden said, “than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.”
With the exception of Chaz Bono on last year’s season of Dancing with the Stars, and a few other celebrities—the numbers are just now starting to grow—transgendered individuals haven’t had anywhere near the representation in mainstream pop culture as gays and lesbians. This may be at least a small part of the reason the T has been left behind as LGBT rights have been progressing. Early in Obama’s presidency, when Democrats controlled the House and the Senate, the inclusion of gender identity helped derail passage of the national Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Only 16 states and Washington, D.C., protect citizens from discrimination based on gender identity. Idaho, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas refuse to reissue birth certificates to reflect sex-reassignment surgery.
The term transgendered doesn’t actually indicate what gender one is attracted to. A transgender woman may like men or, as in Grace’s case, she may like women. With its fluidity, its loosening of the polarized concepts by which we define our identity, being transgendered presents a different challenge than being gay does to a recalcitrant culture. But the culture does seem primed, potentially, for change. For many socially conscious millennials, gender and LGBT equality have become a driving cause. Our elders’ opposition to LGBT rights seems antiquated, like the outlandish, premodern concept of separate but equal.
Grace told Rolling Stone that the only time she saw transgendered people on TV growing up was in The Silence of the Lambs and The Crying Game (in her words, the “fucking scary tranny” and the “sad tranny”). Today, thanks to the Internet, medical information and personal accounts about what a transition involves are more available. The community Against Me! has built through social media is another source of support that probably wouldn’t have existed a few years ago. Last March, Grace seemed, understandably, at the start of a learning curve. A couple of months later, granting her first TV interview to MTV, she could discuss legal implications as well as medical details with more fluency. As she explained then, she eventually plans to undergo sex-reassignment surgery. But first, in accordance with the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s standards for care, she must live as a woman for a year prior to surgery. She is still wary of a tracheal shave of her thyroid cartilage, smoothing out the Adam’s apple but carrying the risk of changes to her vocal cords.
“There are going to be a lot of things about me and in my life that don’t line up, and that’s OK,” Grace said during her MTV interview. “Like the fact that I identify as female, that my name is Laura, that I want you to call me she or her, but that I’m fine with my daughter calling me Daddy. That might not line up for some people, but that’s all right.”
For the Charlotte show, Against Me! was the headline act, but less than three weeks after Grace came out, the group started traveling as the opener for The Cult, a band coasting on songs from the 1980s. The Cult-headlined shows tended to pull in an older audience. Given the generation gap, I went to a few of them this summer half-afraid to see someone disgusted or outraged by the gender-bending opener.
At a show in Philadelphia, I stood next to an ’80s rock couple, the man sporting a handlebar mustache and leathery skin, his arms wrapped around the woman, who wore a tight dress and a face that couldn’t be natural. It was clear that they weren’t familiar with Against Me! Still, they began to bop along, smiling. As a rowdy group of Against Me! supporters rushed the stage, the Cult crowd looked on bemused but friendly from the edges. One fan near the center thrust his arms up, hands clasped in a makeshift heart. Another shouted, “I love you Tom!” A third leaned over and offered a low-key rejoinder: “It’s Laura now.”
Every transgender person must navigate tricky waters: legal ramifications, impact on family and work life. Though deeply personal, this is by nature also a partly public process. But rarely have the early stages of the process been this public. Reportedly, Grace’s father has cut lines of communication for now; her wife, Heather, and their toddler daughter toured with the band this summer. Grace has made early stabs at turning her concerts into events that will increase the visibility of trans rights. The new songs that address her identity are some of Against Me!’s best work since their early years.
At several shows this summer, Against Me! broke from their back-catalog set list when they returned to the stage for an encore. In Charlotte, to an at-first-muted crowd, they launched into a cover of a 1984 song by the Replacements about two people named Dick and Jane. That seminal Minneapolis band liked to play with boundaries: Guitarist Bob Stinson was not shy about donning a tutu before drunkenly stumbling onstage. But this was an early Replacements outlier, driven by piano and a lilting croon by singer Paul Westerberg instead of the usual rowdy guitar and drum. “Don’t get him wrong and don’t get him mad/He might be a father, but he sure ain’t a dad/And she don’t need advice that’ll center her/She’s happy with the way she looks/She’s happy with her gender,” Grace sang as Against Me! rolled through a bluesy cover of “Androgynous.” “Same hair, revolution/Same build, evolution/Tomorrow who’s gonna fuss?”
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