If we can judge a band by their famous friends, then Against Me! are clearly doing something right. Butch Vig is a long-time collaborator and supporter. Bruce Springsteen, Joan Jett and Foo Fighters are also champions of these punky, politically charged, emotionally raw rockers. Punk rock, claims the band’s founder, singer and guitarist Laura Jane Grace, taught her to question everything. Including her own gender.
Grace founded Against Me! as a teenager in 1997, initially as a high-school solo project, and expanded it into a full band after moving to Gainesville in northern Florida when she was 18. Back then she was called Thomas James Gabel, an army brat who’d grown up on US military bases all over the world until his parents divorced acrimoniously when he was 11.
Gabel was an angry kid drawn to the politicised rage of punk rock. But privately he also felt a queasy detachment from his male body, idolising Madonna as a role model more than any macho rock stars. As Against Me! began to make waves, he initially kept this gender dysphoria quiet, but began dropping heavy hints in song lyrics, which he sometimes wrote in secret while wearing women’s clothes.
“The things that attracted me to punk rock were the anarchist politics,” explains the 36-year-old Grace, in Canada on the latest stop on Against Me!’s long North American tour. “Anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti‑patriarchy, anti-sexism. Maybe part of that was knowing that, okay, I’m a closeted transsexual. But regardless of whether that was a factor in my life, I hope I would have found those politics anyway.”
Against Me! enjoyed their first surge of commercial success a decade ago with their major-label debut album New Wave in 2007, followed by White Crosses in 2010, the latter hitting No.34 on the Billboard chart. Both were produced by alt.rock legend and Garbage founder Butch Vig. “I consider Butch a dear friend, I respect the hell out of Butch,” Grace says. “I have a closer relationship with my producer than with my dad.”
As Grace recalls in her archly titled 2016 memoir Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, the band were roundly criticised for signing to a major label. In 2007 she was even arrested following an altercation with a scornful ex-fan in a Florida coffee shop.
By this point, Bruce Springsteen, with his son Evan, was a regular at Against Me! shows. Following the coffee shop confrontation, The Boss sent Grace a letter advising her to ignore the haters and keep dreaming big for the sake of the fans.
“It blew my mind,” Grace recalls. “I talked about that in my book, and then his book came out at the same time, where he talks about meeting us and coming to our shows. Holy shit! We’re in Springsteen’s memoir! We’re written into rock’n’roll history!”
In 2010, Grace moved to the small Florida backwater town of Saint Augustine with wife Heather and their newborn daughter Evelyn. On the surface, all was sunny in both her career and private life. But inside, the singer’s long-suppressed gender dysphoria had returned with a vengeance. She self-medicated with drugs and sex, both of which became unhealthy addictions. Something had to give.
Grace finally came out as trans with a series of highly public interviews in 2012. She owed it to herself.
“That was always the funny dichotomy I could never share with anyone,” she says. “People calling you a sell‑out because your band signs to a major label, regardless of the fact that it was the same label the Ramones were on, and The Replacements, Echo And The Bunnymen, all these amazing bands. But at the same time feeling like a sell‑out on your own, not being true to who you are because you’re afraid.”
Interviewing transgender musicians is a delicate business. For example, it’s hard to discuss Against Me!’s past without ‘deadnaming’ Grace by referring to her previous male identity, which is deemed insulting in trans circles. She laughs at my fumbling, bumbling caution.
“I hope people realise that trans people do that too,” she says. “Learning the etiquette is not something instilled in you as soon as you come out as trans. I’m still sometimes fucking up with that shit.”
As one of a rare but growing community of musicians who has experienced band life from both a male and female perspective, Grace has become increasingly attuned to the ingrained misogyny that runs through the rock scene, just as it does everywhere else in society, notably the pressure to “visually prove” herself as a transgender woman.
“For sure I feel pressure,” she says. “The pressure of maybe having to measure up in the same way, like any women would, with unrealistic beauty standards.”
Touring also throws up some specific daily niggles for Grace, including gendered toilets at festivals. “But I’ve been trying to really focus on the positive and see the good in how many awesome female artists there are working now, and how many trans artists too. I just think it’s really important to staging an awesome show. I want diversity – I don’t want to see the same fucking bands on stage every night.”
She also stresses the importance of gender diversity in backstage roles, among tech crew and studio staff. She cites the example of Janet (formerly James) Furman Bowman, a pioneer in recording technology who worked with the Grateful Dead, among others. “I don’t think people realise just how indebted rock music is to transgender people,” she says. “Every single studio has a piece of equipment made by a transgender musician.”
Hard rock legend and queer icon Joan Jett is another famous friend who has supported Grace during her ongoing transition.
“I’m forever thankful for everything Joan has done for me,” Grace says. “We first toured together in 2006 on the Warped tour. I expected a secluded rock star, but she hung and she was really cool. And years later, after I came out, she reached out and said: ‘Hey, if you need a friend, I’m here.’
I love Joan.”
Since coming out, Grace has addressed her trans experiences with refreshing directness, not just in her memoir but also on the Emmy-nominated 2014 internet TV show True Trans, named after an Against Me! song, and on the band’s most recent albums Transgender Dysphoria Blues and Shape Shift With Me.
But Grace doesn’t set herself up as a positive role model for all transgender people: there’s no painted smile, no saccharine showbiz spin. Is she still a teenage punk rocker at heart?
“I like to think I’m a little smarter now,” she says. “I’m a parent, and that really changes things when it’s not just about you. It’s easy to be nihilistic about yourself: ‘I’ll ride the whirlwind down to the apocalypse, let the world burn,’ and everything. But when you have a kid you want them to have a chance, you know?”
Grace admits that outing herself as transgender has had both positive and negative effects. Although technically still married to Heather, their relationship has collapsed in ways she politely declines to discuss. Slumping after the triumphant media blitz of coming out, she also suffered a minor nervous breakdown.
“I’m a real person,” she shrugs. “There are some areas of my life where I’m doing good and others not so good. But everyone’s like that, right? I talk a lot about it in my book, struggling with addictions and substances over the years. All your problems don’t disappear just because you come out as trans. I still have my issues, I’m still a fuck-up in some ways, but I’m a lot better. I’m a work in progress. Ha!”
Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout is out now via Hachette.