Punk embraces Laura Jane Grace and the future of Against Me!
Progressive thought has always been at the nucleus of punk music. Who could forget the angst-ridden politics of Fugazi or the social change Rise Against would engineer through blistering beats during their early career? For this writer, who moonlights as a punk-rock history book, it’s obvious that groups like these laid the groundwork for the genre’s most prolific humanitarian attitudes. Whether it’s the Hostage Calm fan that shows up in the mosh pit wearing a shirt that proudly broadcasts “I Support Same Sex Marriage” or Against Me!’s grapple with gender identity — the focus of this article — punk’s unrelenting acceptance of all who enter the scene is the genre’s most noble characteristic.
Gainesville, Fla. punk band Against Me! was formed in 1997 by vocalist/guitarist Laura Jane Grace (formerly known as Tom Gabel) as an acoustic project that blossomed into a full band by 2002. Gaining steam in the underground punk-rock scene for their unbridled political energy, Against Me! signed to Fat Wreck Chords, a record label founded by a bona fide punk prodigy, NOFX bassist Fat Mike.
Despite the acclaim the band began to receive, Grace still wrestled with the gender dysphoria that plagued her upbringing. In a scene predominantly saturated by male voices, she felt typecast into a role that didn’t reflect her true self. Nevertheless, the band would find major-label success with 2007’s “New Wave,” a record that included a track with fellow lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender supporter Sara Quin of the indie-acoustic duo Tegan & Sara. Spin and Rolling Stone, two prominent music magazines, would name the album, propelled by the excellent single “Thrash Unreal”, one of the best of the year. There were veiled hints of Grace’s battle with her gender identity on the lyric sheet of “The Ocean”: If I could have chosen / I would have been born a woman.
Despite this obvious nod to Grace’s identity, the rest of the band and Sire Records, the band’s label at the time, shrugged it off as an exercise in artistic license. The band would go on to record the lukewarm alternative-rock record “White Crosses” in 2011, a year before Laura Jane Grace revealed her decision to undergo hormone replacement therapy. In May of that year, Against Me! began issuing promo flyers with “Laura Jane Grace” displayed prominently above the band’s name. Rolling Stone’s coverage of the band sharply increased, and support of the singer’s transition made waves across all corners of the music industry. The news also garnered accolades from the outspoken professional wrestler CM Punk and the president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
Earlier this year, Grace and the band released the digital EP “True Trans,” which embraced an unplugged, folk-punk direction that hearkened back to the group’s early tracks. The band plans to release a full-length, ambitious concept album “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” later this year. Although thematically different from the political cynicism explored with previous material, nothing could be more punk-rock than staying true to your roots — even if they stray far from what you were born into.