Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace began her transition five years ago and hasn’t looked back since
By Ashley Kowalewski-Pizzi
If you grew up on the punk scene of the late ’90s and early aughts, the name Laura Jane Grace should be instantly recognizable. The frontwoman for the Orlando-born punk band Against Me! is still playing sold-out shows two decades later. But now Grace, who began her transition five years ago, is advocating for her community and doing what she can to make a difference.
While her transition has been short-lived in the grand scheme of her 36 years, it was a long time coming. Grace is already making waves as an advocate, and has been telling her story on her own terms, bringing some of the issues she, and so many others, have faced and continue to struggle with. Her 2016 memoir, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout (co-written with Dan Ozzi), chronicled Grace’s pre-transition life, from her upbringing as Thomas James Gabel through her drug-addled tours and her less-than-sober journal entries, from which a lot of the basis of the book is drawn. In her account of her pre-transition life, she admits she was most bold when writing her songs for Against Me!, which she founded in 1997 with her friend Kevin Mahon, who left a few years later. James Bowman joined the band in 2001 and has been a part of Against Me! ever since.
This year Grace was the recipient of the Icon Award at the Alternative Press Music Awards and offered a pretty heartwarming message, stating, “I look at it as a collective effort. When you’re trans and you’re still hidden about that, when you see other trans people, you feel like the universe is putting that for you to help you push on your way.” Grace herself had awarded fellow musician Joan Jett the same award three years ago, citing Jett in her memoir as an inspiration throughout her transitioning process.
In Tranny, Grace recounts one of her earliest memories of her gender dysphoria: at the age of five, watching Madonna perform her smash hit “Material Girl.” Grace recalls, “I reached out my hand and touched her on the screen. That’s me, I thought, clear as day. I wanted to do that. I wanted to be that.” While her love of music was what helped her cope with these feelings of confusion, it’s what also offered her an outlet for expression of her true feelings, as well as concealing the identity she hadn’t full accepted yet. “The look of [Guns N’ Roses], particularly that of wiry lead singer Axl Rose, excited me most because it was androgynous. Hair was big, clothes were tight, lines were blurred. I often couldn’t tell if band members were boys or girls, and I liked that,” she explains. It was at this point in her early teen years that she began growing out he hair “under the guise of rebellion and rock and roll, wanting to emulate the bands whose posters I tacked to my bedroom walls, but secretly I just wanted to look like all the girls my age.”
What makes Grace such a remarkable person is that her life went through more than just a transformation of genders. Reading through her memoir, the pre-transition Tom was not a great human. Battling with gender dysphoria prompted him to turn to aggressive use of drugs and alcohol and, while battling these issues truly channelled the mood of the band into one that would ricochet them into fame on the punk scene—and then back again because of how popular and “mainstream” they became—much of the memoir reads of a rude, unhappy human that you’d likely not want to be around. It wasn’t until Grace was 30 that she realized her youth was starting to fade and that she didn’t want to wait any longer, stating in her journal entry from 2011, “I don’t want to wait until my youth is gone. I don’t want to end up a sad, old tranny.” Still in love with her wife, she was concerned about how this decision was going to affect her marriage. However, it was her friend Brendan that Grace came out to first, after Brendan started picking up the bread crumbs that Grace was sprinkling into her songs.
After coming out to her wife, Heather, and later the rest of the band, Grace worked with the band’s publicist to come out publicly in a May 2012 issue of Rolling Stone—a great article about an early-transitioning Grace and the balance of struggle and liberation to go from Tom Gabel to Laura Jane Grace.
In her Emmy-nominated web series True Trans With Laura Jane Grace, which streamed on AOL in 2014 (you can now view it on rollingstone.com), she covers issues of suicide—Grace was one of the 41 per cent of trans people who attempt suicide in their lifetime. It wasn’t until she was 31 that she came out as a transgender woman and, as she puts it, “nothing has been the same since.”
ASHLEY KOWALEWSKI-PIZZI is a Toronto-based writer and editor who has more pink lipsticks, neon Post-its and daily cups of coffee than the average human. When she’s not testing out beauty products, you can find her hanging around the city with her pup Odie. Follow her on social at @ashkowapizzi.