Culture

In Tranny, A Punk Rock Legend Reconciles With Her Past

by Anna Hezel

November 16, 2016
Image courtesy of Getty.

In 2012, Laura Jane Grace told a reporter something that she had been keeping secret her whole life. Two intensely anxious months later, the punk musician and lead singer of Against Me! came out to her fans and to the rest of the world as transgender in an article in Rolling Stone. By then, she had already talked about being transgender with her then-wife, Heather, and members of the band. Heather had greeted the news with immediate understanding and support, and her Against Me! bandmates responded with what Laura calls “the most comically awkward group hug, a horrible mess of pats on the back and overly extended stiff arms.” Her public coming-out culminated this past spring in burning her birth certificate onstage at a show in Durham, North Carolina, to protest the state’s exclusionary transgender bathroom laws.

In her new memoir, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, which was released yesterday, Laura Jane Grace tells us the story of how a wily, anarchist kid from Florida became an activist, a parent, and one of the godmothers of punk. The book, which is co-written with Noisey’s Dan Ozzi, is full of cringingly funny moments, like the band’s awkward group hug, but it is also full of sweet, nostalgic musical moments, like the time Laura played the Replacements’ “Androgynous” onstage with Joan Jett, after which the two women got stoned and talked about gender. Underneath the humor and the musical camaraderie, there’s an enduring undercurrent of shame and the failures of a health system that is unfit to serve transgender people—even when they’re white and even when they have money.

I spoke to Laura on the phone a few days after this year’s presidential election, which coincidentally fell on her 36th birthday. (“Worst fucking birthday ever,” she said right off the bat.) We talked about what it was like to fit her story between the covers of a book and about what the election will mean for her and other transgender people.

About four years ago, you came out to the world and to your fans in a profile in Rolling Stone. What is it like to wait for the book to come out? Is there a similar sense of anxiety?

I go from one extreme of feeling like, ‘Oh my god, what did I just do? I just ruined my life,’ to ‘Oh it won’t be that bad,’ to anywhere in the middle. But a lot of that has to do with feeling that I’m not trying to be boastful with it or prideful with it. A lot of this book is dealing with intense feelings of shame or reconciling with things about myself that I’m not proud of, or mistakes I feel like I’ve made in the past. So it’s weird to approach that in a celebratory or promotional way, you know? It’s an odd sensation.

What was it like to work with Dan Ozzi, and did you know from the start that you wanted to use journal entries from throughout your adulthood?

I really started working on it as I came out. I think a lot of that probably had to do with the thought of taking on transition or like trying to move forward. Maybe the best thing to do would be to reconcile with the past. And also here’s a great thing that I can do that’s a really isolated activity that I don’t have to deal with other people for.

I worked again on my own for about a year, and then during the last year is when I started working with Dan. (In 2015) I started writing a column for Noisey. Dan was my editor there. It was a really good working relationship. So I was just like, at this point, being that I’ve been working on this for three years, and I’ve completely lost sight of what’s what. Because that was my problem. It wasn’t like I was sitting there like, ‘What do I write? What do I write?’ It was like, ‘I have way too much writing, and I don’t know how to cut this down from 2 million words to 80,000 words.’ So bringing in someone else to help shape it and get a book out of all that volume was really helpful.  Once I started working with Dan, it really started to come together quicker, and I couldn’t have gotten more lucky with that situation.

We get to read a lot in the book about fights that you got into, both as a kid and as an adult, on tour with Against Me!. Does this still happen, or is that kind of a phase of your life that’s over?

Knock on wood. Luckily, it’s a phase that’s pretty over. I don’t want any trouble like that anymore. It’s just not worth it.

There’s that moment when you write about a patronizing pharmacist trying to mansplain hormones to you, and it ends with you yelling, ‘Give me the fucking hormones now, you fucking asshole!’ I kind of found myself rooting for a fight a little bit.

Yeah, I think if I had been a little younger, I wouldn’t have had the self-control that I had. And if anything, transition really prepares you in those ways and you really have to work on your sense of self-control, because it’s not like every other time I’ve gone to the pharmacy after that people are really polite or easy to deal with or there’s never a hassle associated with just getting your fucking hormones. There’s always that kind of, ‘Wait, what, I’m giving you this?’ Yes, just give me what the fucking prescription says. That’s it. Just give it to me. You’re not the doctor. You’re just the go-between.

You talk a lot in the book about feeling a sense of responsibility to the fans and not letting them down. Do you feel a similar sense of responsibility to the transgender community now that you’re out? And what has it been like balancing those two factions of people?

You know, that was something initially for sure that I felt extreme responsibility for, and especially with coming out and being embraced.  A year later, (I was) having a nervous breakdown and then feeling confined in the new box that I was in, but having signed a book deal, (I was) like, ‘Oh god, I just had a nervous breakdown, and I don’t know who I am, and I don’t fucking have any self-confidence anymore. Now there are all these expectations on me to be this out-and-proud trans person who has it all figured out and give all the answers in interviews or whatever.’

That was a complicated pressure where I didn’t know what to do, especially going into really public situations. Going in front of cameras and knowing that whatever interview you were going to give would kind of last forever. But at the same time, being forced to survive and being forced to be like, ‘You know what? This is me. Take it or leave it. I’m not going to apologize for anything. I’m not going to try to change myself in some way to appease you—whether that’s my voice or the clothes I’m wearing or whatever.’ I think that really a lot of that kind of taught me bigger lessons when it comes to transition—it was really an important part of that—that transition should be really a lot more about changing on the inside. And while there are physical changes that are sometimes desired by some trans people, that’s not clothes, and that’s not how other people perceive you. It’s got to be about the way you perceive yourself and working on yourself.

I think with memoirs, there’s kind of this assumption that there’s a beginning, middle, and end, and there’s a happy ending or some kind of a story of growth that’s neatly tied up at the end.

Which is another reason again why I had to have somebody else help me. Because I didn’t know how to end it. There was no logical ‘Well, then the band broke up,’ or, ‘Then I died.’ I had signed the book deal, and I just kept on writing. I needed somebody to tell me, ‘Stop writing now. It’s ok, we can just end this. Life can go on.’

Are there immediate ways in which you think the election results will change your life as a transgender person?

Not really immediate. I think that it really kind of just exposes more of what I already knew or what I already assumed—that the majority of white men are not fucking accepting or tolerant people and probably do not recognize my gender. It’s really a pretty bigoted world. When it comes to trans rights, that’s been an issue that’s being fought for and fought around throughout the Obama administration and before that. For the most part, you still have trans people who are facing health care crises and who are denied access to jobs or health care or whatever. That happens. That’s a reality. That exists now under Obama, and that will continue to exist under Trump, I imagine.

That’s not to say there haven’t been progress made and strides. Seeing the attorney general say that they recognize trans people—those are moments that I never thought I would see happen. So I don’t imagine that we’ll see that kind of progress under Trump or at least from the administration, but I really think that the progress that has been made within the trans movement should be attributed to trans people working and organizing, and that needs to continue to happen. If you want to look at any kind of silver lining, hopefully, people will be more agitated and organize harder and fight harder because there’s a lot more at stake under a Trump administration.

 

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In Tranny, A Punk Rock Legend Reconciles With Her Past