In college, a good friend introduced me to Against Me! through their very funny song “Baby, I’m an Anarchist“—he meant it as a poke in the ribs about my liberal, rather unradical politics, but I mostly took it as an introduction to a great new band. So I read with interest the news in Rolling Stone that Against Me! singer Tom Gabel is going to begin the process of transitioning from male to female, and will take the name Laura Jane Grace.
It doesn’t feel quite right for me to say I’m excited about this—Grace’s life is her own, and I don’t want to reduce it to an instrument by which the rock and punk communities can prove themselves enlightened or regressive. But I am glad to see someone whose music has been important to me move closer to her share of happiness. I hope this announcement both is greeted with support and starts new conversations about gender and rock. And I am unambiguously excited by the prospect that Grace’s announcement could bring Against Me!’s music to new fans who might not have seen a home for themselves in punk before.
What initially drew me to Against Me! was the way the band explored both the identities we chose, and the ones we feel are imposed upon us, and not in a cookie-cutter “I hate my Mom and Dad” way. “Baby I’m an Anarchist” was one of the first love songs I heard about why a couple shouldn’t be together, that argued that political differences were enough to convince the main character “No, I won’t take your hand / And marry the State.” That was an exciting proposition, even if, like my friend Spencer Ackerman, I was more sympathetic to the put-upon liberal than the singer. In “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” Grace looked wryly back to a time when “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.” And “Walking Is Still Honest” is one of the clearest explanations I know of what it’s like to feel radically out of place, with its chorus that begs “Can anybody tell me why God won’t speak to me? / Why Jesus never called on me to part the fucking seas? / Why death is easier than living / You can be almost anything / When you’re on your fucking knees.”
If these songs were more general, others took on gender identity in more pointed ways. As others have pointed out, Grace’s announcement might not be a surprise to close listeners to Against Me!’s lyrics. In the 2007 track “The Ocean,” Grace sang “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman / My mother once told me she would have named me Laura / I would grow up to be strong and beautiful like her,” but that’s hardly the only Against Me! song to allude to gender identity and the desire for transformation. In 2009’s “White Crosses,” the song’s protagonist is “Eye-balled with suspicion by a pencil skirt in high heels, you realize that you’re talking to yourself.” “Spanish Moss,” released the same year, promised “You can always change who you are. / You just need to find some place to get away. / You can forget your name. / And there’s no need to apologize. / I caught a glimpse of this life, it could be such a very good life.” I hope Grace finds that the real thing is as good as the glimpse of it:
And maybe Rolling Stone’s handling of the story, which so far seems relatively sensitive in its positive portrayal of Laura Jane Grace and uses the appropriate pronouns to refer to her, is proof that the rock community’s made progress. In 2006, when Rolling Stone published a long look at Lana Wachowski’s decision to identify as female, the magazine portrayed her grappling with her gender identity less as a sensitive process to be treated with respect than as an extension of a sexual relationship between Lana and a dominatrix. Because the Wachowkis don’t speak to the press, Rolling Stone didn’t have the same access to Lana Wachowski as they appear to have had to Grace. But the story was still rooted in basic misunderstanding, obsessively and misguidedly focused on what gossip columnist Liz Smith put it in her discussion of the piece, “the world of transgender sex and kink to the max.” It’s nice to know that Rolling Stone’s become, in the intervening years, a place where Laura Jane Grace would feel comfortable coming out. Hopefully the rock and punk worlds follow suit.