Standing onstage, Laura Jane Grace is the embodiment of a punk rocker. Part Joan Jett, part Debbie Harry, Grace commands her pop-punk band Against Me! with ease and a crooked smile. Yet, after having read her memoir, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, it’s clear that Grace’s confidence often only runs skin deep. The transgender frontwoman depicts her life with brutal honesty and catharsis, prompting the reader to support, question, judge, and empathize with the author. Beginning with stories of her childhood, Grace (born Thomas James Gabel on November 8, 1980) depicts herself as an unhappy kid who ran the gamut of cliche adolescent problems: anger at her parents’ divorce, melancholy over being an outcast in school, and fascination with drugs and alcohol. What separates Grace’s story from the rest is her constant struggle with gender dysphoria.
Simply put, gender dysphoria is the medical condition in which a person experiences distress and upset over the gender and sex they were assigned at birth. Often, this condition leads to the self-identification as a transgender (or trans) person. As Grace mentions throughout her memoir, gender dysphoria was not a term she knew of as a child, and it was only through music that she feels she made it through.
“While drugs and sex could reliably hold me over, my biggest distraction and relief from depression came when I discovered punk rock,” Grace wrote of her teenage years. After Grace ran away from home several times, was arrested, and continually failed classes, Grace’s mother agreed to let her drop out of high school as long as she stopped running away. After dropping out, Grace formed Against Me! with childhood friends Kevin Mahon and Dustin Fridkin and began performing DIY punk shows in garages and shitty dive bars. During this time, Grace wrote in her journal about the future of the band and the doomed relationships that came from sex in the back of a car or dangerous flirtations in bars. She describes her past loves without a filter, imploring her readers to find their own similarities in her stark relationships.
While the ‘rags to riches’ narrative has become as ordinary as the pop bands that accompany them, Against Me! were hated by the DIY punk community; the more commercial success they achieved, the further they were cast aside by the ones who were inspiration for the band’s formation. Signing with several record labels over the years, Grace assumed the role as bandleader and often did what she thought was right for the band, regardless of what the other members thought. In her younger days, Grace came off as arrogant, but as she continued down the same path over the years, her arrogance morphed into genuine selfishness.
What keeps the reader from finding her actions reprehensible are journal entries written at these moments of raw ego. We are taken back to the scared, skinny girl who’s trapped behind the guise of a hardcore, angry frontman. These moments of fear and curiosity stop Grace from becoming a character in her own life story and bring sympathy to her actions. In a particularly moving entry, Grace and her band encountered a group of transgender women walking down the road in Milan, and the group all laugh and joke about how ridiculous they look.
“I laughed at them along with everyone else, the whole time knowing the truth about myself, that I wished I were so brave…I’ve been called a ‘sellout’ many times in life for the choices I’ve made in my musical career. But this experience, that moment–that’s what it feels like to truly sell out.”
As the band gained more notoriety and commercial fame, Grace found herself increasingly depressed. What seems to have saved her from death, either from suicide or drugs, was meeting Heather, her now ex-wife and the mother of her child, whom she still respects and cares for. People fall out of love, and often that experience shifts the relationship to hatred and resentment. Grace and Heather fell in love fast and hard, with Heather becoming pregnant fairly quickly at the start of their marriage. At the same time, Grace was secretly dressing as a woman, something she’d been doing for years, always doing it ‘one last time,’ like a drug addict getting ‘one last fix.’ The difference is that transitioning into a woman would be the healthiest thing Grace could do for herself, but instead she continued to hide her identity and drop hints of her true self in Against Me!’s lyrics.
After her daughter was born and Grace continued to tour with the band, she finally found the courage to come out as trans to her friends and family. While it’s a relief to read that her mother, wife and band members were open to the transition, the pain that trans people go through bleeds through Grace’s journal entries and reckless behavior. Grace’s life story offers a glimpse into a punk rocker’s world, but the real emotion comes from her pull to be the woman she wasn’t born as and the parent she’s still scared to be.
Buy Tranny for $20 at your local bookseller. It’s published by Hatchette Book Group.