Against Me! have been mesmerizing audiences (and starting many a good mosh pit) since their inception nearly 20 years ago. And in that time, while the Gainesville, Florida, group steadily rose from bedroom recording act to playing in stadiums opening for the likes of the Foo Fighters, their vocalist, Laura Jane Grace (née Tom Gabel) was in the midst of a very private and painful war with herself – a struggle to reconcile with the gender dysphoria she'd been battling since childhood.
"I would glance out into our audience while we played and my eyes would fix on an attractive woman and keep finding their way back to her throughout the set—not because I wanted to fuck her like rock stars are supposed to do, but because I wished I was as pretty as her, and because of how much I wished her body was my own," Grace explains in Tranny, the potent new memoir she co-wrote with Noisey's Dan Ozzi. In the book, subtitled Confessions of Punk Rock's Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout and out Tuesday, Grace writes viscerally about her experiences grappling with this condition throughout her life, falling in and out of love, parenting, the hard road to rock stardom and how she eventually made the decision to transition.
It was a hard-won victory, and one that took 30 years. Grace came out as transgender four years ago, in Rolling Stone. "The cliché is that you're a woman trapped in a man's body, but it's not that simple," she said then. "It's a feeling of detachment from your body and from yourself. And it's shitty, man. It's really fucking shitty." With humor and wit, Grace writes about how she was able to come out on the other side, stronger and with war paint on. Here are 10 things we took away from this tale of tenacity, tragedy and ultimate triumph.
1. Her earliest memories involve feelings of dysphoria.
Tranny combines anecdotal accounts and excerpts from Grace's journals, which she's kept since the third grade. Many of these journals document life on tour, and were a space where Grace was able to pour out her feelings, desires and daydreams of being a woman – feelings she's had since Day One. "My earliest memories are of dressing up in my mother's clothes, and I am constantly reduced by the shame I feel in remembering," she writes in an entry dated February 18th, 2005. "Five years old in a fort made of sheets, blankets, and chairs, enamored with the feeling of my legs in pantyhose. I was not taught nor did I learn the behavior by example; it came to me naturally. It's part of me."
2. Grace's first musical performances were in front of church congregations in southwest Florida.
As an Army brat, Grace lived in a number of places growing up, including Tennessee, Italy and Ohio, before her family settled in Naples, Florida. Grace's mother enrolled her and her brother Mark in after-school programs while she worked, and it was through a church youth group that Grace got her first taste of the stage. Along with two other kids in the program, Grace formed a band called the Black Shadows, and they covered the likes of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and John Lennon's "Imagine" in front of church congregations at talent shows. Grace writes that "while playing, I felt filled with the Holy Spirit," but ultimately her nascent ability to shred took over. "Finally, after ripping through Nirvana's 'Heart-Shaped Box' as a fully electrified band, the church asked that I no longer participate," she writes. The gig may have been over then, but the moment signaled the beginning of Grace's ability to electrify audiences around the world.
3. She began aligning herself with anarchist punk politics following an arrest as a teenager.
Grace writes that upon moving to Florida, she "didn't fit in with my classmates in my new high school, and none of them befriended me, which was fine because I didn't want to be their friend anyway." Punk rock soon became a refuge against the jocks, God and teachers alike. Her perspective shifted dramatically, however, when she was arrested as a teenage punk, and tried on charges of resisting arrest with violence and battery on an officer.
"Suddenly the dick and fart jokes in the NOFX songs I'd grown to love seemed less appealing," she writes. "My arrest and conviction were a catalyst, politicizing my teenage mind, opening up new worlds of thought, and turning me on to anarchist philosophy. I had seen the way the system worked firsthand, and I knew I wanted nothing to do with it." Soon she began reading fanzines, collecting records and going to shows, absorbing a DIY and anarchist ethos that would guide her musical endeavors for good.
4. Against Me!'s big break came when they turned down an offer to release an EP on Fat Wreck Chords.
Following the self-released cassette and a scrappy debut album on No Idea Records, Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose, heads began turning. One of those to take notice was NOFX frontman "Fat" Mike Burkett, also the owner of notable punk label Fat Wreck Chords. The label got in touch with the band and asked if they'd be interested in recording an EP for the seven-inch club. Against Me! weren't yet well known, but even early on, Grace knew that they to be daring in order to get noticed. "I turned him down and somewhat brazenly asked if they would instead put out our new record," she writes in Tranny. The gutsy move paid off. The label released Against Me! as the Eternal Cowboy in 2003, an event that kicked off what would be years of major-label bidding wars and international acclaim.
5. During their peak of their popularity, Against Me! began unraveling.
In the mid-2000s, Against Me! seemed to rule the world. The band was touring internationally, being wined and dined by the likes of Virgin, Warner, Sony and Universal, and soaking up critical and commercial praise. But the more popular they grew, the more pronounced Grace's dysphoria became. "When the band's success couldn't keep the dysphoria at bay, I relied on cocaine and sex to do the trick," she writes. It all caught up with her at once, though, and she began attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
Grace made major strides in putting her health first. Yet she quickly found that her newfound sobriety made it more difficult to "chase away my dysphoria," as she writes. It also brought along an unexpected rift in the band, fueled by the pressures to produce a hit album for Sire Records, a major label they'd recently signed with. "Oftentimes on tour, the guys would go out and party through the night, and I'd be the lone weirdo who stayed behind at the hotel to write, trying to stay focused, trying to stay sober," she wrote in 2006. "This dynamic put a divide between me and the other members."
