Against Me!: Grace Under Pressure
Jaan Uhelski | October 04, 2016
It's not every day that one finds a 6-foot-2-inch tattooed woman with messy black eyeliner, who looks like a goth cross between Janis Joplin and Courteney Cox, with a smidgen of Cat Power, combing through the library stacks—unless one is a patron of the Oak Park Public Library.
Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace has been a regular at the high-ceilinged, eco-friendly library since last October, when she moved from St. Augustine, Fla., to this pretty little suburb with tree-lined streets, Victorian architecture and yoga studios, 10 miles west of Chicago.
It’s where Grace is calling from today, and the location is more symbolic than by chance, like so many things in her life—from her tattoos and the Traveling Wilburys signature-model guitar her dad bought her because of her unabashed love for fellow Floridian Tom Petty to the numbers embedded in her songs and the “Gender Is Over” T-shirt she wore at last year’s Reading Festival.
“I’m at the Oak Park library, a block away from Ernest Hemingway’s birth home,” Grace says in a soft voice. (After all, she is at the library.) “I moved here specifically because of that detail. I thought it would be an inspiring setting to live in while I finished writing a book.”
After completing her Emmy-nominated AOL series, True Trans, Grace turned her attention to writing her memoir (with the help of Noisey writer Dan Ozzi), Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout. If that wasn’t enough, then she was simultaneously writing lyrics for Against Me!’s seventh studio album, Shape Shift with Me, switching back and forth between the two projects as if she were programming a feedback loop—using each as fodder for the other, reflecting themes, anecdotes and wounds like a tilted carnival mirror. When the going got too tough with the soul-singeing memoir, she’d take a “break” and write some lyrics. “After writing a book, lyrics were easy,” Grace says with a sound that’s caught between a laugh and a cough.
Was she ever worried that Against Me!’s music would get lost in the shuffle with all the attention focused on her gender reassignment?
“Maybe a little, at first,” Grace says carefully. “But my band has been 100-percent behind me on this. What can I say? I’m a narcissist. But we need love, too.”
And, by all accounts, Against Me!’s current lineup—longtime guitarist James Bowman, bassist Inge Johansson and drummer Atom Willard—give her all the love she needs.
That wasn’t always the case. Shortly after she came out as transgender in a magazine interview, AM’s drummer Jay Weinberg left the band. Then, Andrew Seward, her bassist for more than 10 years, followed, ostensibly to open a Tex-Mex restaurant in Gainesville, Fla. Maybe it wasn’t gender-phobia, but Grace’s admission was like a butterfly effect, sending out ripples whose reverberations are still being felt. But the most positive effect—a wave, more than a ripple, really—was that it unleashed something in Grace that allowed her to be herself for the first time ever.
“I’m not sure I had a choice. I had to confront who I was or kill myself,” she says simply. “But finally admitting it was very liberating and made playing music fun for me again, and it let me really write from the heart for the first time and not give a shit about expectations.”
However, that didn’t mean it was a seamless process. Working on the book—which is based almost wholly on seven boxes of journals Grace has been keeping since she was in the third grade—stirred up a lot of old ghosts for the musician, resulting in the raw emotions that produced songs such as “Haunting, Haunted, Haunts.”
“I definitely feel haunted, re-reading everything and reliving stuff to write the book,” Grace admits. “There was a complete moment of breakdown at the end when I was done writing and realizing all my past mistakes and thinking: ‘OK, how do I live with these things about myself that are there on paper and that are true?’ That was part of wanting to write a book, to try to alleviate carrying some of that weight, not even metaphorically, just physically the weight of journals—having to carry them around to concerts or wherever I go.
“When my publisher is done using them to fact-check the book, I’m going to burn them all,” Grace says resolutely.
But it’s not as easy to burn her past. For the last 19 years, Against Me! has been one of punk rock’s most infamous agitators, occupying that rarified space between art and politics—believing those early revolutionary notions spewed by anarchist punks such as Crass, The Clash and Sex Pistols, as well as the socially conscious Fugazi, that music could change the world—and doing their best to carry that torch a little further down the road.
But, in 2012, the personal became political when Tom Gabel publicly announced in the pages of Rolling Stone that he intended to live as a woman, changing his name to Laura Jane Grace—the name his mother would have given him had he been born a girl—and taking his mother’s maiden name as his surname.
The band released Transgender Dysphoria Blues, one of 2014’s most acclaimed albums, and certainly a spiritual descendant of Lou Reed’s “Candy Says” and “Walk on the Wild Side,” as well as The Replacements’ “Androgynous.” But, for Laura Jane Grace, the walk wasn’t so much wild as it was disconcerting and confusing, if not morbidly depressing.
Grace’s wife, Heather Hannoura, the mother of their daughter, left after telling Cosmopolitan, “I know other couples split up over this, but I never considered leaving.”
“What people don’t know is that after coming out, there’s always a comedown,” Grace says, as if that explains everything. Some landings aren’t as gentle as others, but all are fraught with emotional highs and lows. “It was a roller coaster, really.”
“The statistic is that 41 percent of trans people attempt suicide in their life, and I’m part of that statistic,” Grace said in the final episode of True Trans, later admitting on WTF with Marc Maron last year that she had attempted suicide with a combination of pills and alcohol. (“I had a suicidal nervous breakdown a year after coming out. And I just dissolved as a person.”)
Nobody knows what to expect from transitioning, despite the initial feelings of euphoria and relief at finally making the decision to do so. There isn’t a set of rules about how to live as a transgender person. “Most of the things I learned were from YouTube videos or fans who were transgender and would talk to me after my shows,” Grace says.
While the 10 songs on Transgender Dysphoria Blues documented Grace’s identity crisis and her journey to find herself, it became clear that this was something that wasn’t so much a gender issue as a human issue—every single person struggles to become themselves, whatever that means to each one of us. Grace’s dysphoria, which she has suffered with since she was a child, became a towering metaphor for declaring one’s true self. It’s why the album became Against Me!’s highest-charting record ever, resonating loudly with fans and a bevy of new believers, and fueling discussions from the misogynistic punk world to the mainstream: Laura Jane Grace was having a cultural moment as well as a personal one. That was why broadcaster Larry King wanted to interview her, and why Cosmopolitan asked her to document her first year as a woman for the freewheeling, sex-tastic female-centric magazine. Now, Grace counts Joan Jett as a friend and writing partner, and texts Tegan and Sara regularly. Bernie Sanders even used AM’s “Unconditional Love” at his rallies.