Laura Jane Grace writes for her rights | Book Review | Chicago Reader

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Laura Jane Grace writes for her rights

Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout is the Against Me! singer’s engrossing chronicle of her turbulent life: as a musician, as an anarchist, and as a transgender human being.

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W hen Rolling Stone profiled transgender Against Me! singer­songwriter Laura Jane Grace in September the piece included a photo of the musician, topless and reclined in a half-full bathtub, her face and breasts emerging from beneath the water. Grace's ex-wife, Chicago visual artist and Hide front woman Heather Gabel, had a number of issues with the article—among them the narrow approach to gender it took, the flawed portrayal of her separation from Grace in 2013, and the aforementioned image of her ex, which was uncensored despite the magazine's long history of obscuring women's nipples in salacious pictures. Gabel edited the Rolling Stone photo by covering Grace's areolas with stars and posted it on Facebook with a thoughtful retort. "The entire LGBTQ+ experience is constantly fetishized; sensationalized to absolutely no one's benefit," Gabel wrote. "I hope that someone eventually gets it right."

Grace seizes the opportunity to flesh out her story with her new memoir, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock's Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout. With the help of her cowriter, Noisey editor Dan Ozzi, Grace revisited and condensed decades of personal journal entries—occasionally inserting original entries into Tranny in a different font—to produce a detailed exploration of her lifelong affection for punk, her travails in the music industry, and her decades-long struggle with gender dysphoria. Grace, who was born Thomas James Gabel and came out as transgender in a separate 2012 Rolling Stone feature, was privately consumed with self-loathing while living as a male. That pain is palpable in her memoir, which is why she decided to call it Tranny. "I hate that word—I definitely don't identify with that word, I don't like hearing it used for other people," Grace recently said on Late Night With Seth Meyers. "But it captures a lot of what the book is about, and a lot of what the book is about is internalized transphobia and self-hate."

Grace first experienced feelings of self­hatred at the age of five, when she caught sight of Madonna in her "Material Girl" video. Born to a military family in 1980, Grace bounced around the country (and lived in Italy for about four years, beginning when she was eight) before her parents separated; around the time she turned 13, Grace, her mom, and her brother moved to Naples, Florida. The internal conflict Grace dealt with at a young age intensified there, where she was surrounded by children of considerable wealth while being raised by a single parent on a shoestring budget. Out of step, and with no resources to turn to regarding gender dysphoria, Grace began experimenting with hard drugs—she first snorted coke shortly after she arrived in Florida, off a copy of Jack London's A Daughter of the Snows in the public library's bathroom. Drugs, and pretty soon sex, could only stimulate her for so long, and her real salve came in the form of punk. She started with Green Day's Dookie and delved deeper into anarcho­- punk—foundational anarchist bands such as Poison Girls and Crass, and Minneapolis collective cum label Profane Existence.

Punk takes up as much editorial space in Tranny as Grace's battle with gender dysphoria. Against Me! went from touring dingy basements to opening for contemporary rock heroes such as the Foo Fighters and Green Day. But it's Grace's unvarnished look at nearly two decades fronting a punk band that provides unlikely narrative momentum—she captures the mind-deadening monotony of living on the road without making the story feel repetitive. It helps that Grace unpacks the little compartments of her band's history, even mining tour-van etiquette for nuance. "[The] Guest should never, under any circumstances, occupy the rear bench seat while host drives," Grace writes in a journal entry from 2006, while touring with Alkaline Trio. "Hosts have assumedly invited guests to spend time together so they better do just as much of that as possible." Heather Gabel was selling merchandise for Alkaline Trio on the tour, and on the very next page she jumps into the Against Me! van after a show.

Chunks of Grace's story are missing: one part of the book's title that's not properly reflected in the narrative is her history with anarchism. Against Me!'s catalog from the early years is chockablock full of lyrics extolling leftist extremism. Take the chorus for 2002's "Baby, I'm an Anarchist!," which references the 1999 Seattle protests during the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference: " 'Cause baby, I'm an anarchist / You're a spineless liberal / We marched together for the eight-hour day / And held hands in the streets of Seattle / But when it came time to throw bricks / Through that Starbucks window / You left me all alone." But the few instances of capital-P politics in Tranny are merely references to anarcho-punk bands and nonprofit organizations; listening to Crass and volunteering with Food Not Bombs won't make you an anarchist. Readers with no grasp of the subterranean anarcho-punk scene will likely struggle to understand why Against Me!'s jump to indie label Fat Wreck Chords in the early 2000s was met with such scorn. Grace recounts how punks poured bleach on the band's merch and tagged their van—punk zine Maximum Rocknroll encouraged readers to attack Against Me! for "selling out"—but she doesn't elaborate on why former fans would turn on the band so violently.

In a 2004 entry from a tour stop in Milan, Grace describes the inner turmoil that she endured when her bandmates gawked at trans women and cracked jokes at the strangers' expense: " 'You guys want to get a brostitute?' 'Prostidudes!' I laughed at them along with everyone else, the whole time knowing the truth about myself, that I wished I were so brave," Grace writes. "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." By sharing that moment Grace compels strangers to see her as flesh and blood instead of the shape of her flesh.  v

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