Growing up, punk rocker Laura Jane Grace always felt conflicted about gender. She tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that she felt like two "twin souls" were warring inside of her, fighting for control. "I thought that I was quite possibly schizophrenic," she says.
It wasn't until Grace was 19 that she heard the term "transgender" and had a context for what she was feeling. In 2012, at the age of 31, she transitioned from male to female.
Grace, who is the founder of the band Against Me!, writes about the transition and how it affected her wife and daughter, as well as her stage persona, in the new memoir Tranny.
Overall, she says, the transition put her "more in touch" with herself: "It just, like, overall, all-around, made me a more real, more there, present and comfortable-with-myself person. It broke down a wall."
On transitioning to female and wanting to avoid buying into stereotypes of women
You decide you're going to transition and then all of a sudden you're like — and now I'm still a public figure and now I face the fear of, Do I look fat in this dress? I have to do a photo shoot and I'm worried about the way I look, and I feel like all those pressures sometimes, from a transition standpoint, are so unrealistic to navigate in a public eye. It's tough.
On the appeal of punk clothes and style
It was a form of expression, in a way, that I couldn't express myself how I wanted to otherwise. And it also served as a form of armor, because when you're wearing a big leather jacket with spikes on it and you're charging out your hair with Knox gelatin, I mean, you're like, arming yourself. I got beat up a lot, so that was something to kind of hold onto.
At first, especially living where I was living, like, the nihilism of it all attracted me — the idea of live fast, die young — because I didn't think I was going to make it out of South Florida, especially [because] I got arrested and was already a felon by the time I was like 14, 15 years old, so I really thought I was going to get stuck there. So the idea of dying was appealing.
On how the gender dysphoria she felt led to destructive behaviors
Being stuck in that ... binge-and-purge cycle, where engaging in any kind of behavior that gave in to your dysphoria was then immediately met afterwards with intense feelings of shame and self-hate — I was a cutter. I actively sought out self-destructive things like deciding, like, I am going to smoke cigarettes. This tastes terrible, it just made me throw up, but I'm going to keep going until I like these cigarettes. Thinking in my head, How can I get a hold of drugs? How can I find cocaine? ...
And that's like [at] 13 years old, because I didn't know ... I had no resources. I had no one to turn to, to talk about it. I used to go to a church group — the church paid for me to go to therapy. The church kicked me out of church eventually, because they thought I was a lost cause and there were just no words for it. Again, I didn't hear the term "transgender" until I was probably, like, 19 years old. Who wants to grow up to be something that you feel like is going to cost you a normal life?
On her then-3-year-old daughter saying she wanted Grace to "be daddy again"
That overall feeling and that existential crisis crushed me. I want to be her dad, I am her dad, that's my kid, no one else, especially separating from her mother, [I had] the feeling of I'll be damned if someone else is coming in here and all of the sudden going to be "dad" to my kid.
Maybe that's a dumb, aggressive attitude to have about things, but as a parent I refuse to apologize for any way I feel over the protection of my kid. It was something that I wrestled with and eventually came to the conclusion that I am her dad, no matter what. And she says female pronouns, "she" and "her," and she understands that I'm transgender and I am still her dad and she says "dad." People will often, in front of the two of us, refer to me as her mommy, and we've never said that. People have a hard time accepting that sometimes things are different.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When my guest, Laura Jane Grace, started to accept that she was suffering from gender dysphoria and wanted to transition from male to female, in addition to asking how this would affect her wife and their daughter, she had to ask how it would affect her band and her music. Laura Jane Grace is the founder, lead singer and guitarist of the punk band Against Me!, which released its first album, "Reinventing Axl Rose," in 2002 and signed with Sire Records in 2007.
She came out as trans in Rolling Stone in 2012. Her transition is reflected in Against Me!'s last two album titles, "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" and the latest, "Shape Shift With Me." Reviewing "Shape Shift" on the NPR website, Jason Heller wrote, it's raging, tender, organic, erotic and liberating. Let's start with a song from it written by Laura Jane Grace. This is "Delicate, Petite & Other Things I'll Never Be."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
AGAINST ME: (Singing) I want to be more real than all the others. I want to be more real than all the rest. I want to be so real you can see the difference. All of the places that we never went before, all of the times that we never had, they're dead in the past, dead in the past. I want to know how you see you. The world is not enough. I want your brutal truth.
GROSS: Laura Jane Grace, welcome to FRESH AIR. Is there a story behind that song?
LAURA JANE GRACE: You know, that song was the song that came, like, kind of instantaneously. A lot of it has to do with coming from a place of feeling like you are unlovable or being made to feel ashamed of yourself in a physical way. And a little bit of internalized transphobia along with that, too, in relating to the question of passing, specifically with the line, I want to be - this is a line often, like, that's been repeated back to me that people I feel like intentionally somehow subconsciously don't hear right of I want to be more real than all the others. I want to be more real than all the rest. I want to be more - so real you can see the difference. And people always, like, say it back as can't usually. And I feel - I always feel like that's, like, a subconscious thing.
