about a girl:
Talking Transgender Dysphoria Blues with Against Me! front woman Laura Jane Grace, formerly known as Tom Gabel
written byJonathan Valania
When you started writing Transgender Dysphoria Blues, you told the band that you were making a concept album about a transsexual prostitute. Is that what the record turned out to be, or is the record really more autobiographical?
LAURA JEAN GRACE: That was just me just trying to have a front because I was uncomfortable with it obviously being an autobiographical record. And the transsexual part of that is obvious. The prostitute part is coming off the major label experience and kind of feeling like you whore yourself out.
So, let’s talk about gender dysphoria. How old were you when it started?
It’s not like you’re aware of, like, “Oh, I have gender dysphoria.” You’re just compelled to do things that you know that won’t line up with the image of a male kid around you. Whether that’s like, “I want to play with Barbie dolls,” or, like, one of my earliest memories is seeing Madonna on TV in some kind of performance and feeling self-recognition. Like, “That is me. That is what I want to do. I want to be on a stage, entertain people, and that is me.”
So, there’s all these things that kind of happened along the way that were building. A lot of it was like shame-inducing, and it eventually turned into something that you want to hide because it’s not normal. But back then, when I was like seven years old, six years old, eight years old, feeling compelled to dress in women’s clothing, I didn’t know the word “transsexual.” I didn't know the word “transvestite.” I didn’t know any word like that. It was just this thing that I felt like, “This is what I want to do. I’m a girl. I need to express this part of me.”
You’ve been quoted as saying—and I’m paraphrasing—it’s not just that you feel like a woman trapped in a man’s body; it’s more complicated than that. Can you unpack that a bit?
I think it’s important to remember that there are transgender women who are totally fine with their genitalia, and are totally fine with being a woman with a penis, and do not want to have any kind of sexual reassignment surgery. And that doesn’t make them any less a woman. It just means they’re a woman with a penis. And the same for the reverse of that, with people that are male transgender people that don’t have penises and have vaginas, but that doesn’t make them any less male. So, a lot of it is just recognizing that it’s not necessarily about the genitalia; it’s a psychological thing in many ways. This is probably like a cliché … but a soldier goes off to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, steps on a landmine, and it blows his fucking dick off. Right? Does that mean he’s no longer male? Does the lack of genitalia suddenly negate his manhood? No, because it’s in his brain. You know? That’s just something that he was born with that’s there. Same with a woman who’s had a hysterectomy or something like that. It’s not based on external genitalia. That has nothing to do with your gender identity. It’s a psychological thing. You’re born one way or another.
I read somewhere that when you signed to Sire Records, you threw out all of your women’s clothing because you were afraid that if you were found out, it would somehow hurt your career or the band. Is that true?
Of course, yeah. That’s just the fear all along growing up—that if you get caught, it’s going to be bad. That’s why it becomes a shameful thing that you hide, and there’s many moments along the way in life of the things that you’ve been purging because you suppress the feelings for so long that it gets to this breaking point where you indulge in the feeling. And after that happens, you have such strange feelings of guilt and shame that you swear off the behavior, pile everything away into a plastic bag and throw them away in an undisclosed dumpster, and make ridiculous promises to yourself, like, “I’m never going to do this again. I’m a man. This is ridiculous behavior. I’m putting this behind me. I’m moving on.”
How did you summon up the courage to tell your wife?
There’s no real better phrase that I can sum it up [with] other than being at this point and being like, “Fuck it.” You know? Fuck it. This is what’s going to happen, and you just feel like that’s your fate, that is what you were born to be or this is what was meant to happen. I mean, this is you. You’re being true to yourself. There’s really no other way to put it. Because it’s so fucking terrifying, I just kind of flipped into survival mode in a lot of ways, and kinda came out of the other end of all that seven, eight months later like, “Whoa. I cannot believe that all just happened.”
And the outcome is that your wife was incredibly understanding, and that you
guys are still together. And you told your band; they stood by you. And your mother was very supportive. It didn’t go so well with your father, and the last I’d heard was that basically there’s been no real communication between you guys after you initially disclosed to him. Is that correct?
Yeah. I haven’t spoken to him since. It’s interesting, you know? It was like the initial moment when everyone found out, there was a moment of shock, but their first reaction is to be supportive. But then when the initial shock wears off and people have time to really process it is when you find out who your friends are.
How about your daughter? How do you explain this to a three-year-old? Do
you have therapists who are kind of guiding you through to deal with the
transition and how that affects the various relationships in your life? Or are
you just making it up as you go along? Yeah. A lot of it is making it up as you go along, and a lot of it is absolutely terrifying, especially in regards to my daughter. I’m in a weird point in my transition where I think most people see me and they’re not necessarily sure of my gender. Like I can tell they are processing it for a second, and then they’re like, “Oh, male,” or something like that. So, it’s like I go to pick her up at school … and I’m still at this point where, depending on what I wear—and I also have the advantage of looking like I play in a band, so there’s is that certain amount of ambiguity that is afforded—where people don’t necessarily know what’s going on yet.
And I know that’s going to reach a point where that’s not the case, and it’s going to flip. And I get scared. I’m fucking terrified, you know? I don’t want to be an embarrassment to my daughter. I love being my daughter’s dad, and I don’t want that to be taken away from me just because I was born with something in my head that I have to fucking work out. I don’t feel like that is something that I have to sacrifice. And I know there will be points where she is like … I don’t know … I don’t want her friends to make fun of her. I don’t want her to be ashamed of me. A lot of it, for me, gives me this extra sense of drive when it comes to playing music. It’s like, I have to do that. I have to have that. I can’t not have that. Especially to show her that maybe there will be some instances where your friends are going to make fun of me and call me names and stuff like that, but sometimes I get up onstage and people clap. I hold onto that a lot, in a lot of ways. But it’s fucking
terrifying to me.
We went through how most everyone reacted to this. The one constituency we haven’t talked about is your fan base and Against Me!’s audience. Tell me what the reaction has been to your experience so far?
Overwhelmingly positive. Not that I expected it not to be people being supportive, but I’ve definitely been humbled by how supportive people have been, and just how cool people have been. You know, I got a letter not too long ago from a transgender male who had been a fan of the band since 2003 or something like that, before they had transitioned, and they were just like, “I’ve always been a fan of the band, and I’ve always loved Against Me!, but to have this be something that we shared the whole time, and to come out around basically the same time, and for my favorite punk band to be trans-fronted means so much to me.”