People who experience gender dysphoria, the feeling of being the wrong sex, of having the wrong body, are vulnerable to many dangers from a young age—ostracization, bullying, and assault, but also depression, self-harm, substance abuse, and suicide. The statistics are stark. While the risks to gay and lesbian kids have become widely recognized (if far from fixed), trans issues lag behind.
Laura Jane Grace, 33, has endured many of those trials, but she had one thing most trans people don’t—a punk-rock band, which she founded in Gainesville, Fla., in 1997, called Against Me (the band stylizes its name as Against Me!). Grace came out to the public via a Rolling Stone profile in 2012, and soon began living as a woman. And now she’s made an album no one else could make, released last week with the agenda-setting title Transgender Dysphoria Blues.
No one else could make it because there has never been such a mainstream musical figure to come out as trans. Neither the composer Wendy Carlos (who changed her name from Walter in the late 1960s and later had gender-reassignment surgery) nor the singer Antony (who retains his masculine name and pronoun so far, but identifies as trans) have played to mass teenage audiences nor topped slick magazines’ best-of lists, as Against Me did with its major-label debut New Wave. Carlos helped pioneer electronic music and Antony performs postmodern torch songs; Against Me is part of the sticky, beer-stinking, slam-dancing boy-world of new-millennium punk.
That Vans Warped Tour realm is not where I would have thought to look for this, nor any other kind of vital cultural intervention. I figured most of those neo-punk bands were fairly safe to overlook, the business of those too young to have ridden the hard-fast-loud rollercoaster on any of its previous go-rounds. Dysphoria proves those assumptions wrong.
Against Me’s previous albums showed Grace (then known as Tom Gabel) to be a reflective and inventive songwriter. But her band’s very name indicated how much she was in conflict, divided against herself. It’s clearly freed her creatively to begin to liberate herself from that. The songs on this album transcend Against Me!’s past self-consciousness to get at deep emotional truths, grounded in the particularity of her situation but by no means confined to it.
Take as an example one of the most striking, the single “Fuckmylife666,” with its teen-screen-name title that seems like a joke at first and then less and less funny. Gliding in on a bright rock riff, it starts out like the love song it is: “The ease of your pose, the grace of your silhouette. …” (It could be “the way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea.”) But soon comes a hairpin turn: “I don’t have a heart to match the one pricked into your finger/ All things made to be destroyed/ All moments meant to pass.” Something’s eluding the listener here, and in both that elision and the shift to elevated scriptural language, the writing reminds me of one of the finest current lyricists, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, on records such as The Sunset Tree and We Shall All Be Healed.
Those are autobiographical records as well, about childhood abuse and drug addiction respectively, and like Grace on “Fuckmylife666,” Darnielle withholds selected details (both to broaden the scope and to preserve some mystery and privacy) while also borrowing from grander cultural sources to suggest that the emotional weight is more than personal, but existential, epistemological, mythic. I’m thinking for instance of the point in “This Year” when Darnielle, in the midst of a story about a teenager on a date at the arcade who faces a beating when he gets home, suddenly proclaims, “There will be feasting and dancing in Jerusalem next year.”
“Fuckmylife666” comes unlocked in a later verse when Grace sings, “Never want to say that we grew apart … that the feelings changed,” and then later again, “Silicone chest and collagen lips/ How would you even recognize me?” Grace is married to a cis woman and has a young daughter. The song enunciates all the fears she had that transitioning might destroy her relationship and her family. The heart “pricked into your finger,” she’s explained, is a heart tattoo that her wife has under her wedding ring.
Thankfully, in real life all things were not destroyed: Grace’s wife Heather Hannoura has been wonderfully steadfast and supportive, by all reports. But the song comes from a time when Grace couldn’t be sure of that. And for all its originality— “will you still love me if I’m really a woman?” is a dilemma that likely no previous love song has posed—it resonates with a more universal insecurity: You wouldn’t love me if you could see what I really am.
Such double-hinged significance happens over and over on Dysphoria, in songs of terror and longing, about wanting and not wanting to fit in (“Drinking with the Jocks” and the title track), about losing a friend and also wishing to join them in death (“Dead Friend” and “Two Coffins”), about raging at those who reject or betray you (“Black Me Out”), and much more, in only 10 songs and in under 30 minutes.
Grace’s vocal timbre here is little changed from what it was in the past, while the music returns partway to the raw two-and-three-chord sound of early Against Me records compared to the bigger production and more classic-rock style of more recent ones. This is of necessity, since the band was dropped from its Sire Records contract after 2010’s White Crosses (Dysphoria is released on their own label), but it provides an appropriate intimacy and immediacy.
During the recording, Grace also had to deal with losing all her band mates except lead guitarist Thomas Bowman (including drummer Jay Weinberg, son of the E Street Band’s Max—Bruce Springsteen has endorsed Against Me several times). She’s said that she’s not sure whether her transition had anything to do with that. Before she came out to the band, Grace had told them that her new songs were part of a “concept album” about a transsexual prostitute—and some of that material, a few degrees darker and more violent than the rest, remains on the finished album. It’s another way of sketching a self-portrait at a distance, from more sliding points of view.