“We want a band that plays loud and hard every night. That doesn’t care how many people are counted at the door. That would travel one million miles and ask for nothing more than a plate of food and a place to rest. They’d strike chords that cut like a knife. It would mean so much more than t-shirts or a ticket stub. They’d stop at nothing short of a massacre. Everyone would leave with the memory that there was no place else in the world and this was where they always belonged. We would dance like no one was watching with one fist in the air. Our arena just basements and bookstores across an underground America. With this fire we could light… Just gimme a scene where the music is free. And the beer is not the life of the party. There’s no need to shit talk or impress ‘cause honesty and emotion are not looked down upon. And every promise that’s made and bragged is meant if not kept. We’d do it all because we have to, not because we know why. Beyond a gender, race, and class, we could find what really holds us back. Let’s make everybody sing that they are the beginning and ending of everything. That we all are stronger than everything they taught us that we should fear.”
This is the lyrical manifesto laid out in the title track of Against Me!’s 2002 debut album Reinventing Axl Rose. On my first dozen or so listens the record appeared foreign to me; an untrained voice snarled through a scattered mix of distorted chords and simple lead parts while the backbeat sounded as if it tracked on two upside-down Rubbermaid trashcans. Gang vocals would occasionally come in for the hooks of some songs, other songs had no hook at all; everything about this ‘folk-punk’ confused me. Anything I read about the band listed “Reinventing Axl Rose” as their masterpiece, but I came up listening to Springsteen, Queen, and Axl’s own Guns N’ Roses so my ears were not attuned to the DIY sound , until one day it began to hit me. I sat in my room, placed the CD into my tabletop stereo, and took out the lyrics booklet to try and read along and connect to something that I had been assured was extraordinary over and over again by countless anonymous posts across the emerging blogosphere. That day in my room is the day my eyes and ears were opened to a greater understanding of what ‘art’ could be and led me to this unlikely point in my life where I consider a transgender woman by the name of Laura Jane Grace to be my own personal hero.
How strange it is that we innately mark the passage of time through nearly everything but ourselves. It’s rare that someone sees themselves as a completely different person than they once were. Often we think of ourselves as the same basic model with a few minor tweaks and adjustments, but when you see progression on a day-to-day basis the differences can be difficult to notice, especially when the cold water you splash on your face in front of the bathroom mirror has always felt the same even if that cousin your remember being born has a driver’s license and you haven’t heard from that uncle you used to see every weekend in almost two years. There are constants, and there are interruptions to those constants that cause us to step back and look at the big picture. Some interruptions are just that — interruptions, short-term moments of instability that fade back into place over time. Others are forever — changes. But what if we remembered the constants as vividly as we remember the changes?
My generation has grown up in a time where so much of what we’ve said and done has been recorded on the internet, while at the same time the prevailing attitude and climate surrounding social rights issues has begun to lean sharply towards a future of tolerance. Maybe it’s always been like this and I’m just noticing it now that I’m old enough to understand who drew the lines and where, but the evidence unearthed by dusting down through the recesses of a Generation Y Facebook page can show some sort of progress. While the fact that we can see noticeable social progress is indeed a good thing, the mere fact that progression exists implies a starting point below current day — or in this case, significantly below.
I can certainly fault those of us that came of age during the social media revolution of the mid-2000’s for being ignorant, even if we were all basically kids when it came to the Internet back in 2006 or so. Those of us that were younger and knew no better had no concept of the permanence or ignorance that we spewed forth on comments and messages to friends. There was always a delete button sitting there next to our posts, but few would ever think to use it or go back through old pages and erase long since cached slurs and offensive photos we attached to our names and faces.
The first real concert my parents ever allowed me to attend was a 2008 Foo Fighters arena show down at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia. While I had been most excited to see the headlining set and Serj Tankian’s performance (the lead singer of System of a Down who was touring a solo project), I left the show blown away by the first opener — a four piece folk-punk band from Gainesville, Florida called Against Me!. They had an energy behind them that went beyond anything I’d experienced through the medium of live music.
