In a burst of activism that was equal parts sincerity and nihilism — and a moment that obviously can't be repeated — Laura Jane Grace burned her birth certificate on stage in North Carolina last month. It was an act of protest against HB2, that state's anti-trans law mandating people pee in the bathroom that corresponds to their birth gender.
Grace is the openly transgender vocalist and songwriter of Against Me!, and the immolation is the sort of “fuck the system” gesture that fans would expect: incorporating protest into the stage show itself (as opposed to, say, canceling tour dates outright until North Carolina gets its act together, or donating the proceeds to an LGBTQ charity, as other musicians have done).
Fiery punk veteran or not, Grace was calmly articulate as she spoke at Pandora headquarters in Oakland last week, discussing the mass shooting in Florida, her new memoir, and how her songwriting process changed since coming out as transgender in 2012.
Drawing a parallel between gender dysphoria other medical conditions, Grace noted that just because a doctor diagnoses you with something doesn't automatically make you an expert — except that three years into the public phase of her transition and two years after the release of the highly lauded album Transgender Dysphoria Blues, an expert is exactly the role Laura Jane Grace is evolving into.
Asked where do we go from here, post-Pulse, Grace was candid about her horror and disbelief, connecting it to last November's terrorist attacks in Paris — but not because of nightclub shooter Omar Mateen's pledge of allegiance to ISIS. Instead, the connection is that both attacks targeted nightlife spaces.
“As a performer who works in spaces where people are going to dance or listen to music, when you see things like that happening, I have no idea what I would do in that situation, so I have no idea what I would tell anybody else,” she said. “I only can sympathize. I have the same fears — as someone who, in a couple of days, will be standing on a stage feeling responsibility for everyone there … I don't think the answer is to hide, to not be out there, to be invisible, but I have no other solution to the problem other than gun control.”
Grace is not one to be invisible, and she gave her forthcoming memoir an intentionally provocative title: Tranny. (It's a word she hates, as she told Rolling Stone's Jennifer Maerz.) And writing it has been challenging: It required whittling down more than a million words of journal entries — much of it “being really closed while being in a band on a worldwide platform” — into a 75,000-word book.
For Grace, who's been actively touring since her teens, growing fame made things acutely worse.
“My band started at the dawn of the internet,” she said, referring to her strategy as one of “upping the ante for distractions” for years through interviews, making videos, and succumbing to assorted pressures of punk life.
“I got to a point where I didn't know who I was onstage as my band got more and more famous,” she added, paraphrasing the industry figures who controlled Against Me!'s daily lives, to the point of Photoshopping her beard to make it look more “vibrant.”
” 'You're going to be on this magazine cover, the record label has this idea of what a male front-person looks like,'” she said. “I didn't know who my audience was or what I was doing there.”
The penchant for distraction never went away, either. Grace admitted to using songwriting to procrastinate while writing the book. Her process has changed, mostly in that a certain agonized coyness is gone.
“There's definitely songs on the record that are traditional protest songs, traditional Against Me! songs, that used to have to mask something,” she said. “Using writing as an outlet for how I feel without really letting them know how I feel, that's not the case anymore.”
That's not to say that coming out has abolished all confusion, although what remains seems more lighthearted.
“Writing from a place where I don't have to hide, it had this strange freeing sense,” Grace added. “I found that I only wanted to write love songs — which might be a cliche — but for example, I used to love rom-coms and now I can't watch them, because it's like I don't know who I'm supposed to identify with.”
Sometimes, other people don't, either. As a frequent traveler, Grace has been through the discomfort and humiliation that many trans-identified people experience at airport security. While singling out SFO's well-trained agents for praise, she revealed that during a pat-down at O'Hare, a TSA employee once told her, “This is why I hate my fucking job so much.”
Similarly, while at an airport in Detroit, she watched Attorney General Loretta Lynch make remarks about the Obama Administration having trans people's backs, teared up, and ordered wine from a bar. Overhearing several employees make transphobic remarks, Grace confronted them.
“I went over there and said, 'I'm trans and you're wrong about this, this, and this.' Someone asked, 'Is it true that Caitlyn Jenner wants to transition back to being a man?' and I was like, 'Jesus Christ!' It's steps forward and steps backward, you just hope that the steps backward aren't as far.”
Micro-aggressions notwithstanding, Grace has had positive emotional experiences in airports, too. When one thinks of trans women musicians who write protest songs — even though their sound is quite different — the other person who comes to mind is Anohni, who formerly performed as Antony Hegarty with Antony & the Johnsons (among other acts). The two have toured together, and shared a moment in Helsinki on a morning when Grace was feeling particularly lonesome.
“I'm standing at the security line and Anohni comes up, and they're like, 'You're Laura Jane Grace, right? Do you want to get tea after we get through the security line?' And I'm like, 'Yeah.' So we got tea and ate strawberries and talked about future feminism, and it was just such a lift in my spirits and made me feel so good. Forever and nothing but love for Anohni.”