How Laura Jane Grace, Against Me!’s Transgender Front Woman, Chose Her Female Name

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Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

What does it mean to be an authentic musician? The question doesn’t sound like good fodder for a book — it’s too woolly, too late-night-dorm-room. And yet, in part because it asks the question over and over, Against Me! front woman Laura Jane Grace's memoir, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, works wonderfully.
 
There are two other reasons for that. One is that Grace (with the journalist Dan Ozzi) simply has some great rock-and-roll stories — from building her band through relentless touring in the gritty DIY punk scene of the early 2000s to, upon finding a measure of critical acclaim and success, constantly being accosted by fans furious at her for having sold out.

The other is that in the telling of these stories, her gender dysphoria — which over the course of decades she tries and fails to chase away with music, drugs, and sex — pops up again and again. On top of all the pressures, and even after marrying and having a kid, she never feels like herself, and resorts to keeping bags of women’s clothing hidden in the back of her closet. On top of wondering whether she has given up some vital aspect of her DIY past, she also feels like a fraud in a much more visceral, personal way.
 
In 2012, Grace finally decided to transition, coming out publicly via a Rolling Stone feature. The following excerpt from Tranny, out now, describes part of that process, as well as how she chose her female name.

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Our house in Saint Augustine sat where the Tolomato River meets the Atlantic Ocean. The kitchen looked out onto sprawling acres of marsh. The Florida air was always humid with salt. In the distance was the Fountain of Youth, the site where Ponce de León was said to have landed in 1513. The fountain was really just a spring coming up from the aquifer beneath the soil. What the Spanish explorer once thought to be the key to eternal life was now the water that locals drank, showered, pissed, and shit in. I’d spent the last couple of years looking out the windows of Butch’s hillside home in Silver Lake, onto a Los Angeles I could not conquer. But this was a view I could finally call my own.

It was February 2, a week before Heather’s 35th birthday, when she was looking despairingly onto all of this from our back porch. We had spent the morning arguing. She missed California and resented being back among the Bible-thumpers of Saint Augustine, feeling alone and isolated while I was out on tour. With a penchant for dark makeup and black clothes, she stuck out in town among the pickup trucks, Chick-fil-A restaurants, and lawn signs that read god hates fags. Some neighbors believed her to be a Satan worshipper.

I figured this was as good a time as any. “Can we talk?” I asked. She nodded, sensing the weight of the request in my voice. I grabbed her by the hand and led her into our bedroom. We both lay on the bed on our sides, facing each other for a while, saying nothing. “I have to tell you something,” I finally said. She looked back into my eyes, waiting and nervous. It was so quiet that I could hear her breathing. I held her tightly against my body until I worked up the courage to let it out.

“I’m a transsexual.”

The proclamation hung there for a moment, and then crashed to a surreal adrenaline euphoria. I had sampled every barbiturate and narcotic from A to Z in my lifetime, but this was a high I’d never felt before. With three simple words, the levee had finally broken and everything held behind it could never be contained again. Emotions pouring out, I surrendered to being swept away in the current’s flow.

“I thought you were going to tell me you were having an affair,” she said with a smile. And in a way, I was. I was sneaking off to seedy hotel rooms to be with another woman. Bras and dresses were scattered on the floor next to my bed on tour. I had been keeping secrets and created a level of dishonesty in my marriage.

Before we could really discuss it further, I heard a voice from the hallway call to me. “Daddy?” Evelyn had woken up from her nap and came charging into the room to break up our conversation.

Later in the day, while Heather and I were making the bed and talking about the chores we needed to get through the next morning, she used a male pronoun in regard to me. “Well that’s gonna be weird, huh?” I said. “Not saying ‘he’ for me anymore.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“I mean I want to transition. I want to become a woman . . . fully.”

She paused and fell silent. I think the revelation that I was a transsexual truly hit her in this moment. She slowly started to comprehend that this didn’t mean I’d simply be cross-dressing around the house. It started to hit me, too. I wanted to transition genders, and there was a lot more to that than just hormones and surgery. Neither of us fully understood what it meant yet, or where to start.