GROSS: So in May of 2016 at a sold-out concert in Durham, N.C., you protested the North Carolina law mandating that you have to use the restroom of the gender you were assigned at birth. So onstage you took out your birth certificate, you set it on fire. And tell us what you said.
GRACE: I said goodbye, gender (laughter).
GRACE: I just waved goodbye.
GROSS: But I think that's interesting. You didn't say goodbye, being a man, hello, being a woman. You didn't say, goodbye, Thomas James Gable, hello, Laura Jane Grace. You said, goodbye, gender. And tell us why you said that.
GRACE: That phrase itself was something that struck me of I guess, you know, getting to a point of - maybe it was, like, two, three years into gender transition and kind of having a nervous breakdown and being just so sick of thinking of gender roles and what it means to inhabit, like, being a man or being a woman. I was just tired of thinking about it. And with all this focus over like, you know, just, like, using a restroom is just so ridiculous and so dehumanizing when you just want to, like - I don't know. It's something that, like, since I was a kid I feel like restrooms were always unsafe places, you know? And the focus of that around somebody's gender, I think, is just cruel.
GROSS: Were they particularly unsafe for you as a kid?
GRACE: Yeah. It always felt like a safe space - or an unsafe space where, you know, if you were - not to be crass, but if you were going number two, you were guaranteed to get, like, picked on by other kids in the restroom if it was in between classes, you know? Or that was a place where - in high school where fights would happen or you - where you were just a target. And, you know, it's something where as an anarchist I always think to myself how, like, public restrooms are, like, demonstrative of why true anarchism as a philosophy won't work, because it's a place where people are, like, fully unsupervised but, like, act like complete animals.
Where - you know, not lifting the toilet seat or just, like, overflowing the baskets and just trashing the place. You're really operating on an honor system, you know, of, like, just respect this shared space. So the fact of - like, to distill this down to an argument over, like, gender when, you know - I mean, I literally have been to every single Flying J truck stop in all of America. And every single one of them has a racist epitaph, like, scrawled into the bathroom wall.
And, like, the question of, like, safety being focused on trans people is just infuriating to me. And I know, like, going there and burning a birth certificate is really just a symbolic move. It doesn't mean anything. I mean, I haven't used a birth certificate in I don't even - like, 20 years. You know, it's just absurd.
GROSS: So what does gender mean to you now? Do you see it as fluid, as ambiguous?
GRACE: I - as someone who's, like - kind of feels like they're - they've been kind of mid-transition for a while, there has to be a level of fluidity to it, especially when traveling on an international level and interacting with the people and situations that I do, you know? And, like, I feel like someone who's, you know, not under any illusion of whether or not I'm passing. I just am the way I am. And if people have a problem with that then so be it, you know?
GROSS: I'm glad you brought up the notion of passing. Like, do you want to pass as a woman or do you want to be seen as trans?
GRACE: It's such a complicated question, you know? And, like, the one angle of, like, what does it mean to pass, well, of course that's ridiculous. And who are you passing for? You know, that's, like, a ridiculous thought. The reality of it being, though, is that, like, the reason most trans people want to pass is so that they don't face threats of physical violence or discrimination. You know, then that oftentimes is the motivator for me of thinking, like, maybe I should get facial feminization surgery or get a tracheal shave so my voice goes up a register or something, you know?
That - but there's - you know, a good friend of mine, Bailey Jay, has a quote of plastic surgery won't fix a broken soul. So I feel like it's really like you're just, like, walking these tightropes of, like, you know, trying to, like, stay sane and trying to keep it together. That's - it can sometimes be a scary place.
GROSS: You know, in the process of transitioning to female, whatever we mean when we say that, (laughter) are there, like, gender stereotypes of women that you want to avoid?
GRACE: Well, I mean, that plays into the question of, like, what does it mean to be a woman?
GROSS: Exactly. Yeah.
GRACE: You know, like - and so, like, how much of that is socialization and how much of that is, like, society? And, you know, like, I definitely, like, realize similar pressures of, like, you know, OK, you decide you're going to transition. And then all the sudden you're, like, and now I'm still a public figure. And I'm like - and now I face the fear of, like, do I look fat in this dress?
GRACE: Like, you know, like, I have to do a photo shoot and I'm worried about the way I look. And, like, you know, I feel like just, like, all those pressures sometimes from a transition, like, standpoint are so unrealistic to navigate in, like, a public eye. It's tough, you know? But, like, the reality of my upbringing and my socialization and the experiences I've had are what who - what has made me who I am, you know? And that's my experience. And so, like, I don't see that making me any less of a woman or any less of a person. It's just different.
You know, like, I used to work as an auto mechanic. I've toured in a punk band for 20 years. The reason I dress the way I dress is because black jeans don't stain and you can wear them for days on end without having to do laundry. Like, that's - you know, I mean, that's just the reality.