Within two days of the show I tagged along with my father on a trip to Best Buy like the lame newbie I was to grab their latest album (2007’s New Wave) and their first full-length LP Reinventing Axl Rose. At the time I was just developing my own taste in music, and New Wave was an accessible selection, as it was their first major label release and it had been produced by the legendary Butch Vig. It was the sort of album that I could occasionally get my parents to throw in the car stereo without much of a struggle, which was a big deal to a kid like me that had just begun sitting in the front seat regularly. They might not have been listening closely, but once in awhile I would catch them subconsciously tapping along on the steering wheel. It was technically a “punk” album, but the sounds coming through the speakers were neither invasive nor startling, there was a polished, pop element to the sound which was in stark contrast to the raw energy of the live performance that had captivated me.
The band was blowing up, and singer Laura Jane Grace (several years before coming out as transgender and therefore referred to by her birth name, Tom Gabel while presenting as male) began to appear more and more in publications like Rolling Stone which labeled Against Me! as “the definitive punk band of the Bush-Cheney era” but I still sort of felt out of the loop. As much as I could listen to New Wave and a few of the other earlier albums I had since picked up, I could not for the life of me understand Reinventing Axl Rose — but I had worked my way back through the rest.
New Wave (2007)
The band’s first major label album was the first I ever listened to. Singles like “White People For Peace” and “Thrash Unreal” as well as appearing near the top of publications such as Spin and Rolling Stone’s album of the year lists (number 1 and 9 respectively) notched them opportunities like the opening spot on that Foo Fighters arena tour I discovered them at.
While always a politically charged band at heart, the timing of this record at the end of the second George W. Bush presidency in addition to the neat and tidy production of Butch Vig (known for his work on Nirvana’s Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkin’s Siamese Dream among others) removed a bit of the edge in songwriting that defined Against Me!’s previous albums, but I didn’t know that yet — and maybe it was better that way. Like the title would suggest, this wasn’t a “fuck you” punk record, but one that urged change. This is best exemplified through call to action songs, such as “Stop!” that’s hook of “Stop, take some time to think, figure out what’s important to you, you’ve got to make a serious decision” was used in MTV Rock The Vote commercials during the 2008 election.
Coming from a radio-rock background New Wave may have been the perfect introduction to the band’s studio work. I’d bob my head to the “ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba-da-da-da” backing vocals on “Thrash Unreal” and belt out the chorus of “Up The Cuts” which just repeated the same phrase over and over: “are you restless like me?” At the time I misappropriated those words in a projection of my own teenage angst instead of identifying Laura’s clear political intent, but that doesn’t really matter — I connected with the energy, and I wanted more.
Searching For A Former Clarity (2005)
Anger. Pace. Intensity. These were the words that came to mind when I dug into Searching For A Former Clarity. Unlike New Wave, this record delivered the unmistakable presence that the four-piece act brought to the live stage. You could still make out most of the lyrics just by sitting and listening in real time, but the music itself was different. The musicianship wasn’t necessarily more complex than New Wave, but it was grittier…dirtier…heavier. While tracks such as the washed out depressive saga of “How Low” projected a more folk-country vibe, the majority of the album came off as a frantic race toward some sort of fulfillment that was displayed through impossibly long song titles (“Unprotected Sex With Multiple Partners,” “Even At Our Worst We’re Still Better Than Most”) that begged to be understood and lyrics so devoid of typical structure that were as much rant as song.
The record wasn’t just sonically dirty though, as album opener “Miami” featured backing vocals that exclaimed “FUCKING MIAMI!” throughout the hook, and rest of the album followed a similar array of content. This wasn’t the relatively PG major label release I had played on family car rides. I couldn’t see my mother allowing this to accompany a drive in her beloved early-2000’s Honda minivan, and that made me like it even more.
Thematically, Searching For A Former Clarity traversed the political minefield 2005 presented in songs like “Miami” where “all hope has been abandoned like ballots drifting into the ocean” or the direct shot at Condoleezza Rice mockingly titled “From Her Lips to God’s Ears (The Energizer).” In addition to the political aspect there were introspective moments of a band on the verge. At this point in their career shouts of “sell out” had begun to fly in from the denim and leather-clad peanut gallery. “Even At Our Worst We’re Still Better Than Most” responds to this directly as Laura begs “please, leave me alone, pull over the van, let me out.”
Regardless of the opinion those of so-called fans, there was a tangible fire to the band. Searching For A Former Clarity instilled that same fire in me, and whether it was the energy, the aggressive tone, or something I didn’t truly understand (my money is on the latter) I was all in on Against Me!.
