When Laura Jane Grace, the front woman for the beloved punk band Against Me!, talks about the long, agonizing path she had to walk before she came out as transgender and transitioned in 2012, one of her band’s early tours in Europe stands out in her mind.
Against Me! was playing in Milan, and after their show the band went to a roadside food cart. “These three girls come up, and suddenly everyone kind of starts laughing and muttering under their breaths,” said Grace. She realized they were trans women, and, soon, “Everyone who was with me on that tour started making really crappy comments, like Hey, y’all wanna get a prostidude?” Grace joined in the jokes, “because I was trying to fit in. But the whole time I knew that I wished I was as brave as them, that that was me — that I wished I could be living the life that they were living.”
It took a while, but Grace eventually got there. Last week, I interviewed her for a Vulture feature that ran yesterday (which benefited from some amazing photos from New York Magazine photographer Konstantin Sergeyev, who also took the above shot), and I was very curious about two things which didn’t make the published interview, since it was mostly pegged to a recent show Grace did in North Carolina in part to protest that state’s anti-trans “bathroom bill”: how working to resolve her gender dysphoria changed the physical and social aspects of being someone who performs onstage for a living; and whether Grace views gender dysphoria as something that she can permanently “cure,” or which will always affect her in one way or another. (If you’re unfamiliar with the term, gender dysphoria is the sensation of being uncomfortable, sometimes profoundly and viscerally so, with the gender identity you were assigned at birth. People often come to identify as trans as a result of prolonged, severe gender dysphoria.)
Taking the latter question first: “There’s a part of me, when I was younger, that thought it would always be there, but that same part of me never could have imagined that I’d even be having this conversation, or that the world at large would be changing the way it’s changing,” Grace said. “And knowing that the world’s changing the way that it’s changing gives me such great hope.” After transitioning, she said that she doesn’t feel a huge amount of pressure to present herself in a particularly feminine way: for her, the internal feeling is more important than the sense that she is being “read” as a woman, partially because she understands that in day-to-day life she mostly doesn’t pass as one.
Grace doesn’t put much stock in the importance of certain commonly embraced outward expressions of gender, anyway. “I do believe gender is a spectrum,” she said. “And I think that certain things are constructs. Obviously, there is no such thing as ‘male’ clothes or ‘female’ clothes — there’s only cloth. I’ve had people be surprised when I show up and dress how I dress — a lot of the time I just throw on a pair of dirty black jeans with holes in them and put on my punk-rock T-shirts and go about my day. Because the dysphoria isn’t about that — the clothes are an outward expression, but it’s my body, it’s my mind, and that’s what it’s more about.” (Obviously, none of this should be taken as representative of all trans people, since this is an aspect of gender dysphoria that varies greatly from person to person, in much the same way gender-expression preferences vary greatly among cisgender people. Some cis women enjoy wearing heels, while others can’t stand it.)
Addressing her gender dysphoria, Grace said, profoundly changed her style as a performer.
“Before I transitioned I just wouldn’t say anything, because there was so much dysphoria with knowing what the expectations were — knowing what people expected of a male front singer,” she explained. “You know, getting up there and being like, All right, motherfuckers — you ready to go? I want to see a huge [mosh] pit — everybody kick ass! Or some crap like that. That wasn’t me, and the idea of having to fill that role was crushing to me, and it got to the point where being onstage I didn’t know who I was, you know? So to have that gone, and to have that block lifted … You know, when I get onstage now, I’m just me. And I talk when I have something to say, and I’m comfortable, and it’s so much more fun, so much more fun to just not have those inhibitions.”
As difficult as it has been to find the courage to come out, Grace said, growing up and performing from a young age in various punk subcultures helped her deal with some of the difficulties of navigating the world as a transgender person. “I know what it feels like to walk through a shopping mall with a two-foot-high mohawk, and have people stare and laugh and point,” she said. “So there’s not really much difference when you’re trans.”