GROSS: Well, I think one of the great things about punk rock is in addition to, like, redefining the music and redefining the level of musicianship you need to play it at some level, it also redefined, like, what beauty is or what you want to look like, what it means...
GROSS: And so have - do you feel like you've - you're keeping to that standard in the sense that, like, beauty can be redefined? It doesn't have to be the standard of what we think of as pretty, you know?
GRACE: For sure, 100 percent. And that was, you know, one of the very appealing things to me about the punk rock world when I was, like, 15, 16, especially stumbling onto, like, anarchist punk rock and activist punk rock. And, you know, a scene that was really strongly feminist and anti-racist and anti-homophobia, anti-transphobia, all about body liberation, all about, like, you know, just being yourself. And that's - you know, those are values I still strongly hold onto.
GROSS: So another related question is how transitioning has affected your voice. I mean, you're taking hormones. I would think that hormones would maybe change your voice and particularly as a singer where, you know, your voice is part of, like, you're a singer and guitarist and songwriter. I mean, your voice is like really important.
GROSS: So, you know, first of all, were you concerned about that, that it would change your voice in ways that might be unexpected? And what have the results been vocally?
GRACE: No, I wish it would change my voice. It just doesn't work like that.
GRACE: It works like that if you're taking testosterone. It deepens your voice. But estrogen does not raise your voice.
GRACE: So I wish, sure, you know? But, you know, being that, like, being a singer, my voice just changes and does things that I cannot control. Right now, you know, like I've got a little bit of a of chest thing, a chest infection maybe. And, like, so being on tour, you know, we did I think it was like nine shows in a row. So my voice is going to do what it's going to do. I just can't control it, you know?
GROSS: And what about how transitioning has affected your stage persona and what you wear onstage?
GRACE: Well, I guess, you know, like, you know, talking about all these things, talking about what I wear on stage, talking about like voice, talking about like writing and everything like that and how transition affects these things, if anything it's just like overall all around made me like kind of a more real, more there present-and-comfortable-with-myself person where, like, maybe if we were doing this interview like 10 years ago, I probably would be a lot less verbal and really not as talkative or able to answer your questions.
It's just like it's put me in touch with myself. It broke down a wall. And that really, like, I guess after a point was what I realized was the more important part of transition is if you're living a closeted life and you're living a life where you're like feel like you can't be yourself then of course you're not acting like yourself. But once you embrace yourself and you come out and you, like, start living your authentic self and living as yourself, then you can just be who you are. And if that fits someone else's description of what it means to be someone, whatever, it doesn't matter.
And, I mean, it's just, you know, a lot of that unfortunately took going to a really dark place of like having a nervous breakdown or like, you know, having your life changed in drastic ways. But if that's what it takes, that's what it takes.
GROSS: So you have several journal entries in your memoir. And I want to read an excerpt of a couple of them if that's OK with you.
GROSS: In your journal entry from - I forget what the day it is, but it's in the year 2000 after you've tried on a dress and you're still male at this point. So it's after trying on a dress with lace and black pantyhose and a bra.
You write, I tell myself that it's the last time. Deep down inside of me, I know that I am not a mistake. I do not feel sick. I do not feel like a pervert. I am not gay. I am not a fag. I am not a drag queen. I am not a tranny. I am not a transsexual. I am not transgender. I am just her - a daughter, a sister, someone's girlfriend just like all the other pretty college girls on campus. You've said you're not everything in there (laughter), you know. But you said, you know, I'm not a transsexual, so not transgender. Where were you then in your mind compared to where you are now?
GRACE: Pretty obviously living in a state of denial. You know, I was probably 19 years old then. And I think that was probably around - I probably wrote the word transgender because I had only just heard the word transgender. It wasn't until way later I had heard of the concept. You know, I'd heard the slur tranny. I'd heard transsexual. But I didn't quite identify with any of those things in the concept of being trans, you know. I don't know, I'm obviously very in denial in that entry. I didn't want to be any of those things at the time.
GROSS: And in that journal entry you write, would I ever be a pretty girl? Would I ever be happy as an ugly girl? Would anyone ever accept me as a girl? So clearly, I mean, you were thinking about all that then. Do - are you concerned about these things now, like, am I pretty enough?
GRACE: Yeah, those are all concepts of measuring up. Sure. I mean, that's like - I don't know, that's a pretty common experience. I feel like and especially, again, existing in the world of show business or whatever, being in magazines, you know, or getting your picture taken of...
GRACE: ...And knowing like, OK, my contemporaries and my peers, they do the same thing, too. And how do they look when they do it? Oh, they look, like, really pretty. And I kind of look like I just got hit by a bus, you know. But that's...
GROSS: Well, two things. First of all, you don't. But second of all, like, personally, if you want - like, I don't want you to worry about being pretty (laughter). I just - because I don't want to have to worry about being pretty.
GROSS: Do you know what I'm saying? Like, I want to be relieved of that responsibility.
GRACE: But certainly you understand what I'm like - what I'm saying with that.