The next day Andrew and James met me at the studio to talk about plans around the album and the future of the band. Jordan came, too, as he was again filling in as our manager. Until then, I’d been telling them that I was writing a concept album about a transsexual prostitute—the metaphor behind the feeling of having whored myself out to a record label was thinly transparent since James, Andrew, and I were all processing our own post-traumatic stress disorder from the past couple years of music industry hell. Previously, I’d been able to sneak a few subtle metaphors about my dysphoria in here and there. But an album focused entirely on it? I didn’t know how to explain that, and the new songs were not sticking with the guys.

James could make out a few lyrics to the title track through his in-ear monitors: “You want them to see you like they see every other girl / But they just see a faggot.”

“Hey, man,” he said between takes. “Are you saying ‘faggot’ on this song? It sounds like you’re saying it a lot. Are people gonna be cool with that?”

I realized that the reason the words weren’t connecting with them was that they didn’t have the context. So I came out with it. I didn’t mean to, I just wanted them to understand. I couldn’t hold back the momentum of the day before. Once the truth was spoken, it could be contained no longer.

“It’s about me, and how I’m a transsexual. This is something I’ve been dealing with for a long time,” I told them. Once I started explaining it, I couldn’t stop. It was like an out-of-body experience where I saw myself, but was powerless to hold back the flood of words. “I want to start living as a woman, and to be referred to as Laura. This is something I’ve thought about a lot and isn’t going away, so I might as well embrace it.”

No one knew what to say once I finally stopped rambling. The three of them just sat there in the studio control room, looking down at their feet or at whatever lit-up piece of audio equipment their eyes could find, focusing anywhere but on me. We’d had some heavy conversations over the years—emotional moments where we’d told each other off or outright quit the band—but nothing compared to this. Andrew’s usually warm smile was locked in since I started talking, and it looked like it was going to melt off his face. His skin flushed red, trying not to flinch. There was nothing any of them could say. I broke the silence by asking them to come smoke a joint with me. We got high standing in a circle in the open back doorway. “OK, well,” I said. “I guess that’s all we’ll do today. How about we try again tomorrow?”

We shared the most comically awkward group hug, a horrible mess of pats on the back and overly extended stiff arms. They left, and I locked the door behind them. Oh fuck, I thought. I called Heather and told her that I had just come out to them. It felt unreal to speak these secrets aloud, hearing myself verbalize thoughts that had only ever existed in my head.

The guys had an hour and a half back to Gainesville to think about all that had just been unloaded on them. James has since told me that as he sat there stoned on that long drive home, a lot of memories over the past 15 years suddenly started to make sense for him. My lyrics, my behavior on tour; one by one, he had tiny flashes of realization about me in this new light.

Like Heather, the band took in this information without fully understanding its immediate implications. Hell, I was still wrapping my brain around the implications, and was basing my knowledge of what would come next from what I had researched online.

I knew I wanted to start hormone replacement therapy, or HRT, so that my physical changes would match the mental ones. But now I was desperate for it. I also knew that to gain access to these hormones, I needed a letter of approval from a doctor, confirming my mental clarity that I was “true trans.” The only other option was buying them on the black market on the internet, which I had also considered. I found a counselor in Gainesville, one of two options that came up when searching for “North Florida gender therapist.” The first number I called was a disconnected line. The second was answered by a human voice. I had to come out to the stranger on the other end of the line, explaining on the spot that I was seeking access to hormones. I needed to make sure this was a service they could actually provide, and they could.