As The Eternal Cowboy (2003)
It was at the moment that the minute and a half long opening track of As The Eternal Cowboy, “T.S.R.” (short for “This Shit Rules) ended that I realized traveling backwards into the Against Me! discography was the absolute best way for a kid like me to ‘crack the code’ if you will. It was as if I was learning a language, and with each step towards Reinventing Axl Rose I became more and more fluent in Laura’s music.
The album clocks in at a brisk 25 minutes that feels shorter and short with every listen, but each time all 11 tracks are there. If certain songs on Searching For A Former Clarity had revved the engine on the pace of New Wave, As The Eternal Cowboy would selectively but effectively slam on the gas pedal as if to dare the audience to keep up — and by now I could. I could identify the paranoia and shame as Laura spat through “You Look Like I Need A Drink” rattling off a lyric like “the moment will come when you finally realize the results of decisions and choices in your life can you hear it all come back after you?” faster than I could possibly read it. I understood her assertions and disdain for the culture of conformity by non-conformity in “Cliché Guevara” — and I loved it.
As The Eternal Cowboy would occasionally ease the breakneck pace to slip into acoustic numbers that stand to impress even the most conservative audience, most notably “Sink, Florida, Sink” that tells the story of a haunting lost love. In place of a hook, the lyrics break for several measures as the band uses their collective voice as an instrument. All that is sung is the word “whoa” but Laura holds hers steady as others layer extended variations like “whoaaa….oh, oh, ho, oh, oh” over as if their “whoa” is playing lead over Laura’s rhythm section all as their acoustics strum. The result is enchantingly beautiful, but as the song reaches it’s climax those guitars silence abruptly as Laura’s voice juts out from the peaceful façade to snarl “you’re gonna fuck it up!” The guitars return, one more round of “whoa’s” plays, before a delicate piano outro takes the lead for the final eight measures. The music stops, and in the few seconds left on the track you can hear Laura whisper: “I thought it was pretty good” in such a playful way that you can feel the love the group has for each other. While it’s not strange for a band to be comprised of close friends, it’s not often that such an emotional connection can be felt through a studio album, and from my first listen that recording has always felt special to me.
Reinventing Axl Rose (2002)
When I had first bought this record I was disappointed. As I had progressed through Against Me!’s work the instrumentation was fast paced, but I could identify the general roots of where it came from. The vocal delivery was more unique, but the recordings captured it clearly enough that I could pin down the gist of what was going on. Neither of these things remained true on Reinventing Axl Rose, I didn’t get it at all. What I found to be equally as confusing was the title of the album. I had grown up listening to my father’s copy of Guns ‘N Roses’ Appetite For Destruction with no real historical context so I couldn’t fathom why of all people Axl Rose needed reinventing. By now I had educated myself and found out that Axl was — in no uncertain terms — a colossal dick. It wasn’t quite the same as discovering Santa Claus isn’t real, but it was kind of a bummer to know that a dude in a position like his could be so ungrateful and uninterested in the scene and the fans that made him what he was. Now that I had studied up and was ready to enroll in advanced folk-punk I saw what Laura and the boys had meant.
The lyrics to the title track, were in the non-stop rant style that I had come to know and love from the band, but the subject was different. It wasn’t an overt political statement, confession, or even a story — it was a manifesto to be recited in “basements and bookstores across an underground America” about what a band could and should be. It wasn’t just about a band or the idea of a band though, much of Laura’s prose was focused on creating a safe and empowering scene of acceptance and tolerance where those that wanted could stand and sing together in harmony “beyond a gender, race, and class.”
Though it’s commonly known as just Reinventing Axl Rose, the cover art of the album lists the title as Against Me! is Reinventing Axl Rose. I believe that the full title is a worthwhile differentiation to make, because it places more of an emphasis on taking on and embracing those ideals, rather than just promising an exercise in the concept.