GROSS: I completely understand.
GRACE: As much as you tell yourself, like, don't feel that way, oftentimes you're in situations...
GROSS: That's absolutely right.
GRACE: ...You end up feeling that way, you know?
GROSS: My guest is Laura Jane Grace, founder of the band Against Me!. She has a new memoir. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Laura Jane Grace, who is the founder of the punk rock band Against Me!, and she has a new memoir called "Tranny" that is about her life and music and about transitioning from male to female and having that realization in the past few years that she is trans. So let's hear how you sounded in 2002 with the release of your first Against Me! album. And I'm going to play "Pints Of Guinness Make You Strong."
GROSS: Before we hear it, how do you feel about that early music? Do you feel like it's still you?
GRACE: Very much so. There are certain songs that, like, I think the songwriting wasn't very good on and we won't play anymore. But I feel very in touch still with that person but in a completely different way. And this song in particular, "Pints Of Guinness," is a song that we still play every night and the meaning of has changed for me, which, I think, is a sign of a good song is if you can reinterpret it over the years. And I wrote this song in reference to my grandmother, Evelyn, who passed away shortly before I wrote the song.
My grandmother, Evelyn, and my grandfather, James, who died in the 1960s. I never met him. And then I named my daughter Evelyn after her. And so the sentiment in the lyrics of, Evelyn, I'm not coming home tonight, in the chorus, singing that nightly on stage when, you know, when your daughter's at home and you're away from her is still completely relevant to me.
GROSS: OK, well, let's hear it. This is "Pints Of Guinness Make You Strong," written by my guest Laura Jane Grace, who's the founder of the band Against Me!. And this is from Against Me!'s first album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PINTS OF GUINNESS MAKE YOU STRONG")
AGAINST ME: (Singing) Evelyn sits by the elevator doors. It's been 37 years since James died on St. Patrick's Day in 1964. She could not hold it against him. There were times when there was nothing she could do but lie in bed all day beside a picture of them together, a picture of better days. And just like James, I'll be drinking Irish tonight. And the memory of his last work week will be gone forever. Evelyn, I'm not coming home tonight. If we're never together...
GROSS: That's the band Against Me! recorded in 2002. My guest, Laura Jane Grace, is the founder of the band. And when she founded the band, she was known as Thomas James Gabel and has since been transitioning to female. I love the musical intro to that song 'cause it sounds like it's going to be, like, a western anthem.
GROSS: You know, like a cowboy anthem or something (laughter).
GRACE: Right, right. For sure. For sure. You're riding a horse, yeah.
GROSS: It seems kind of out of character for the band.
GRACE: (Laughter) There was a weird country-western thing that, like, happened in punk rock around that time. I don't know. Especially in Gainesville, like, you know, it was, like, fashionable to wear, like, country shirts and, like, overalls and, like, trucker hats and to grow mustaches and to drink Pabst Blue Ribbon. That was, like, a thing - sideburns. I luckily could never grow facial hair.
GROSS: (Laughter) So how did you discover punk rock? And you grew up in several places 'cause your father was in the military, then your parents divorced. How old were you when they divorced?
GRACE: I was 12 years old. And before that, we had lived in Naples, Italy. My father was stationed there. And my grandmother, who is mentioned in that song we heard, "Pints Of Guinness," she had moved and retired to Naples, Fla. So my mom and my brother and I moved to Naples, Fla. And I probably started discovering punk rock when I was maybe, like, 13 years old. I had, you know - when I moved back to the States, it was right when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was taking off on MTV.
So they were playing, like, that, Michael Jackson "Black Or White," Red Hot Chili Peppers "Give It Away." And just, like, this whole new world of music opened up to me because prior to that, living in Italy, there was no MTV. There was one American TV channel. So I was just, like, totally engrossed with that. And it really, like, you know, it coincided with puberty, so I had, like, all these hormones rushing through me that were, like, making my gender dysphoria, like, that much worse. And, you know, music was definitely an outlet or a place that I could turn to where those gender lines were blurred.
And in Naples, Fla. in particular, is a place that wasn't - you know, I don't believe it is still - I think it's improved a little, but it wasn't friendly at all to youth at the time. So there was just nothing to do. And it was oppressive, you know? And I definitely didn't fit in at school. I didn't fit in, like, in my church group. And punk rock I, you know, I guess I really, like, I kind of stumbled into it through Green Day, I guess, too. That was my first punk rock show I ever went to.
GROSS: Yeah, and now you're touring with them.
GRACE: Which is pretty cool.
GROSS: Yeah. My guest is Laura Jane Grace. She has a new memoir, her band Against Me!'s latest album is called "Shape Shift With Me." After a break, we'll talk about how she told her band and her daughter that she's trans. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Laura Jane Grace, founder, lead singer, songwriter and guitarist of the band Against Me!. In 2012, she came out as transgender and started transitioning from male to female. She has a new memoir. Against Me!'s latest album is called "Shape Shift With Me." When we left off, we were talking about the changes she was going through when she was around 13 and getting into punk rock.
