Since Against Me singer Laura Jane Grace publicly came out as transgender in 2012, that event has pretty much been the story of the band. That’s five full years for four musicians — excluding departed bassist Andrew Seward — to have their careers be almost entirely about the fact that Tom Gabel is now Laura Jane Grace.
It’s not entirely the media or the public’s fault; Against Me’s 2014 album Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the band’s first after Grace’s going public, dealt almost entirely with her gender transition. Last year’s Shape Shift With Me touched on the subject — or, at least, Grace’s emotions relating to it — as well. In between, Grace released the book Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, selections from journals that she had written since third grade.
Coming out as transgender will be a life-changing event in the most private of circumstances. Doing it with stage lights shining down on you must be terrifying. Grace plays a big part in the songwriting, so of course she’ll be writing about one of the biggest and most traumatic things that she has ever been through.
But she’s done it now. The world knows her as Laura Jane Grace, and she’s happy. Finally, she can go back to enjoying her band as the members start to think about the next record. And frankly, she can’t believe her luck.
“I’m not writing a book at the moment, so all I have to do is focus on making a record,” Grace says. “I don’t have to focus on a record while also realize that I’m going to be coming out publicly as trans? Oh shit, this one’s going to be easy.
“It’s cool feeling free in that way,” she continues. “I don’t mean that to sound like a cliche, like ‘I’m free to be who I am’ or whatever. But realizing that I can do what I want … is a feeling that I never had for the first half of Against Me’s life.”
Against Me is one year into touring for Shape Shift With Me, and the headline dates in the U.S. are still to come. There are about two months left, and then the job security is over for a while. The band will have to decide what to do next, and in what order. It’s often a time of great anxiety for musicians, but Grace’s personal feelings of ease put it all into perspective. And it’s her art — the music and the book — that helped Grace get to this point.
“I never journaled thinking that I was going to one day do something with it,” she says. “It was always like any other sane person, where you don’t want people fucking reading your journal and you’re hiding it under your mattress. Like seeing a therapist — often times it’s about hearing yourself verbalize something and it not being in your head only anymore. I’m so thankful for having both those creative outlets. Doing something artistic, if you’re going through any kind of struggle, is going to be nothing but beneficial for you.”
Another factor in helping Grace reach her current state of contentment was the almost-coinciding coming out of Mina Caputo, the singer of the Brooklyn hardcore/metal crossover band Life of Agony. Caputo came out as transgender in 2011, and Grace was inspired by an article she’d read about it all.
“I was texting with Mina yesterday,” Grace says. “She gave me her vocal warm-up MP3, which I do daily. So every day, I basically hang out with Mina for 45 minutes. When you’re trans and struggling about whether or not to come out with it, especially if you’re isolated by wherever you live, any other mention of a trans person coming out you see as being placed by the universe for you to discover. Reading about Mina Caputo coming out was the last straw for me. I didn’t know Mina before I read the article on Huffington Post. There was obviously the similarity of ‘this is a musician in a band.’ If they can do it, I got it. I love Mina to death.”
Grace was able to observe Caputo’s fans fully accept her, and that boosted her own confidence at a time when she needed it. Similarly, Caputo, then a solo artist, saw the reaction of Against Me fans to Grace’s coming out, and felt confident enough to rejoin Life of Agony. The two singers helped each other — and both sets of fans played a huge part, too. Grace is keen to point out that, when the world seems to be going to shit all around us, we should remember the progress that’s been made regarding equal rights for transgender people. Still, the shit-show that is life under Trump offers Grace and Against Me fuel for the next record.
“It’s tough, though,” Grace says. “It’s interesting wrestling with, on a personal level, feeling really good in your life — at a place where I’ve worked on a bunch of issues with myself, I really love playing with my band and I love all these aspects of my life — but so many things are fucked up on a world scale. How do you balance that, without losing all of your personal happiness because you’re focusing on all of the negative in the world? What I feel comfortable talking and writing about is what I know personally. People say that all the time: ‘Write what you know.’ It’s searching for the politics in the personal that I find most honest and true to myself.”
On Sept. 13, Against Me plays the Regency. As they were signed to San Francisco label Fat Wreck Chords for a while, the band members are no strangers to the Bay Area, the Gilman Street scene, or the many great punk bands that have emerged from this region. Grace can’t wait to perform here again, though she isn’t quite sure what the set will look like. Soon after, it’ll be time to get cracking with that next album.
“I’ve been writing and have ideas, but it’s time to focus on making the record,” Grace says. “It’s a hard reset, in a way. Even though this last record had nothing to do with my book — topically, it’s not a part of it — but it’s still tied to it because it came out at the same time. It’s part of an era. I did it.
“I took 20 years of journals and put them into a book, then released the book,” she adds. “The book will have been out a year by the time this tour ends. It’s time for another record. Let’s take a step back so we can move forward.”
Against Me, plays with Bleached and The Dirty Nil, Wednesday, Sept.13, 8 p.m., at the Regency Ballroom, 1290 Sutter St. $25; 415-673-5716 or theregencyballroom.com