As this final gate was unlocked to me I discovered what would come to be my musical gospel. Nearly every song spoke to me and taught me either a tangible lesson or showed me how to convey a certain feeling. Though I know them all by heart now, certain lyrics stick out in particular. On “I Still Love You Julie” I saw artistic vulnerability when “[I] sang along to the songs I never had the courage to write.” “Those Anarcho Punks Are Mysterious” opened my eyes to how emotion has been systematically removed from class-based oppression as “we’re all presidents, we’re all congressmen, we’re all cops in waiting” as “it’s only about survival, who has the skill to play the game for all it’s worth and reach an obscure kind of perfection.” Laura even put my sprouting religious doubts into words with three questions that start the chorus of “Walking Is Still Honest”: “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?”
Once I understood, every word of Reinventing Axl Rose stuck with me. I had never felt such a strong emotional connection to a piece of art, and in a way I felt closer to Laura than many of my friends. She was my hero.
It is important to remember that at this point, Laura was still going by her birth name, presenting as male, and had not publicly come out, so while my eyes were being opened to this broadening spectrum of ideals and interests, high school politics remained largely the same.
“What r u up 2 this weekend fagboy?” is just something one of the guys would casually post on another’s wall looking to get a football game together down at the park, and due to the either the fragile developing male ego or just a fear of being left out the replies would be littered with shortened slang terms for nigger and the all-too-often seen misspelling of ‘fagget’ with a few ‘douches’ thrown on for good measure.
Even conversations without the blatant obscenities would often fall into cultural mocking, as we would try to type in an exaggerated “Asian” tone of voice. Offline in the halls of Plymouth Whitemarsh High School it wasn’t uncommon for a friend to get my attention by calling out “oh herro Mishter Woopenfall” and for some reason some of the Asian students themselves would do it too, which was never strange at the time, but it’s sort of shocking now. While we obviously harbored some kind of misinformed and confused homophobia, the Asian voice that permeated our teenage lexicon added an unsavory layer of racism to the mix. Looking back, nearly all of what we said and did in those days was offensive, as we paraded through the hallways always dressed like we had to be prepared for a game of basketball at any minute. It was in that way that we were no different from the privileged white boys that that had gone through high school in head-to-toe Nike and varsity letters before us — the difference of course was that we were documenting it all.
There is no doubt in my mind that this sort of thing had been commonplace among teens, but for us these weren’t destined to become long forgotten moments of ignorance, as the ignorant would no doubt prefer even if those affected would have a hard time letting go. As one of the first generations to grow up on the web, we were unaware of just how publicly permanent our immaturity would become.
By mid-2009 or so the more incriminating posts slowed nearly to a halt, but slurs were still the building blocks of high school bro vernacular. You didn’t get screwed; you got ‘nigged.’ If you tried to back out of something you almost expected someone to call you a faggot-ass pussy, and most of those conversations would eventually turn into shouting matches arguing about who was the bigger faggot (and what that meant in these instances was completely unclear).
To put it this way makes it seem like we were all homophobes, and it’d be hard to make a case against that. Looking back it appears that the desire for social acceptance and the wild hormonal insecurity brought on by puberty led us to cover up those weaknesses by thrusting accusations of socially perceived weakness on others, because somehow it had been engrained in us that homosexuality was a ‘weak’ trait. To us those words meant nothing, so we’d tossed them around like a baseball until it was time to go home. I know it’s ugly to read about, it’s ugly to think about, but it’s true. We didn’t understand and we weren’t learning because we weren’t trying to understand what was different from us, we were too busy trying to fit in.
As this went on, I continued ingesting the Against Me! catalog whenever I could, as Laura had became one of my first true inspirations outside of the realm of sports, which was a turning point for me. In my boyish insecurity I was uneasy with the broadened cultural spectrum with which I was now opening up to. I thought this was what the weird kids did, and I didn’t want to be one of those weird kids. I didn’t want to be a pussy. I didn’t want to be a faggot or whatever the flavor of the day dismissal was. I felt like a conflicted policeman in one of those overly dramatic television scenes when the captain demands their badge and gun — my ‘bros’ at the cool lunch table played the role of the captain, and I desperately wanted to hold on to my Varsity letters and social status. Around the guys I would act the same, but something about me had begun to change and my conscious never let me forget it.
