At the outset of 2012, the lead singer of Against Me! — the Florida anarcho-punk band that built a following throughout the aughts on raw, anthemic songs that were as emotional as they were political — should theoretically have been on top of the world. White Crosses, the 15-year-old band's new record, was its most commercially successful to date. Instead, a few months later, Laura Jane Grace — up until then known as a man named Tom Gabel — came out as a transwoman, revealing that she'd been struggling privately and painfully with gender dysphoria for more than a decade, and announced plans to begin a physical transition.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues, released in January of this year, grapples directly with the challenges Grace faced prior to and during her transition; unsurprisingly, it's also the most intensely personal record she's ever written. In the year since its release, Grace has become perhaps the most visible transperson in music, a role she's readily embraced. We caught up with her by phone as she was taking a break at the band's studio in Michigan, ahead of her solo show at Slim's this Sunday, Dec. 28.
SF Weekly: How did this tiny solo tour come about?
Laura Jane Grace: I think it's important to start and end the year doing what you really love to do, on a positive note, so I'm ending the year playing a show and starting the year with one. I'm also trying to work out a new approach in these shows — a way to tell a different story with the songs that are already there. It's a work in progress; I'm kind of figuring it out as I go along.
I read that you're working on a memoir. Did the different style of show come out of that?
Yeah, that's hitting the nail on the head. I spent the last year and a half going through old journals and transcribing them. And on average, these days, 100,000 words is a good-size book. When I got everything together, I had a million words. So I have the task of trying to whittle it down. And that's been hard to do in a sitting room environment, because it's the exact opposite situation to being on tour, which is what so much of the story is about: that kind of energy, being on the road and playing every night. So my new approach to the memoir is to figure it out on stage.
Do you think coming out has changed how you present yourself on stage? Are there female performers you've really looked to or admired?
It's all mental. I spent so long feeling like there were these huge mental blocks — because what I've always admired in other performers, male or female, is being totally free and totally yourself up on stage. That translates to an audience, and that's what it should be about. Being an artist up onstage and feeling like you're completely not able to be yourself, it weighs into every aspect of what you're doing — thinking about how I'm gonna say things, what I'm gonna say. I'm not having an existential crisis up there anymore.
It's been more than two years since you began transitioning. Did anyone's reaction particularly surprise you?
I didn't have any expectations going into it, it was kind of a blind leap. But it definitely did surprise me just how incredibly supportive and accepting people have been. For example: Rancid, who were heroes growing up, and they were the last band on my bucket list to tour with. Then we got to do it in 2011, right before I came out. After, I was really worried that it would change that relationship I'd forged with these people I looked up to. Then we played this festival somewhere in Europe, and I saw Lars [Frederiksen], and he takes me aside and lets me know nothing's changed, he's asking me what pronouns to use — just being the most fucking in-tune and accepting person you can imagine. And Matt Freeman was like a father figure, he gave me a big hug, asking, “Do you need anything from us? How are you holding up?” They couldn't have been fucking cooler, and it meant the world to me.
On your web show, “True Trans,” you went around meeting trans people from all different backgrounds. It's really touching, but it also got me thinking about how quickly you seemed comfortable becoming a spokesperson for transpeople.
I think the thing people forget with that, is that was a real situation, and the benefits of doing it were immense to me. Obviously what anyone sees has all been edited down, but that experience of traveling around and connecting to people was immensely helpful to me at that point.
In terms of being a figurehead, I do having the benefit of having played in a band — you have to do press around records, you do interviews. So the reality of going into transition was, I had no real choice of whether or not I wanted to embrace that. It was, I know the way interviews are gonna go, I know people are gonna focus on this whether I want to or not, so what's the best thing that I can do with that platform?
What do you think would have helped you when you were younger?
The biggest life-changer in terms of just having resources would be the internet. I remember going to the public library, trying to find books that were relatable, and not finding a single fucking thing. I think the first time I read about someone “transitioning” was in Sports Illustrated, an article about Renée Richards, the tennis player, and it was like, “She used to be a man!” You know, something very sensational. I was probably 18 before I heard the word “transgender.” And Naples [Florida], where I was living at the time — I mean, I have friends who still live there who are transgender, and they have to leave the state to get the prescription they need for HRT [Hormone Replacement Therapy]. It's 2014. That's fucked.
You're living in Chicago, and your wife is still in Florida. What can you share about your relationship with her and with your daughter?
I've lived in Chicago for over a year, and I'm separated from my wife. Relationships are complicated, but I'd hate for anyone to infer that it's exclusively because of transitioning; that's not fair to anyone. My daughter's amazing, I love her, obviously. She's going to Montessori school, and we're gonna go do Christmas in Florida with grandma and everything.
I know she's young. Do you explain things to her about your transition? Does she care?
You know, as long as you're there and you love them … she's aware of what I'm going through, even if she doesn't understand it. She still calls me Daddy, and that's fine. I am her dad. There are some moments on playgrounds with [kids teasing], but whatever. I think she knows I could still kick anyone's ass if I needed to, so… (laughs).
You self-produced Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Did that come out of how personal those songs were?
If we had the chance to work with [producer Butch Vig and engineer Billy Bush, who worked on White Crosses] again, I would have felt comfortable doing that — they're friends. But that wasn't possible, and I wasn't gonna go into some stranger's studio and work out what I was working out in front of some engineer. There was definitely a cocooning, building up walls. And also [self-producing] was kind of to prove myself in a way.
You mentioned you're working on a live album. Are you writing new material as well?
This past year, book stuff occupied so much of my time that I wasn't taking time for songwriting. But recently, when we got back into the studio, it was just boom — I felt this total creative burst, so I have been writing a lot of songs lately. Moving forward, you're always thinking about your next record — where do you go from here? It's not like I'm gonna put out a record that's “Oh, but this is an even deeper true story [than TDB]”…You're not gonna get any more dramatic than that. So I'm taking the approach of writing some really fun songs, just fun to play and hear at a show. I think it's okay to do that.
If you could go back and give the teenage version of yourself any advice, what would it be?
I would've reassured myself to be a lot more confident about the way I felt. I think it would have served me a lot better if I'd just accepted myself — I would've been a lot nicer of a person for a few years. Regrets are stupid, but if I regretted anything, it'd be that I spent a lot of years traveling through a lot of beautiful places, and I was just miserable the whole time. That's not the case anymore.