Punk’s pioneer

Jo Whitehead is struck by the brutal honesty in Laura Jane Grace’s moving account of being raised as a boy, navigating adulthood as an angry radical and then transitioning while fronting international anarchist punk band, Against Me!

, 11 February 2017

Content note: This review contains references to the title of this book, which begins with the reclamatory use of a transphobic slur.

Despite its unfortunate association with testosterone-fuelled, intoxicated cock-rockers, punk has always had a more radical and subversive side than meets the eye. Many of music’s most potent, political and pioneering performers – Patti Smith, Blondie, Polly Styrene, The Slits, Kim Gordon, Chrissie Hynde and the entire riot grrrl movement – were borne out of punk or, at the very least, inspired by it. It’s fitting, then, that Laura Jane Grace, front-woman and seasoned punk veteran with the punk rock band Against Me! should feel right at home. However, it took a while to get there…

Grace grew up in a military household, moving every few years before settling in Gainesville, Florida. From a very young age, she quickly realised she was slightly different from the other kids. At the age of five, she describes trying on her mother’s nylon stockings in her homemade fort and thinking, “this must be what it feels like to be a woman.” Despite her tender age, Grace was already receiving traditional cultural messages about gender:

No one ever had to tell me that what I was doing in my fort was indecent behaviour. I could just feel that it was wrong, as if I was born with the shame. I had already been caught playing Barbies with a neighbour girl. My father’s reaction was a cold stare of disapproval and a new G.I. Joe. It was put to me bluntly that, ‘little boys don’t play with Barbie dolls, like little girls do,’ and that was that.

The increasing tension between these societal restrictions, coupled with Grace’s growing understanding of her own gender identity, became more difficult to repress as time goes by. Her feelings on this, along with her day-to-day accounts of the increasing success, trials and tribulations of Against Me!, are recorded in the series of diaries that make up the bulk of this memoir, culminating in her decision to publicly announce her gender transition in Rolling Stone, back in 2012.

The anarchist ideology that was to form the basis for Against Me! was cemented for Grace at the age of 15

As a disillusioned teenager, Grace initially sought solace in punk rock. She describes this as:

…a cathartic way to fight back against the town’s bigotry – the asshole jocks at school who beat me up and called me a faggot, a church and God that turned me away and damned my soul, and teachers who wanted to erase my individuality. It was the nihilism and self-destructive nature of punk rock that I first latched on to. Live fast, die young.

The anarchist ideology that was to form the basis for Against Me! was cemented for Grace at the age of 15, when she was subject to excessive police brutality for simply being a punk kid in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Her account of police violence is shocking, not least because she was tried and convicted as an adult for the felony offences of resisting arrest with violence and battery of an officer, despite committing no crime. For Grace, this deep injustice served as a turning point and catalyst. She was understandably “pissed off” and began exploring anarchist philosophies, ‘acting out’ and getting in further trouble with the law.

Around the same time, living as a young man, Grace was developing crushes on women and beginning relationships with them. While these were mostly positive, her ongoing and clandestine struggles with her gender identity were simmering away in the background, but remained a secret from everyone.

So far, so rock ‘n’ roll

Like many rock memoirs, TRANNY: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout documents the ascent of the band from playing vegan cafés to 20 disinterested patrons, to supporting Foo Fighters and releasing numerous albums to critical acclaim. Gruelling tour schedules (the band spent 245 days on tour in 2008 alone), band and label politics and legal wrangling also feature heavily. So far, so rock ‘n’ roll. However, an additional challenge that the band has to grapple with as they evolve is their fan base. From their formation to the present day, Against Me! have experienced recurring difficulties with punk fans who have accused them of selling out for signing with more established record labels or simply for generating attention from major labels. Grace elaborates:

Maximum Rollnroll, the zine I’d read religiously as a teenager and used as a guide to book my first tour, published a column in one issue urging people to sabotage our shows at all costs. And they did. 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 travelling canvas for their graffiti.

As the band developed, they invariably attracted new fans, but the frequency with which angry punks used to pay money to attend Against Me! shows only to stand at the front and stick up their middle fingers at the band astounds me. These people needed to find a hobby.

Continuing in the archetypal rock ‘n’ roll vein, the book also covers the sex, drugs and heavy alcohol consumption typical of so many bands. When discussing touring internationally in 2004, Grace talks about how she was addicted to sex and cocaine and the extent to which this began to impact on her life. At one point, she describes celebrating after a show and drinking all night in a bar. At the time, she presented as the quintessential cock-rock ass-hat:

“I bet her mouth is really warm”, says James; and then he quickly slaps a hand over his mouth. The bartenders fucking hate us. We are anything but discreet as we gawk at their tits and asses. A bunch of dudes being dudes, practically jerking themselves off in public. This is a tough front to wear.

Despite this ostensibly obnoxious and sexist behaviour, the scale of Grace’s self-loathing and self-destructive tendencies make it impossible to feel anything other than empathy towards her, particularly when she later describes her friend, Andrew as “a real ‘man’s man’…Although I knew I could never be like that, it was the disguise I wanted – to be like all the other guys”. This desire to ‘fit in’ and be accepted is universal, as are the personal compromises and battles with integrity we suffer to do so. Grace reflects further:

My earliest memories are of dressing up in my mother’s clothes and I am constantly reduced by the shame I feel in remembering. I think my problems with drug use and alcoholism can be directly attributed to living with the shame I have over these feelings.