You said that this was a period when gender dysphoria was being made more apparent to you because of puberty and all the hormones and all of the gender issues and sexual issues that puberty brings to the surface. But, like, again, like, with punk rock, like, men and women, girls and boys kind of dress the same.
GRACE: Right, which was appealing for sure. You know, like, that - and it was a form of expression in a way that I couldn't express myself how I wanted to otherwise. And it also served as, like, a form of armor because when you're wearing, like, a big leather jacket with spikes on it and you're charging out your hair with Knox gelatin, I mean, you're, like, arming yourself. And I got beat up a lot, you know, so that was just, like - that was something to kind of hold on to.
And at first, you know, especially living where I was living, like, the nihilism of it all attracted to me, the idea of, like, live fast, die young because I didn't - you know, I didn't think I was going to make it out of South Florida, especially - I got arrested and was already a felon by the time I was, like, 14, 15 years old. And so I just, like, really thought I was going to get stuck there. So the idea of dying was appealing. But eventually, you know, like, I kind of became politicized and discovered a different side of punk rock. And that's what really kind of kept me engaged in it.
GROSS: What were you arrested for?
GRACE: I was arrested for battery on an officer and resisting arrest with violence, as well as a minor, like, marijuana charge prior to that. It was kind of, like, bad timing on all counts.
GROSS: Did you think of yourself as being guilty?
GRACE: No. I got beat up by police. It was the Fourth of July and I went down to the fireworks celebration, where they did it in Naples. And there was a ton of people. Walked up to a board - on a boardwalk. There was two cops there. They told me to get off the boardwalk. Turned around, walked down to the bottom of it and they came back up to me and then just, like, they were like, get off the boardwalk.
Grabbed me, dragged me over the car, started slamming my head into it, handcuffed me. I mean, I was 14 years old, probably weighed, like, 100 pounds soaking wet. And, you know, hog-tied me, were carrying me around like a suitcase. Threw me in the back of the cop car. Told me they were going to kill me. And, you know, at 14 years old, again, that was, like, a really life-changing experience.
The first time when you're, like, in an adult jail cell and you're like, oh, OK. You know, like, no, my mom can't afford to come and bail me out right now. I've got my - my dad isn't going to pay for a lawyer. My dad isn't - you know, my dad lives miles away. Like, it - you just realized how on your own you were.
GROSS: How'd your mother respond to it?
GRACE: She did get me bailed out. My friend who I actually, like, grew up playing in my first punk bands with, his father was a lawyer. And he was able to get me bailed out. And she took my side. You know, she, like - she hired - she came up with, like, money for a lawyer. And I was, like, featured on the local news for police brutality. And she fought with me, and even though, like, I eventually lost the case or whatever and was found guilty. But she always had my back. You know, she always bailed me out. And she always supported me in what I wanted to do.
GROSS: So there's a lot of anger in your early music. And you actually had a lot of anger during that period and had a lot of anger when you were an adolescent and a teenager. So looking back, do you think some of that anger was based on the gender dysphoria that you were not yet able to articulate?
GRACE: A hundred percent. I mean, there's, like, no other way really to describe it or categorize it. Being stuck in cycles of that kind of binge and purge cycle where, you know, engaging in any kind of, like, behavior that gave into your dysphoria was then immediately met afterwards with, like, intense feelings of shame and self-hate, which then - you know, I was a cutter.
I was - like, actively sought out self-destructive things, like deciding, like, I'm going to smoke cigarettes. This tastes terrible. It just made me throw up. But I'm going to keep going until I like these cigarettes. And then, you know, like how - like, thinking in my head, like, how can I get ahold of drugs? How can I find cocaine? And that's, like, 13 years old, you know, because I didn't know what else was - I didn't know. I didn't know - I had no resources. I had no one to turn to to talk about it.
You know, I used to go to a church group. The church paid for me to go to therapy. Church kicked me out of church eventually because they just thought I was a lost cause. And there was just no words for it. Again, I didn't hear the term transgender until I was probably, like, 19 years old. And I - you know, who wants to grow up to be something that, you know, you feel like is going to cost you a normal life?
GROSS: Who did you think you were? I mean, what did you think the problem you were experiencing was?
GRACE: I thought I was quite possibly schizophrenic. And I thought that - or that I - you know, sometimes I kind of romanticized that as, like, oh, maybe I was, like, born with a twin soul and these two twin souls are, like, warring for control over me constantly. And, you know, the - it just kind of drifted around there. But most of all I just - I thought it would pass. I hoped it would pass, you know? And that I - it wasn't, like, a lifelong thing. So that's, like, the cycle of binge and purge. Like, OK, no more. I'm done. Now I'm a man. Now I'm going to grow up and I'm going to live the rest of my adult life and forget this ever happened.
GROSS: What was the punk scene like then? And could you have talked about this with anybody who you played with, anybody else, you know, in that scene?