Some time in the later half of my high school tenure my older cousin Stephen came out as gay, at least in spirit. He never quite specified it in words and to this day his parents don’t acknowledge it, but his actions and the company he kept spoke clearly enough to those who were paying attention. He was my father’s sister’s son and in his early 20’s at the time studying to become an ER nurse. I’m not sure why it is, but this changed me more than I thought. Stephen was one of the oldest of several cousins and I only saw him two or three times a year for family events, which meant we didn’t talk much if at all — but I knew him. I knew what a nice and caring guy he was and how easy to talk to he could be if we found ourselves in the same room. I’ve never directly talked about his sexual orientation with him, but I can say that his coming out had a tangible effect on how I saw the gay community. Beforehand I had perhaps a vague understanding of what gay slurs and abuse amounted to, but like so many naïve and immature boys I saw that pain being cast onto what can best be described as a faceless entity. While I knew it was wrong and I should have been doing what I could to stand by those that were being punished for being themselves, it was hard to be motivated and feel true compassion for a faceless entity…I believe that in some way my relation to Stephen fixed this fundamental error in me. He was the first openly gay person that I spent meaningful time with, so now when confronted with homophobia I took notice as it began to hit home now that I knew that someone I loved had to suffer through that kind of discrimination.
By the start of my senior year of high school I had begun to change more as a person. I still played Varsity soccer, but I had quit baseball and focused more on playing drums. I had a full set in the back of our cheesy bright green drywall-finished basement. The drum casing was an off-white pearl color with a bit of speckling for effect and while it was only a beginner Sam Ash in house brand set, I replaced the base hi-hat with a set of Zildjian customs and bought a twenty-six inch vintage Zildjian ride cymbal from Philadelphia-area musician Ben Arnold to get a better sound. My brother Paul had been playing guitar from an early age, so we would jam together relentlessly until the noise curfew our mother had set at nine.
While I was shifting towards music and away from sports, I continued to evolve as an overall person. I was now dating a girl who had been involved with theater since she was young, and would play larger roles in all of the high school shows. Since we came from completely different social worlds we learned a lot from being in each other’s company. Much to my surprise I began to find enjoyment in musical theater and I grew to envy her ability to get up on stage in front of hundreds of people and own the spotlight. She was a little girl with a big heart that had been tough enough to beat leukemia in middle school before I had met her (while simultaneously passing most of 6th and 7th grade from a hospital bed). It felt too good to be true that someone so admirable and talented would want to spend so much time with me, but as I’d tell her that she’d reply that she was equally as surprised that an All-League Varsity athlete that hung out with ‘cool’ people would have any interest in her.
We had quite a few differences that attracted us to each other, but one similarity we landed on immediately was music, specifically Against Me!. When I first introduced her to “Reinventing Axl Rose” she became infatuated with the band, and before long we’d take long aimless drives at two-something a gallon with the windows down and volume turned all the way up screaming out anarchist punk duets into the suburban night.
Being around her and the theater program so much introduced me to the first openly gay peers I knew at my high school. I was experiencing two simultaneous realms of existence, and somehow they did not conflict. The testosterone-fueled jock culture of my locker room contrasted with the self-expression and self-consciousness of her auditorium, and I couldn’t help but feel I didn’t fully belong directly in either; my place seemed to be some kind of happy medium between what I perceived as her world and mine.
As time passed explored more and more Against Me! online and found that there were an astonishing amount of ex-fans that absolutely hated where the band had gone with their sound since Reinventing Axl Rose and they were vocal about it. The two sides of the fence could basically be boiled down to one group of ‘hardcore’ punk guys calling them massive sellouts, and another group that argued that change is a necessary part of a band’s evolution. I didn’t know exactly where I stood, but at that point I knew I preferred the older sound, and that mob mentality overtook me as I wrote off New Wave in favor of past releases.
2010 came and went with the release of their second and final major label album “White Crosses” which was again produced by Vig. Initially I was upset by the brighter sound that they continued to move towards and I drifted away from the Against Me! for awhile. I would throw on an older album on occasion, but I didn’t go back to New Wave or White Crosses for months. I still attended an Against Me! gig at The Trocadero Theater in Philadelphia as part of the White Crosses tour, and while the crowd was into it along with the band there was a divisive moment that still stands out.
