Laura Jane Grace has made it very clear that she’s no postergirl for the trans* struggle. Nearly two years after the Against Me! frontwoman came out as transgender, she said in an interview with The Music magazine: “I don’t want that responsibility. I want to be part of the community, but I don’t want the pressure.”
It is perhaps this refusal to be seen as a role model that has allowed Grace to pen one of the more candid and revolutionary depictions of transgender life in the mainstream consciousness. A depiction which, ironically, has brought her even further to the fore of the trans* community.
The album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, is a short, snappy, snarling essay on passing, gender politics and power with a deeply personal edge. It’s both specific enough to feel honest and individual, and broad enough that the record has hit home with many trans* people (as well leaving many a confused journalist saying: “Ohhh, so she actually wants to be called a she.”)
This album is by no means the first to be written about queer experience, nor the first to be written in this style. Queercore, an offshoot of the punk scene originating in the 1980s, has long been an outlet for queer people to express their discontent with society, in particular in its prejudice toward LGBTQ+ people. Whilst trans*ness is less commonly addressed in queercore, it is still very much present. Gender non-conforming bands such as Coyote Grace, Actor Slash Model, and Schmekel—an all trans* jewcore band based in Brooklyn, whose hits include “You’re Not The Only Bear I Fisted” —all claim part of the modern queercore scene. All this time, on the fringes of mainstream culture, there have been people sharing individual and complex stories about gender identity—this is just one of the first that has entered popular awareness.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues doesn’t have the trademark fingerprints of DIY punk politics. Against Me! has been a ’mainstream‘ band signed to multiple labels for many years now and it’s because of this that the album has been able to spark so much discussion. But the raw sentiment and underlying rage, ferocity, and infectious pride are much the same.
The album is also very, very good. Grace’s lyrics are at their usual standard, just as visceral and poetic (if less esoteric) as previous efforts. The album begins on a self-deprecating, almost taunting note with its eponymous track (“your tells are so obvious / shoulders too broad for a girl”), going on o perfectly encapsulate the complex series of emotions that is gender dysphoria. In ‘True Trans Soul Rebel’, a condemnatory Grace asks herself, “Who’s gonna take you home tonight? Who’s gonna take you home? Does god bless your transsexual heart?”
Perhaps the most delightful feature of the album is its sense of dark humour. From the sardonic song title ‘FUCKMYLIFE666’ — a song about the dysphoria Grace experienced whilst transitioning around her wife — to the deadpan opening lines in ‘Dead Friend’ (“you don’t worry about tomorrow anymore / ‘cause you’re dead”), the jokes add yet another layer of reality to the experiences described—the words are humorous, even flippant, but Grace’s voice is like a bruise.
The album makes the switch from self-deprecating to brutal in a heartbeat. In ‘Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ’, Grace entertains ideas of revenge against those who have mistreated her: “You’re gonna hang like Benito from the Esso rafters… you’re gonna hang, you’re gonna hang.” ‘Paralytic States’ also takes on a tone of desperation. It describes the all too real and far too common choice of many trans* people to take their own life. Grace is not here to sugarcoat, or be our easily accessible, toothless trans* spokesperson. She sings in ‘Black Me Out’, she’ll sooner “piss on the walls of your house” than simplify her identity for anyone.
The most striking thing about this album, however, is its liveliness. It’s not something you’d expect, given the obviously dark and confronting thematic content, but it’s the kind of album you might scream out the window of a car on a long drive. Its sound, walking a line between gravelly punk rock and an 80s college radio station, invites you to bounce around and holler along as loud as you can. It’s a weapon too, an almost adolescent explosion of emotions not inappropriate for playing in your room at a deafening volume after the fifteenth conversation with your parents about preferred pronouns.
What it is not is a sob story. In fact, it defies many of the conventions of the mainstream trans* narrative. From the opening drum beat to the final cries of the anthemic ode to freedom, ‘Black Me Out’, it’s about making the choice to survive despite the bullshit; which is perhaps why it has been met so positively by those who share these experiences. It affirms and validates sentiments that I, as trans* myself, previously thought I was alone in feeling.
What makes Transgender Dysphoria Blues different from a number of its queercore predecessors is Grace’s refusal to lead a politicised life. She has said in interviews that she wants it all to stop being about her being transgender and start being about the music again. Of course, an openly trans* existence cannot ever truly avoid being political, nor escape unwanted scrutiny from those who “don’t understand”. However, where some have made the choice to make their art and life in the public eye about being queer, Grace would rather we just leave her alone. She’s told her story, and made many feel less alone for it. She doesn’t owe us anything more.
This album staunchly presents itself as being written for Laura Jane Grace and for herself alone. She say: here I am, if you don’t like it you can go fuck yourself. As Grace proves, there’s no right way to be trans*. The ability to choose whether or not you make your public life, or life as an artist, about your gender identity is far more important than the choice you make.
However, there is no denying the resonance and widespread impact of Against Me!’s portrayal of survival as a trans* person. We can only hope Transgender Dysphoria Blues will bring more stories out of the woodwork.