GRACE: I certainly didn't feel like I could. In theory, the punk scene was supposed to be very open-minded. And there were many aspects of it that were. And there was definitely, definitely a very strong anti-homophobia vibe. But the trans issue just had never really been tackled, for the most part, because there wasn't really much visibility, especially just where I was living geographically. I remember around the early 2000s, an acquaintance of mine named Sam, who was, like, friends with the - one of the first record labels we were on, Plan-It-X Records, that they transitioned. And I remember seeing them at a show in Pensacola and realizing what was going on.
But it was, like, you know, instantly feeling the detachment of, like, oh, my God, I realize what's going on because I wish this was what was going on with me and I identify with this person, met with the immediate horror of I cannot express any of these feelings. And so just kind of feeling stunned. But that was, like, the first time I saw anyone in the punk scene transitioning. And I know they, you know, ended up moving to San Francisco, hopefully seeking more tolerant environments. But I'm not sure they even found that there.
But it just wasn't something that was tackled. I didn't feel comfortable. The punk scene was often, you know, at times very, like, two-sided in that way, too, where, like, they would say on the surface, like, yes, we're very anti-racism, anti-homophobia, but - and anti-sexist, but at the same time here are some, like, thinly veiled sexist, racist and homophobic jokes. Sort of like that there's still going to be these, like, undercurrents of all these things present in it that you pick up on and realize, like, OK, maybe I should still kind of stay hidden right now.
GROSS: So I think this would be a good time to take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Laura Jane Grace, founder of the band Against Me!, and their latest album is called "Shape Shift With Me." And she also has a new memoir called "Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock's Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout." (Laughter) Funny title. OK, we'll be back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Laura Jane Grace, founder of the punk band Against Me!. And their latest album is called "Shape Shift With Me." And she also has a new memoir called "Tranny," which is a memoir about her whole life but focusing on her transition from male to female and all the reasons behind that. I want to play another record. And the record I thought I'd play was "I Was A Teenage Anarchist." And this is from 2007?
GRACE: That's from 2009.
GROSS: 2009, OK.
GRACE: Yes, from an album called "White Crosses."
GROSS: So this is after the band was signed by a major label.
GRACE: That's our second record for Warner Brothers/Sire Records.
GROSS: So what was going on with the band? And what was going on in your life when you wrote this song which has the line, I was a teenage anarchist but then the scene got too rigid?
GRACE: Well, by that point, we had been excommunicated by the punk scene. We were like, you know, dead to them by the time we had been - by the first record when we signed to a major label. And our first major label record was a record called "New Wave." So we had already gone through it all, you know, like where tires slashed, rocks thrown at us, whatever, stink bombs on stage. And our first record with a major label wasn't a hit.
You know, and it was that classic story I knew going into it of like OK, you know, we got a huge advance from a record label. And if this record doesn't at least go gold, there's - we, you know, they're guaranteed, they have to release the second record. But if it doesn't go gold, they're not going to put any kind of promotion into the second record, and we're just kind of going to be dead in the water.
But I was really facing a lot of pressure in that, you know, my wife was expecting at the time. We were about to have a daughter. I was really in between not knowing where to live or we were. Like, we were kind of stuck between St. Augustine and LA. And the band was like going through a lawsuit. And we were just like, you know, just like fighting to keep it together. There had been like lineup changes. I was under an extreme amount of pressure and kind of losing my mind. And it really like made the dysphoria kind of come back and start manifesting itself again, which just really made it all the worse.
GROSS: And what were you trying to say about the anarchist scene in this song?
GRACE: Well, you know, that was always one of the things that I appreciated most about punk bands that I liked were the punk bands that could be hypercritical of the punk scene and the anarchist punk scene, like, specifically the band Chumbawamba with the song "Give The Anarchist A Cigarette" because that's as close as he's ever going to get get.
Just like - or with the band Crass with lyrics like anarchy's become another word for got 10p to spare, another token tantrum, another cross to bear. I was always really inspired by that. And so it was a critique of the anarchist movement in that way or the anarchist punk scene. And then it was also kind of just a little bit of a play on "I Was A Teenage Werewolf."
GROSS: Right. Right. And at this time were you kind of feeling that your own gender ambiguity would be rejected even by the anarchy scene, by the punk anarchy scene?
GRACE: Well, that - I mean, that was like - that was the thing that I had - that was the conclusion that I had come to long ago that made me choose the path I took when I met my crossroads with the punk scene, where knowing that it was like OK, you know, the outsiders know what my position is as far as like I'm in a band. These are the lyrics I've said. And then here are the record labels I'm associating with. And they're going to criticize me if I make this move.
But the thing they don't know about me is that this is actually who I am and the thing that I do know is that - or I feel that I know - is that if they did know that thing, then they would, like, they would - that I would be damned in their eyes anyways, that I would be judged in their eyes anyways. So if that's the case, [expletive] them, you know? I'm going to - like, I was making choices based on my own thinking to better myself, you know, and to make a living playing music.