They were about three songs into the set list when Laura stepped to the front of the stage and began to play the intro riff to a White Crosses single entitled “I Was A Teenage Anarchist.” From somewhere in the middle part of the theater floor, a “fan” hurled a water bottle at her that thankfully glanced harmless off her shoulder as she continued to play. The song had been met with particular disdain from the vocal group of commenters that saw it as the final betrayal, as the climactic lyric declared, “the revolution was a lie.” I didn’t have the wherewithal to process the situation in the moment, as I’ll listen to any Against Me! song live, but it stuck with me. Here I was in the middle again — I could see why guy threw the bottle, but it didn’t sit right with me to see someone I revered so mightily be disrespected by a supposed fan.
During this time I had gone off to college after graduating in 2010 and tried to make long distance work with my girlfriend — and it did for a while. I went to school in Pittsburgh, PA while she went to study theater back in the northeastern Pennsylvania city of Allentown. We would visit each other and on my trips back east I began to meet friends of hers that became more and more eccentric. The thing that really messed with my head though, was the first time I met a transgender woman. She was in the process of transitioning to life as a female when I met her at my girlfriend’s musical theatre formal and I just didn’t know what to think. I felt like I did around gay people before Stephen came out, there was just nothing in my life that prepared me for that experience and for some reason I couldn’t develop the social skills to handle it properly.
The transgender community was totally new to me, I hadn’t ever thought of them alongside the gay community. Part of this I would attribute to my parents, as they did not appear to be especially tolerant or informed of transgender people (at least at the time). They have semi-progressive religious beliefs in that they’re comfortable with gay and lesbian people, but I’d never heard a good word spoken about transgendered people. I struggled with my feelings on that subject for a while, and it troubled me because I knew I was holding onto some kind of unfair prejudice and I couldn’t shake it.
My girlfriend and I broke up at the end of spring break 2011. I felt lost, as it was the first real relationship I’d ever had and I truly thought that I loved her. I knew we were young, but perhaps more of that boyish naivety led me to romanticize the whole ordeal more than I should have. I was struggling for inspiration out in Pittsburgh for a laundry list of reasons:
· I missed my relationship
· I couldn’t bring my drums to school
· None of my favorite bands were releasing music
· I rarely got to play sports to take my mind off things
I made it through about a year until something I never saw coming jolted my world. May 31st, 2012 was the day that the Rolling Stone issue including the piece in which Laura came out hit the shelves, and news of the story broke a few days before, garnering massive interest. I first heard about it scrolling through Twitter the day it was announced, and I almost missed it. I was skimming the page and Rolling Stone’s account posts news and articles frequently so because of the sheer volume of output it’s one of those feeds that my eyes often subconsciously skip over. If the words Against Me! hadn’t caught my eye it might have happened then too, but it did not.
I got excited. In the split second before I read the tweet I thought “alright, a new album!” but that was not the case. Instead I found the news of her coming out, along with a picture.
At first I didn’t know what to say or think, whom I could tell, or even how to function. There were a few minutes there where I just stared at the headlines popping up on Twitter. The forthcoming article was days away, so all I could do was I try over and over to process the thoughts flowing into my head and out through my conscious. I laid down on my bed facing the corner of my room where the black and white six by three foot Against Me! poster dominated the wall and focused on Laura. The poster was a black and white photo of the band playing a live show, and until now I hadn’t really noticed she had been growing her hair out. In the picture it was already long enough that it covered her entire face, and I wondered if that detail had been intentional.
I would be lying to you now if I said that I knew to just think of her as Laura and use feminine pronouns, but any misstep in those last transphobic days was purely out of social ignorance. I didn’t hate her, I didn’t want to disrespect her, I was just having trouble understanding for awhile, and that was scary. When my cousin had come out years earlier I was aware of what a gay person was and in all honesty we weren’t all that close so there wasn’t as jarring of an effect on my life. As strange as it sounds, I felt much closer to Laura than I ever felt to Stephen, but for some reason I looked at the pictures in the Rolling Stone spread she came out in later that week and something in my brain was telling me that I didn’t recognize her.
Since the story became somewhat prominent news, as the days passed I heard from an increasing amount of people whose only knowledge of the band was that I had been borderline obsessed with them. Some would mention it in passing just saying that they saw it, or ask how I felt about it — and to those people I wasn’t sure what to say other than I had no idea it was coming and it was an interesting story. These interactions were fine, but there were others that I began to take offense to which often reached such disgusting depths that I refuse to regurgitate them in print.
