by Paul Blest
As Against Me! took the stage on Sunday night in Durham at Motorco, frontwoman Laura Jane Grace produced a lighter and her birth certificate. She lit it on fire. “Goodbye, gender!” she said as the band kicked into its first song, “I Was A Teenage Anarchist”.
Grace, who came out as transgender in a 2012 Rolling Stone article, and her band bucked the boycott of North Carolina that Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr, and Ani DiFranco fostered or followed. As one of the most high-profile transgender women in the country, Grace’s response when asked if she would join the boycott was simple: “I’m going to create an event around the show as a form of protest to say that despite whatever stupid laws they enact, trans people are not going to be scared,” she said. “They are not going to go away.”
The band’s appearance in Durham couldn’t have come at a better time, as the state and the federal governments have resigned to fighting this battle out in court.
The sold-out crowd was one of the most diverse I’ve ever ever seen at a punk show. By the time Against Me! hit the stage, the energy of the audience was palpable. The crowd damn near exploded when Grace burned her birth certificate.
Somehow, the band sustained the feeling throughout the hour-plus set. At the end of some songs, Grace couldn’t contain her own excitement, smiling and clapping along with the crowd. Playing a shockingly even mix of songs from albums across the band’s two-decade run, Against Me! closed with a four-song encore that included “The Ocean,” the closer of 2007's New Wave. Released well before Grace came out, it includes the line, “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman.”
Before the show, the INDY sat down with Grace to talk about the band, HB 2, and transgender rights.
INDY: It’s been a pretty eventful couple of years since Transgender Dysphoria Blues came out. What are you working on right now?
LAURA JANE GRACE: A lot. Literally two days ago I got the masters for the record we just finished. The last five or six months, we’ve been working on Against Me!’s seventh full-length, so now that’s going to come out in the fall. In addition to writing the record, [I've been] finishing up writing a book. And the past couple of years has been super busy, between touring for Transgender Dysphoria Blues, releasing a live album, I’ve done a couple of production jobs, produced a record for a band called Worriers and a couple of songs for a Chicana riot grrrl band called Fea from San Antonio, Texas.
It felt like, in a lot of ways, that the last record could have been, well, the last record. Your studio burned down. Andrew [Seward, bassist] left the band. It was such an intensely personal album that it seemed like an end. Did you ever think that it was over?
Totally. And in a way, that enabled it to be really good going forward, when it was really falling apart. I was like, “OK, we have no bass player. We have no drummer. It’s just me and James in a studio, and we have songs. So if the songs are there, we gotta at least finish them and put them out.” So when we finished the record and put it out, it was different than most records in the past where you’re like, “Well, this sounds this way in the mix, maybe we can tweak that in the master.” This was more like, “Take it away from me.”
Going back and listening to a lot of Against Me! songs, you hinted at the struggle you were going through. What was it like finally being able to 100 percent open up on the last record. Did it feel like a weight being lifted off your shoulders?
Completely. Part of the frustration was feeling like you are putting yourself into music in that way. You’re saying these things, and it’s constantly being misinterpreted, people thinking you’re something you were not and not knowing how to be that person that people wanted you to be. A song like “The Ocean” off New Wave, a lyric like, “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman": there’s no metaphor in that. You cannot get more direct than saying that, and to still have people not even get it was like…you’re not reaching people, and they’re not taking it in the right context.
Since you came out in 2012, trans rights have evolved a lot. How has that evolution happened through your eyes?
I see it as a series of tipping point moments. What helped me come out was seeing the strength and courage of other people coming out. I remember one of the last people was [former singer of New York hardcore band Life of Agony] Mina Caputo, and reading about her coming out, I saw an article on Huffington Post, and I thought, “This is there to speak to me. This is a sign from the universe.” And I know that I’ve had other people come up to me after I came out who said, “That inspired me to come out.” And that translates wider and wider.
You see a lot in the media talking about HB 2, people being like, “There’s only this many transgender people in the world.” And I don’t think that it’s known how many transgender people there really are. There are more and more people being given the safe space and being empowered to come out. You get more of a realization how big this actually is.
When did you first hear about HB 2, and what was your initial reaction?
I honestly don’t remember the first time I heard about it, other than I’m sure I was scrolling through Facebook. A lot of that stuff just isn’t surprising to me. But I do remember that this show and the tour was set up before all that, so we already knew we were coming here. Whenever I saw it, I didn’t think twice about it.
And then when a couple of the biggest artists started announcing their boycott, like Springsteen, our manager called me and said, “If you’re going to join the boycott, this is the point to do it so you don’t screw over the promoter,” and I was like, “What are you talking about? Why would we do that? We’re going to North Carolina.”
