Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace on getting the 'needle to move' on transgender issues
In November 2018, when she was releasing her latest album, Laura Jane Grace & the Devouring Mothers’ Bought to Rot, singer Grace told people she’d rushed the album to shelves for a lot of reasons. Now she admits one core motivation: fear.
“There [was] the fear I may never sing again,” Grace says, given that the next month, she was scheduled to have FFS — facial feminization surgery — with a trachea shave. “I may die or have a stroke, or I could come out looking so f—ing terrible that it completely makes me into a pariah and ruins my career. So I was f—ing scared,” continues the 38-year-old Against Me! frontwoman and guitarist, who, seven years after coming out, remains one of the highest-profile musicians to publicly identify as transgender.
Given her trepidation about the surgery, Grace wasn’t interested in taking publicity photos for Bought to Rot, or writing a new bio, or any other traditional promotion. “That was out of the question,” she says, “so [I thought], Just f—ing lie.”
One of her other lies — that she was bucking her manager’s advice by embarking on a side-project album — came back to “bite me in the ass,” Grace says. Now she keeps coming back to the “actual” truth, her truth, that the past seven years have basically amounted to educating others on the T in LGBTQ by merely existing, as she simultaneously navigates day-to-day life as a woman in transition.
“There’s the public face that everyone sees, and the private space — what happens in the locker room or what happens backstage,” she says.
And for those private spaces, “I don’t think that has advanced all that much.” As an example: Grace makes it a point to play shows at venues willing to put up signs that their bathrooms are gender-neutral. It’s just one controlled gesture to create safer spaces for transgender and gender-nonbinary people, raise awareness among cisgender attendees, and protest “bathroom ban” legislation. Backstage at a recent gig in North Carolina, she overheard security guards “talking about ‘men in dresses’ and how [the venue] shouldn’t do that with the bathrooms.”
It’s in those situations that “you just realize the detachment,” says Grace, author of a 2016 memoir, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout. “I’m sitting there being like, ‘Sooo… do I go out there and give them a copy of my book? Do I start this conversation, and maybe that’ll make an impact?’ Then there’s the part of me that’s like, ‘I’ve been on tour seven weeks, I’m exhausted, I go on stage in 15 minutes. I don’t have the energy to do that right now.’ It should be enough that I’m getting up on stage and singing about this stuff. In one way, I feel like I failed — that I should’ve done more — but on the other hand, how much can I do?”
For Grace, promoting trans acceptance and representation has often meant repeating her story ad nauseam (“I’ll do interviews, and it’s like [I’m] time-traveling seven years; I have to approach every interview like nobody knows what I’m talking about”) with the hope that sharing her experiences translates into positive personal interactions. She recalls a visit to Jiffy Lube this spring where the service technician kept using misgendered pronouns…as the issue of O magazine in which she’d written an article about using proper gender pronouns sat next to him in the lobby.
What to do with all the venue bouncers, oil-change guys, and other witnesses to shifting gender norms in the world? “I know confrontation rarely works — it’s like yelling at people online. Usually people have to come to these conclusions on their own, through knowing someone personally. It takes more time and a personal touch, a genuine interaction. And it’s hard to have a genuine interaction with strangers.” In the meantime, she says, “you try. You be visible.”
In support of another cause, Grace is plotting a charity single for the Alabama Yellowhammer Fund, which provides financial assistance for women seeking abortions in Alabama. She hits the road with Devouring Mothers this month and has a dozen-plus shows with Against Me! in the fall, each a step toward being — as she observes above — enough. “Every musician out there wants to be judged on the merit of their songwriting, the merit of their performing abilities. I don’t want to be just that transgender performer or that transgender musical artist. I want to create songs and art and have those be judged on their merit alone.”
Below, more questions and answers with Laura Jane Grace on keeping your head when history repeats.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We’re chatting together as part of EW’s annual LGBTQ issue. From an artist standpoint, what’s your opinion on those types of themes for magazines?
LAURA JANE GRACE: I think that my perspective on it changes over time. When I first came out, I felt like I was a deer in headlights; I felt happy to talk to anybody if anybody was taking me seriously or the issue seriously. Over time I’ve become somewhat skeptical because not all representation is created equal or coming from the best place, it sometimes feels like lip-service. I wonder what is actually accomplished about it. But overall I try to remain optimistic. Sometimes there are situations where this issue is being framed by straight people.
Like people are trying to benefit commercially, putting on a face?
Doing it for the clicks, on their site or the social media. But again, I wanna have the best intentions with it and hope for the best. What’s your perspective?