I saw those things as really separate, you know. And that was something that I never really jelled with with punk rock, the idea of like I want to be a sloppy musician or a bad player. Like, I always wanted to be a musician. I feel like I just like coincidentally happened to be trans, and then I happened to like, you know, become politically minded, too. Regardless, I wanted to play the guitar and be in bands.
GROSS: Yeah. So I want to quote a couple of other lines from the song and then we'll hear it. Narrow visions of autonomy, you want me to surrender my identity. And then you say, I was a teenage anarchist, the revolution was a lie.
GRACE: Well, I mean, that's exactly what I said wrapped up in a much more poetic way. I have to pat myself on the back.
GROSS: (Laughter) Because you worked on it.
GRACE: Yes because I distilled those emotions. And I lived those emotions. And I scribbled them into a journal over and over and over.
GROSS: OK. So here is my guest, Laura Jane Grace, with a band that she co-founded, Against Me!. And this is the song "I Was A Teenage Anarchist."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WAS A TEENAGE ANARCHIST")
AGAINST ME: (Singing) I was a teenage anarchist looking for revolution. I had the style. I had the ambition. I read all the authors. I knew the right slogans. There was no war but the class war. I was ready to set the world on fire. I was a teenage anarchist looking for a revolution. Do you remember when you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire? Do you remember when you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire? I was a teenage anarchist, but the politics...
GROSS: That was "I Was A Teenage Anarchist" recorded in 2009 by the band Against Me!, which was founded by my guest Laura Jane Grace, who's transitioning to female and was formerly known as Thomas Gabel. So...
GRACE: I've really come around on my dead name. I just want to say that.
GROSS: What do you mean by that?
GRACE: I feel like it's something - well, like, you know, just, like, anyone who's listening to this who is trans will like probably shudder or cringe any time I'm dead named because nobody wants to be dead named in the trans community. That's just like a thing, you know? And I get that 100 percent. But like recently I feel like I've thought a lot about my dead name and, like, making peace about it in a way where it's just like, you know, that's part of, like, furthering yourself in your transition of like it's just a name. Like, having to constantly go through situations where, like, OK, I'm handing my passport over to this person or this officer just pulled me over and they want my license - or like in a doctor's office they're going to, like, disrespect me by addressing me by my dead name which I've asked to not be used with me.
Like, you kind of just have to, like, take away the power from it, and, like, really examine that and be like, you know, just take away all ego from it of, like, what does it mean? It's just a name. Like, anyone else is, like - if someone else has an issue with anything, like, that's their problem, not me. Those are, like, the important lessons of transition in my opinion.
GROSS: I feel like I need to explain why I mentioned your name because you were already a public figure, and you were known by...
GRACE: A hundred percent, no, 100 percent.
GROSS: ...Your performing name own which was your birth name and also that was the name that was affiliated with your band for many years. It's only recently that you've changed your name, so I thought I should - in case anybody hasn't been keeping up with your story (laughter) that I should...
GRACE: Oh, no, and I totally get that, totally get that.
GROSS: ...Reference your earlier name. But I totally get how uncomfortable it could potentially make you feel by referencing your - as you put it - dead name, so yeah. So yeah. Thank you for not minding that I did that. Thank you for understanding.
GRACE: No, totally. I just think it's important to even address that, you know, and to discuss that. And it is literally something I have been thinking a lot about it specifically.
GROSS: The language around trans issues is always a little bit loaded, you know? How do you refer to somebody? Which pronouns to use, how do you refer to their past before transitioning? Which pronouns to use and all of that - you've titled your memoir "Tranny" which is not a word people I think who are trans particularly like (laughter), so...
GRACE: It's a complicated word for sure.
GROSS: Yeah. What are some of the complications around that word? And why did you choose to use that word as the title of your memoir?
GRACE: I guess - talk about the word first, you know? This is most definitely a word that oftentimes is the last word a trans person hears as they're being beaten to death. I - it's most often nowadays I feel like used as a slur, as a word of hate. At the same time, you know, I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine named Kate Bornstein who's an author who is an older generation trans person. And their view on the word as, you know, coming from a place where trans people used to use that word throwing around at each other and that was, you know - honestly, that was my first experience with the word where I had been so prepared to hear the word used at me as a slur.
And I was honestly caught off guard when another trans person said it to me just kind of in a jovial joking around way. They were talking tranny to tranny, they said - that it was like, oh, wow OK. So coming from the standpoint and, like, I don't at all want to disregard a newer generation of trans people who want nothing to do with the word while at the same time, I'm in no position to tell an older generation of trans people that they have no right to use the word that they've been using for however long they've been using it.
Me, personally, is all I can talk about. I don't use the word. I don't like it referred to myself. But at the same time, I'm an artist, and I like words. And as a writer, any word that has that much power, I'm going to be drawn to and want to explore. So much of my book is about self-hatred, internalized transphobia that it's a fitting title. And I think most people who read it do understand why it's titled that.