So there was never a doubt in your mind that you would come here?
No. I really, really greatly respect the artists who were part of that boycott, and I think that’s a totally valid, effective way to things, but to me … that’s the act of an ally. And while I might not live in the state of North Carolina, I have toured through here once or twice a year for the past twenty years. I pay taxes in the state of North Carolina, and that’s a reality for me.
Even before HB 2, touring through the country, public restrooms are a fear. You don’t feel safe, necessarily, as a trans person. So it’s not like there’s something called HB 2, and now I have to operate this way when I go there. It was like, “Well, I already operated that way when I went there, and I already had those fears, and you just made it even more dangerous.”
You live in Illinois now, which at least legally has non-discrimination protections for trans people. Does it make you feel different, being here and not having that protection?
You know, it’s still the same fears. That’s the reality. It’s maybe even a bigger fear because you feel like there’s the attention on that so you feel like there might be, like, self-deputized gender police or something like that looking to do things —
Yeah, that’s already happening.
The first instance [where] I ever experienced discrimination as a transgender person revolved around the restrooms. I have a six-year-old who at the time was three when I came out. I lived in St. Augustine [Florida], and St. Augustine was an extremely small town, and obviously it was very high-profile, so everyone knew who I was, even though I had no idea who they were. So my daughter was at soccer practice. There’s a little two-stall bathroom hut divided into genders. All of a sudden, she goes, “I gotta go potty,” goes off running off toward the restroom, and immediately runs into the mens’ room.
So I go off running after her into the mens’ room, and all of a sudden a guy jumps out and goes, “Wrong restroom.” Gets right up in my face, standing between me and my daughter. So then I’m in a situation where my daughter’s in the men’s room, and I have a birth certificate that says “M” on it even though I’m a transgender female, and I can’t go in after her. That’s the kind of scenario it creates, where you’re “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
You see those memes online about the “privilege” of passing trans people. Most people have been using the restroom with transgender people their whole life. They just don’t realize it because some people pass. I’m under no illusion that I pass. I know what I look like. And with that being said, I know when is a safe time or an appropriate time, and how to navigate those situations as a trans person.
A lot of the time, there are more unisex options or gender neutral bathrooms out there … I mean, fuck, as someone who has written a song about “throwing bricks through Starbucks windows,” I’m thankful for Starbucks because they always have single-serving restrooms that you can use. You just end up living your life knowing how to navigate it.
This week has been called a historic one for transgender rights, and if there’s a silver lining to any of this, it’s that the federal government has really made its stance clear on trans rights with the directives about bathrooms in public schools and discrimination in healthcare. How did that make you feel?
I was in the Detroit airport flying down to Atlanta when the Attorney General [Loretta Lynch] spoke. It was being broadcast with subtitles, no audio. Standing there and watching it, and seeing other travelers stop and watch it was just mindblowing. I would have never imagined being recognized in that way by the U.S government, by a president. That gives you something in this way that validates you … You look at other people watching that, and they can shake their head and write it off, but for me, I’m like, “But I have rights. And fuck you. So you can think what you want, but I have rights.” And that’s what equality is about.
The same day that the Obama administration handed down the directive about bathrooms in public schools, it was also announced that there would be a surge in deportations targeting undocumented women and children. So, as somebody who’s sort of skeptical of politics and the government in general, do you ever feel like LGBT rights are used as a political maneuver to maybe provide cover for other human rights abuses that are being committed in the name of this country?
Sure. As an anarchist, it’s something I’m continually skeptical about. You try to be an optimist but yet a realist at the same time, and not just because of this. It’s a lot to think about even going into an election year and how much is politically motivated by that or how much of it is Obama just, at this point, being like, “Screw it, I’m going to do whatever.” You don’t know, you know?
What do you think is the future of the trans rights movement?
The conversation can only continue to grow from here, and I think that as you have these moments, you have more and more visibility of people coming out as gender queer. It’ll only lead to further advances. You push a little further, and even if you get pushed back, you push back. That makes progress. And that’s where we are, and that’s been a cumulative thing.
You said back in November that you wanted the next record to be much more equitable, in contrast to Transgender Dysphoria Blues. What are you looking for out of that record?
With working on the book—which was a really, really heavy thing—songwriting became like, “I should be working on this book, but I’m gonna go pick up my guitar and write a song instead,” like escapism. And a lot of it was written on tour traveling around, so it has a traveling feel. I just wanted to write some hard-earned fun songs.