This limited, embedded and archaic idea of what constitutes womanhood is deeply worrying when held by professionals with the immense power to authorise an individual’s right to bodily autonomy

By 28-years-old, Grace was married with a child. Leading up to the birth, Grace began experimenting more and more frequently with life as a woman, something that she had resisted doing for many years. The book describes her trying on her wife’s clothing while she is away, staying alone in hotels and dressing up to go down the hall to use the vending machine. Every time was always “just this one last time”. The relief and joy she felt and the strength of her desire to experiment and become, even temporarily, the woman she knew she was, is deeply poignant.

Grace eventually made the difficult decision to tell her wife, band, publicist and record label. She attended multiple evaluations and appointments with a psychotherapist who assessed whether Grace was “serious” about transitioning, which she describes in the book as “belittling” and “a thoroughly demoralising experience, all for something as simple as a signature on a piece of paper from a person declaring that I had the right to change my own body.” Her wife and daughter were both required to attend and observe, “to assure that she [their daughter] was a healthy child, and that she and I had a strong relationship.”

This concerns me. What if Grace and her daughter didn’t have a strong relationship or were assessed as not having one? Would this make Grace any less eligible or entitled to the life and identity she wanted for herself? On another occasion, we see Grace turning up at the psychotherapist’s office, wearing women’s jeans and a women’s shirt, only to be asked, “So, when are you going to start dressing like a woman?” This limited, embedded and archaic idea of what constitutes womanhood is deeply worrying when held by professionals with the immense power to authorise an individual’s right to bodily autonomy:

It was absurd that he thought that just because I wanted to be a woman, that I no longer wanted to wear black clothing and would adopt perfume and frilly dresses.

Grace eventually conceded, attending her next appointment in a dress and heels. The psychotherapist immediately wrote Grace her letter and referred her to an endocrinologist.

Lengthy waiting lists for consultations, misgendering and a lack of understanding about non-binary identities or of not being accepted as “trans enough” are challenges people continue to face in accessing gender identity services

Anecdotes from friends and acquaintances in the UK suggest that this kind of treatment from professionals and continual hoop-jumping is sadly not unique to the US. Lengthy waiting lists for consultations, misgendering and a lack of understanding about non-binary identities or of not being accepted as “trans enough” are challenges people continue to face in accessing gender identity services.

After announcing her wish to live her life as a woman in the aforementioned Rolling Stone article, Grace did not live happily ever after. Who does? She and her wife split up and band mates Jay and Andrew left the band, along with Jordan, the band’s manager. Grace also reveals that she and her father have not spoken since. In her own words, she “hit rock bottom”, stopped taking her hormones and questioned her decision to transition. Eventually, she found a good therapist specialising in gender who encouraged her to go back on hormones. Grace did so and immediately felt a shift in her mood:

My mood picked up, my thought process became more clear, I was able to process emotions more reasonably. It felt right; like I’d gained something that had been missing my whole life.

New people filled the vacancies left in the band and they began to tour. The crowd was different and more diverse than ever before, with a new fanbase consisting of trans and genderqueer fans. They released their sixth studio album Gender Dysphoria Blues to universal acclaim. Things were looking up.

For many people, this is a highly offensive term, used to cause pain and discomfort for trans and non-binary people

But, why TRANNY? For many people, this is a highly offensive term, used to cause pain and discomfort for trans and non-binary people. Although some people have reclaimed the word (see trans extraordinaire Kate Bornstein), it is generally agreed to be a toxic and hateful slur. Grace responded to this in her appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers:

I hate that word, I definitely don’t identify with that word, I don’t like hearing it used for other people. It’s almost mentally taxing to look at my book in ways, but it captures a lot of what the book is about. And a lot of what the book is about is internalised transphobia and self-hate and that’s an experience that I had and I went through.
There’s a certain amount of reclamation…of saying the thing about yourself that you fear the most, or you hate the most before anyone else can say it.

It should be glaring obvious that this book is far from your average rock biography. What sets it apart from other rock memoirs is the searing and relentlessly brutal honesty that spills from its pages. While it has been written with music journalist Dan Ozzi, it never feels forced or artificial. Grace’s decision to publish these diaries is incredibly admirable and its authenticity is certainly a major factor in its success. The choice to make oneself so vulnerable in this way is testament to Grace’s strength.

You don’t need to be LGBTQ+, or even to have heard any of Against Me!’s songs to enjoy this book. You just need to be human.

Image one is the book cover and is used with kind permission of Hachette Books. It’s white, with ‘TRANNY’ written in large letters across the top and Laura Jane Grace’s mouth, nose and heavily made-up black eyes staring out at the viewer.

Image two is an upper body shot of Laura Jane Grace, wearing a black sleeveless top, revealing her heavily tattooed arms, against a black background. A hidden light shines behind Grace, creating a halo effect around her head and long hair. She stares at the camera with an almost angelic expression on her face. Photo by Ryan Russell, used with kind permission of Hachette Books.

Image three is an action shot of Laura Jane Grace onstage, holding a guitar, her head back and long hair flung back over her face. Photo by Dena Flows, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Jo has recently begun to Tweet and feels a hundred years old doing so. Watch her confuse @ with # here: @MsWhitehead100

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