6. Butch Vig was a father figure for Grace.
When the band signed with Sire, Against Me! went through a list of producers to possibly work with. They ended up choosing Butch Vig (Nirvana, Foo Fighters and many others), because he was "the only one that didn't make us all cringe," Grace writes. They flew out to Los Angeles and recorded what would become their 2007 album, New Wave at Paramount Studios. That experience kicked off a lifelong friendship with Vig, whom Grace would work with again for her 2008 solo debut Heart Burns and again for Against Me!'s 2010 LP White Crosses. When Grace and her then-wife were later expecting their daughter, Evelyn, she writes about how the producer brought over his daughter's old crib for them to use: "He passed it down to us as it had been passed down to him. He even helped me set it up."
Grace, who had a fraught relationship with her father growing up (she describes him as a "warm man grown cold through military service") poignantly writes of the crib encounter: "I couldn't help but feel that it was a moment that should have been shared between a father and son, and I wondered how many moments like this I'd missed out on in life. I had a better relationship with my producer than I did with my own father."
7. Grace's most serendipitous moment as a songwriter also found her speaking out more explicitly about her dysphoria.
Songwriting is a fickle craft, as Grace notes in the book. "Some songs take time, some songs dissolve into nothing, and very rarely, a song will simply find you in the night," she writes. One night in France, she walked along the shore alone when "a fully formed song – lyrics, melody and all – crashed onto me like one of those incoming waves. It was the kind of moment you live for as a songwriter – true inspiration. A gift."
That gift was "The Ocean," a song that also found Grace writing more directly about her dysphoria. It wasn't the first time she'd done it ("The Disco Before the Breakdown," for example, addresses Grace's relationship with "her," the elusive woman she would become behind closed doors). But this time, she made her feelings more explicit: "If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman. My mother once told me that she would have named me Laura. I would grow up to be strong and beautiful like her. One day I'd find an honest man to make my husband."
8. Bruce Springsteen offered Grace some salient advice about dealing with former fans who demonized the band's success.
Punk's DIY ethos is a large part of why Grace formed Against Me! Yet that support began waning after Against Me! released their second album via the independent No Idea Records. "Punks are particular like that," she writes. "Any hint that you might actually be making a few bucks off your art and they're ready to come after you with pitchforks." It got worse. When they signed with Fat Wreck Chords, the fanzine Maximumrocknroll published a column imploring people to "sabotage" the band's shows. "People tried to take the instruments out of our hands while we were playing, they threw stink bombs at us on stage, they poured bleach all over our merch, our van became a traveling canvas for their graffiti," she recalls.
Years of vitriol came to a head a couple of years later, in 2007, when Grace was in an altercation in a Tallahassee coffeeshop that got her arrested. But she got an unexpected letter from Bruce Springsteen, a fan, who encouraged the band to keep performing and climbing to the top. "If you're not reaching out beyond the audience you have to the greater audience you might have, you'll never find out what your band is truly capable of, what it's worth, and how much meaning you can bring into your fans' lives," Springsteen wrote.
9. Removing a tattoo was the start of Grace accepting that she was going to transition into a woman.
In 2009, Grace's journals began reflecting a tidal shift when she realized she couldn't hide her true self anymore. "It's unrealistic to think that I can go on living this way," she wrote in December. "I now fantasize constantly about coming out and being honest about the way I feel and really am with everyone I know." The moment when Grace began to make that fantasy a reality, though, came unexpectedly: She looked at a wrist tattoo of hers, reading "Ramblin' Boys of Pleasure" (a drunken matching tattoo she had gotten with her friend Brendan Kelly) more closely. "I woke up one morning and made the decision – I wanted it gone, off my body forever," she writes. Whether I realized it not, this was my first step; the start of my acceptance that I was going to transition into a woman."
10. Against Me!'s audience expanded in unprecedented ways after Grace came out.
When Against Me! embarked on the Transgender Dysphoria Blues tour in late 2013, a year after she had come out as transgender, Grace felt a sense of security being back on the road. And the music became, once again, a unifying force for listeners. "One of the first thing I noticed at our shows was that our audience was different," she writes. "Our crowd it was the most diverse it had ever been." This included punks who had been fans from the early days, fans they'd picked up opening for the likes of Mastodon, and "even the angry punks who still popped up every album cycle to call me a sellout gave me a pass this time."
While Grace is unsure what exactly caused that change of heart, the point was that the band was starting anew and people were along for the ride. "In way, [Transgender Dysphoria Blues] was the record I'd been working on my whole life ... there was no filter, and I fired away with everything I'd been holding in for three decades," she writes. Ultimately, she says, "Against Me! Could be anything I wanted it to be now."