For 15 years, Against Me! has often seemed a vehicle built for overcoming obstacles.
On the journey from scrappy folk-punk solo project to club-packing, major-label rock band, Against Me! faced consistent crises: van crashes, label woes, lineup changes, near breakups.
But the most dramatic change Against Me! has encountered seems to have had the least effect, the largely positive publicity it generated notwithstanding: In 2012, lead singer Tom Gabel announced via a lengthy Rolling Stone feature that he was transgender. He was starting his life as Laura Jane Grace.
While rock stars have long toyed with gender boundaries, and cult figures such as first-generation punk rocker Jayne County served as precedents, Grace is the first high-profile rock musician to come out as transgender in the midst of fame. Longtime fans began poring through old Gabel lyrics for retrospective clues, including this line from the band's 2007 breakout, New Wave: "If I could have chosen/ I would have been born a woman/ My mother once told me she would have named me Laura."
In the Rolling Stone piece's aftermath, Grace became a spokeswoman for gender identity issues, even if that wasn't her intention. "It's like my psychiatrist says, 'Just because you're diagnosed with cancer doesn't mean you're an authority on cancer,'" she told NME last year. Still, her reluctance to speak for the trans community hasn't precluded her candor in interviews for mainstream lifestyle publications such as Cosmopolitan and Elle. It hasn't stopped her from tackling the transition in her music, either: Later this month, Against Me! will release its sixth album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, through their own Total Treble imprint. Its stark cover features a graphic cross section of a breast.
Grace has described her coming out in life-or-death terms. After a lifetime of wrestling with her identity, she turned to drugs to cope. The stress of a crumbling record deal and becoming a father exacerbated the issues. "I was numb. I couldn't write; I couldn't function," Grace told Cosmopolitan. "The feelings were totally consuming. I couldn't live the lie anymore."
As a songwriter, Tom Gabel allowed personal confession to collide with political commentary; as a singer, he'd staked his name on a muscular and, yes, masculine howl. He was the central figure. Would this be the same band?
It appears so. The hormone replacement therapy Grace is undergoing won't affect her voice, and she has no plans to adjust it surgically. Recent set lists have spanned the band's career, and post-show reports have been notably positive.
Most important, Transgender Dysphoria Blues reveals a reinvigorated Against Me! First single "FUCKMYLIFE666" leads with a stinging, Replacements-worthy riff before Grace opens a defiant and jubilant celebration of upheaval. "All things made to be destroyed/ All moments meant to pass," she sings. "There's a brave new world raging inside me."
On "Black Me Out," Grace rides a dramatic vamp into a piss-and-vinegar chorus: "I want to piss on the walls of your house/ I want to chop those brass rings off your fat fucking fingers." It sounds like righteously angry, perfectly rendered arena rock.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues is the work of a firebrand band with a powerful and provocative singer. For Against Me!, that's business as usual, no matter the name of its leader.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Against odds."