GROSS: I often wonder about this and I wonder if you do, too. If earlier generations had the language to describe what it means to be trans, do you think there'd be a lot more trans people? Like, if it was safe to be trans and there was a language to say who you were and why you were that way, do you think it would be a much more familiar state of being?
GRACE: A hundred percent just because people would be able to be like, oh, yeah, that's me. That's what I experienced. You know? And that was so much of my issue growing up is there were no resources. And I say this all the time where that is part of the problem is just a lack of education. If you remember what sex ed class was like in high school or middle school and what a joke that was and how - I mean, when I was going to high school and middle school, you couldn't even talk about contraception.
Like, people can't talk about gender in school. You aren't allowed to be educated on gender or what it means to be gender fluid, like the spectrum of gender - that people are just ignorant. And growing up in a pre-internet age, there were no resources. Like, I could go to the library and maybe there'd be, like, one or two brief mentions of something in a book. But other than that, it was just sensationalized, like, transphobic garbage. You know, like, movies or, like, "Silence of the Lambs" or, like, tabloid headlines, you know? That was all you knew about what it was to experience the way you experienced or what you were experiencing. And that's why you developed feelings of shame and feeling like there was something wrong with you.
So if people were able to, like, understand gender and learn about what gender means, then I think that a lot more people would be able to, like, have the words to describe what they experience.
GROSS: My guest is Laura Jane Grace, founder of the band Against Me!. She has a new memoir. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Laura Jane Grace, founder of the punk band Against Me!. They recorded their first album in 2002. She came out as trans in 2012.
So how did your band react when you came out as trans?
GRACE: It was all in all pretty smooth, you know? I definitely, like, surprised everybody, I think, you know, in a way where, like, I didn't plan on saying it when I said it. So it, like, was kind of messy in that it just came out of my mouth and it was, like, here, deal with this information. And we were all just in the studio in a room talking. And I came out with it. But it was pretty, like, business as usual, you know, like, very shortly after that.
The only change really was just, like, pronouns, you know? But I know from talking to, like, James in particular, who I've been best friends with since first day of high school, that, you know, it put a lot of pieces together for him. It made him understand a lot of things, whether that be lyrically or just, like, who I was as a person, the way we interacted.
GROSS: Did the band stay together?
GRACE: It changed. It, you know, coming out kicked off a series of events that, like, the term transition, like, really failed to encompass, you know, where when I came out, I was married, had a daughter, owned a house in St. Augustine, Fla., had two cars, had my own studio and we were working on a record. And I had a band that was four people. And then gradually, over the next, like, year and a half, two years, that all just started changing.
And that wasn't to say anyone was transphobic or unsupportive or anything like that. It just, like, things were different. Things changed. And it, you know, a tree fell through the roof of my studio. That just happened.
GROSS: Oh, you're - really?
GRACE: So it destroyed the studio. That was, like, all these things happening at once where I was like, OK, now, I guess - now we're moving from St. Augustine. And now my life - now I live in Chicago. And now I'm going - you know, now I'm separated. And just, like, band members left and things changed.
GROSS: So you have a daughter from your second marriage. The marriage ended sometime after you came out as trans. And you write in your memoir that your daughter said to you at one point, I want you to be daddy again. So how did you deal with that?
GRACE: You know, that was, like, that crushed me...
GROSS: ...And she was a child. I mean, she was probably, like, 6 or something when that happened?
GRACE: No, no, she was like 3 when that happened.
GROSS: Oh, 3, OK, yeah.
GRACE: Yeah, that, like, that feeling - not her - like, it definitely, like, broke me down then at that moment, you know? But, like, that overall feeling and that existential crisis, like, crushed me where - and, you know, like, the idea of, like, I want to be her dad. I am her dad. You know, like, that's my kid. No one else, especially, like, separating from her mother, like, the feeling of, like, no one - I'll be damned if someone else is coming in here and all of the sudden going to be dad to my kid. You know, like, maybe that's, like, a dumb, aggressive attitude to have about things.
But as a parent, I refuse to apologize for any way I feel over the protection of my kid. But, like, you know, it was something that I wrestled with and eventually just came to the conclusion of, like, I am her dad, you know, like, no matter what. And she says female pronouns she and her, and she understands that I'm transgender. And I am still her dad, and she says Dad.
And it's something that's interesting, like, that I feel like there are certain things when you're trans that you, like, pick up on ticks other people have or, like, assumptions other people make and things that people go to. Or people will often, in front of the two of us, refer to me as her mommy and, like, when we've never said that, you know, like - or anything like that. It's just, like, people have a hard time just accepting the fact that sometimes things are different, you know?
That, yeah, I'm trans, and I'm someone's dad. And I would like you to call me she or her (laughter). And please call me Laura.
GROSS: Right, OK. Laura Jane Grace, thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.
GRACE: Thank you.
GROSS: Laura Jane Grace has a new memoir called "Tranny." Against Me!'s latest album is called "Shape Shift With Me." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.