It knew it was hateful, but I didn’t know what to say back to them. I had been as surprised as the next person when the news broke, but the feelings brought on by people bashing someone who had had such an emotional impact on my life angered me. I began to research anything and everything that had to do with the transgender existence because I so desperately wanted to understand Laura Jane. I had come to the conclusion that if Laura & her words had always been there for me in my youth, the least I owed her was acceptance and that came through education.
Once the news had been fully digested, fans began to discover that small lyrical clues had been left in older Against Me! songs. The most obvious of these comes from “The Ocean,” the closing track from New Wave. Laura begins the second and final verse in a way that no one really knew what to make of before, but now it’s quite clear:
“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. One day I’d find an honest man to make my husband.”
It took nearly two years after Laura had come out for a new record to be released, and over that time uncertainty among the fan base swelled. There were those who wondered whether or not she would sound the same, whether or not she would act the same — and frankly that was not something to worry about. What mattered was that she could be herself, and she was happy.
The only doubts I had after I came out were whether or not I would like the music, as the last two albums had been slight disappointments to me at the time, but that changed after Laura came out. With Against Me! on the brain I revisited New Wave and White Crosses with a fresh mind and what I found was unexpected. While New Wave improved in my eyes it still had it’s ups and downs, but White Crosses sounded fantastic. I recognized the energy that I thought much of New Wave, but these songs were accented by a contagious pop sensibility that I hadn’t picked up on before. The guitar tones varied more than any other Against Me! record and it wasn’t a bad thing, it was musical expansion — artistic growth. As I grew to appreciate Laura as she truly was, I grew to appreciate her growth alongside mine
In early 2014 Against Me! self-released their first album giving songwriting credits to Laura Jane Grace entitled Transgender Dysphoria Blues. In my research I had learned about gender dysphoria and it was the detail of transgender life that I had never truly considered and it broke my heart the most. I had known that the people that lived a transgender life made the choice to change how they identified, but I didn’t take into account all the years of depression and disgust with their own self-image. I had always thought that the period of transition would be the hard part, but in actuality growing up with all of those confusing and socially resisted feelings is far worse—for many, transition is freedom from that torment.
Having struggled with depression since my mid-teen years I could relate in some small sense to Laura in that way, but the thought of her looking into a mirror and feeling trapped in her male body despite how strong of a person she appeared to be brought me to tears. I couldn’t begin to fathom how heavy that burden could have been to carry before even factoring in the massive amount stress that must have piled due to her very much public life.
As soon as my copy of the album arrived, I began to work through my first spin. I held my breath as a powerful snare intro was joined by an intentionally sloppy yet tight blend of power chords and scratches before the words that Laura had long wanted to get off her chest came roaring out of the title track.
Your tells are so obvious, shoulders too broad for a girl
Keeps you reminded, helps you to remember where you come from
You want them to notice the ragged ends of your summer dress,
You want them to see you like they see any other girl
They just see a faggot, they hold their breath not to catch the sick
The anger, the passion, the freewheeling freedom was all on display and I was over the moon, officially stoked to hear what the rest of this album had to say and how it was going to say it.
As the remainder of the album unfolded I sat still, intently listening to my hero finally free herself from the last two years of public speculation and a lifetime’s worth of unwarranted guilt and shame. I thought I had understood from my research, but I don’t think I really got it until I heard it in her words. In 28 minutes she gave a big fat middle finger to all the pain, hate, and suffering her dysphoria and public transformation brought on, which in my opinion was the most punk rock thing I’ve seen in my life time.
Perhaps my favorite line on Transgender Dysphoria Blues comes from track #6 entitled “FuckMyLife666.” Laura Jane ends a verse with a question that I had been asking myself since the day she came out:
Chipped nail polish and a barbed wire dress,
Is your mother proud of your eyelashes?
Silicone chest, and collagen lips,
How would you even recognize me?
And here’s the thing — I did recognize her. At the same time, I can look back at myself online now and know that I too have changed, and I don’t recognize that old self, I know what I now see as the constant, tolerant, better me and I couldn’t be happier. I have Laura to thank for all of it because without her I can’t be sure that I would have changed. Laura Jane Grace wasn’t just strong enough to break free and become her real self, she was strong enough to bring me with her and that’s why she’s my hero.