Growing up and reading a lot of music magazines, I would always look forward to, like, Women Who Rock issues, but they were often written by dudes, or sometimes it felt like tokenizing, or it wasn’t written for me. And there’s not a lot of dudes out there seeking out the women-who-rock stuff because that means admitting to their own blind spots. But I think it’s good and OK to make things for and about women, an awkward gesture or necessary evil until there is more true equality.
Totally. Has a women-who-rock thing ever stopped That Dude from coming up to women after the show and be like, “You’re pretty good for girls?”
The guy who’s like “But I love women! I exclusively f— women!” I feel like the conversation about femininity and femme performance has changed a lot over time. How do you feel it’s changed since you’ve come out as trans?
I don’t know. I’m struggling with that sometimes. I agree 100% with what you said — over X amount of years, there is actual conversation, especially about gender falling outside the binary…. I find myself reaching a point of “Okay, can we f—ing move on?” I get that I came out in 2012 and I know what my former name used to be and my story is continually framed in that way. My life has kept moving. I never get to forget who I am, my gender identity. That is a part of my everyday existence [but] it’s not something I spend all my time thinking about in that way. I wrote a f—ing book! It’s all right there!
Do you wish there were more musicians that had your level of visibility so the light could be shared or more normalized?
I do. At the same time, I’m thankful for the representation that’s been already there inadvertently. I attribute that to David Bowie or Madonna that have blurred the gender lines, even in normie ways. Like in the last 100 years, it used to be controversial for dudes to grow their hair long. That’s how long it takes for the needle to move. I get really impatient.
And you bring up the point, though, that people who identify as women and men that dress masculine or feminine is not the same as trans, obviously, which is a big misunderstanding and requires its own education.
Right, and that immediately makes me think of the Met Gala. Like, okay, cool, f—ing Jared Leto wore a dress, but Jared Leto gets to take his costume off when he gets home because that’s all it is to him. But for us it’s who are, it’s not a costume.
How have you thought about what you share in public versus private, particularly on social media? How has that changed over time?
In general, my philosophical approach to social media has changed in a way that is totally unrelated to gender. As an artist, with Twitter, if I think of a clever thought, my initial instinct is to just fire that off and tweet that and move on with the rest of my day and hope it gets some likes and retweet. Then I got to this point where I was like, I’m just giving away work! I should put this down in my notebook and compile it all together and create a body of work instead of giving it away for free on social media.
I think there’s so many benefits and detriments to social media. On the one hand, it affords you the opportunity to reach far and wide and get in touch in different communities, but then there’s the supreme danger of using social media as the only way to build community. Because at any moment that can be ripped away from you, taken away from you or controlled. You get to a point where it was, like, how much of myself am I giving away? There’s gonna be a point where people just use you up and they’ll move on and you’ll have nothing left.
You can’t put toothpaste back in the tube. When’s a time when you felt like you shared too much?
Def after writing a book. Specific ways about telling anecdotes, things you say in social situations and realize that they know the story because you are retelling the story I’d already said it in my book. All of my anecdotes from my life are now things that I won’t talk about because I’ve already talked about it.
What’s your best way to reclaim that? Or confident in feeling like it’s still yours?
Being quiet and listening. I feel self-conscious for even having met so many other band people and artists, I don’t want to be that artist that is only able to talk about themselves and their own band. I don’t want to be that person. I’d rather just be quiet than be that person.
You’ve been open about hormone and surgical treatments since coming out. Have you ever gotten to the point where you wanna tell people, as it applies to your body, “It’s none of your goddamned business?”
There’s a nuance to it that’s hard to explain sometimes. I view anything like that as exactly the same as tattoos or piercings: If you have tattoos, you know that you have these things on your skin that everyone can see and if you have a really nice tattoo that you’re happy with, it makes you happy carrying that through the world because people see it. But at the same time, if you’re standing in line at the grocery store, you don’t want someone grabbing your arm and asking about your f—ing tattoo. You wanna be left alone.
I have tons of tattoos; I really like following people on Instagram who are artists and have tattoos, and interacting in tattoo culture. There’s the same thing within the trans community. There’s so many people who talk about their experiences with hormones or surgeries and I see extreme value to that within your community. It is important to talk about these things so that other people in your community can learn about them and have resources to do what they may or may not wanna do. Because most often times, health care practitioners on that side of the industry are NOT talking about it and not giving you any information. So you’re out there and looking out for each other. That’s legit, that’s why you share.
But then there’s people who fetishize that, or ask about it in the wrong way, or present it in the wrong way. That’s hard to explain, I just know it when I see it.
Where’s a place you’ve felt the safest since coming out?
I feel really safe when I’m on tour with my band, but I know saying that is within the bubble of the band…. Safety is just an illusion. I’d rather it be real. It’s never really safe. [Laughs] Stay calm! You’re never safe!
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