After making the appointment, I asked Jordan to connect me with the band’s publicists, Ken Weinstein and Tito Belis at Big Hassle Media. The three of us got on a conference call and I dumped everything on them at once—I was a transsexual, I planned on transitioning genders, and I would assume a new name. I would soon be Against Me!’s frontwoman, and needed to figure out a strategy to put this information into the public. I don’t know what they expected the call to be about, but it certainly wasn’t that. After I finished, I heard nothing on the other end for a few seconds until Ken jumped in. “Um . . . well. OK, this sounds good, Tom,” he said. “I think that . . . let me . . . give us a few minutes to think on this and we’ll call you back.” We hung up, and I can’t imagine the conversation the two had after that.

True to his word, Ken came back with an idea. He was friends with a writer at Rolling Stone whom he greatly trusted, and suggested a plan for me to come out to the world via a feature in the magazine. It would be tasteful and sensitive, and require several interviews and a photo shoot. I agreed, and he went about making the arrangements.

I liked the Rolling Stone plan because it meant talking to one person and would be easier than having a thousand private conversations with everyone I knew. But it created new pressure for me and complicated matters with the counselor. The purpose of my session with him was to prove I was of a reasonable mind to fully grasp the implications of transitioning. But explaining myself in his office during that first meeting, I could hear how questionable my sanity must have sounded.

“Look,” I started, “I’m married, I have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. I’m a musician, and I play in a band for a living. I’m going to publicly come out as transgender soon in Rolling Stone magazine. In May, we’re leaving on a month-long tour of the U.S., followed by a month and a half of international touring. If this was the way I felt when I was 8, and the way I felt when I was 13, and the way I felt when I was 15, and the way I felt when I was 20, 25, 28, and still now at 31, then this is going to be the way I’m going to feel forever. I want to transition into living my life as a woman, and I need access to hormone replacement therapy.”

The doctor looked at me curiously and wrote something down on his clipboard. I could tell he thought I was crazy. I had read online that doctors are often reluctant to prescribe hormones and might even try to talk me out of it. You had to be direct and insistent from the start that this was what you were sure you wanted; not what you thought you may want. It took a while just to convince him of the reality of the situation—that I had a small level of celebrity fronting a popular band, and that an interview about my dysphoria with the biggest music publication in the world was in the works. “So I need you to write me a prescription for HRT,” I repeated firmly, trying to demonstrate that I had done my homework. Of course, it wasn’t that simple. I would need to come in for regular appointments.

As I continued to wait for the doctor to declare me sane enough to start HRT, I jumped on the Revival Tour, a traveling folk-punk show led by Hot Water Music frontman Chuck Ragan. The show included a rotating ensemble of musicians playing and collaborating on acoustic sets, all traveling from city to city in the same bus. In addition to Chuck and myself, this iteration also featured Dan Andriano from Alkaline Trio, Cory Branan, and Nathaniel Rateliff.

The Revival Tour has a reputation for being something of a manly event, due in part to its flannel-clad ringleader. Chuck is legendary in the punk scene not only for his time in Hot Water Music, but for his famously thick beard, gravelly voice, and rugged outdoorsmanship. As we traveled the country, Chuck would go fishing during the morning, and after the show he’d scale whatever he caught right there in the bus’s sink. Sometimes he would kick off his boots and keep his fish in his bunk with him while he slept. Meanwhile, I’d be two bunks over, reading The Whipping Girl, a trans rights manifesto and book of reflections on society’s views of trans women by transsexual author Julia Serano. I had never even considered this position: demanding to be respected as a trans person, to have pride in myself, and to stand up and be visible. Self-empowerment through gender identity. This book meant hope for me.

I bonded with Cory Branan on the tour. Also a father, he and I spent our nights talking about the struggles of touring when you’ve got a kid back home. He mentioned that he had a little girl with a woman he met on the road that he tried to see when he could. We showed each other photos of our daughters. I asked what his girl’s name was.

“She’s my little Jane,” he said in his Mississippi accent.

I liked it. I had told Heather and the band I wanted to be called Laura, after my great-grandmother; the name my mother always told me she would’ve named me if I were born a girl. I also had the idea to take my mother’s maiden name, Grace, in place of Gabel. And now I’d found a middle name: Laura Jane Grace.