Laura Jane Grace is still navigating the pressures of being a trans icon
Laura Jane Grace started Against Me! more than two decades ago when she was in her late teens. That wasn’t her first rodeo; she’d already taken the dive into playing and performing a few years prior. The band now have seven studio records under their belt, each one showcasing their signature gut-punching blend of gritty punk rock. In 2012, Grace took another life-changing plunge: She came out as transgender after enduring gender dysphoria for years. In a male-dominated industry, she was one of the first musicians in the alt-rock scene to come out as trans.
The intensity Grace brings to the table is the kind you can’t buy or forget. Whether it’s through her passion-fueled rock ’n’ roll or her tireless social activism, what you get from the singer is the result of someone repeatedly pulling back their skin to reveal their deepest thoughts and expose their most profound experiences.
COVID-19 has put a cap on touring, which Grace says isn’t easy for her as she loves to hit the road to play shows. She’s not wallowing, though. In 2020, she released Stay Alive—an aptly titled collection of stark and powerful songs that captivate and haunt. We had the opportunity to talk to her about the recent release and what it took for her to feel a true sense of empowerment.
You’re a dynamic human being with a slew of experiences under your belt. That involves rolling with plenty of ups and downs. Can you recall the first time in your life that you felt truly empowered?
Yes, very specifically, though I don’t recall the exact date. It was when Obama was still the president, and his Attorney General Loretta Lynch gave a press conference and, to paraphrase, said, “Transgender Americans, we want you to know that we see you, we recognize you and we have your back.” It was the first time that I felt recognized by the government. It happened while I was in an airport, and it was on a bunch of TV screens in the terminal. There were a lot of people around watching that moment with me who obviously weren’t transgender and were coming from totally different places. I got to see those people watch that and, immediately after, have conversations about it. I had some time to kill before my flight and heard different takes on it, some that were ignorant, but that moment was the first time I’d ever felt recognized by the government and legitimized in that way, and it was really breathtaking to me.
This is why people, yourself included, fight for change.
Yeah. I’m still a punk rocker, and I grew up in the anarchist community, and I’m not saying now America is perfect. It’s not that type of feeling; it’s more of one about being included. Specifically, over the last decade, the conversation around gender and transgender people and nonbinary people has been jumping levels, gaining awareness and legitimacy. To have the government recognize it, regardless of your stance on the government, was legitimizing, and that was huge to me.
It does offer some hope for the future.
Even speaking as a parent—my 11-year-old is in the other room doing remote schooling right now. She’s grown up in the last decade, and I think it’s a really incredible time for her to have been growing up. It would have been different for her, even having been born in 2000 or 10 years prior to that, and so on.
Transitioning is intense and complex for anyone. You did it on the public stage. That must have contained its own set of pressures.
100%. I didn’t necessarily feel like I had a choice, or if there was a choice, it was either go and hide away and forget about being a musician and in a band, as I had been for so many years, or jump headlong into it and be really public about it and explain exactly what’s going on. Then, I put myself out there and made myself available to answer questions, knowing I may not know how to answer them. It was: I’m new at this—here I go.
That’s a sincere and layered approach.
There was so much pressure, whether it was speaking in ways where you are recognizing that whatever you’re saying is going to be representative of a community to some extent or the fact that this crush of being heavily photographed during what’s essentially a second puberty. And whatever you do, it’s immortalized forever on the internet. That’s a whole lot of pressure.
How did you handle that?
I still struggle to handle that, you know? Specifically, being transgender and going from the confines of feeling suffocated and competing in a male world, where you’re perceived as male and masculine and all that comes with that, to then it switches over to where you’re being pitted against other women and competing with all these unrealistic beauty standards that are imposed on women, which comes with its own confines. It’s there, whether anyone wants to really acknowledge it. Instagram is the same as the old-school way of magazines taking pictures of celebrities—it is just part of the culture, and it’s equally suffocating.
And no matter how we can intellectualize it, we can still be adversely affected by it because we are human.
In really simplistic terms, it’s not unreasonable for me to think like, “Oh, I want people to think I’m pretty. I want someone to see a picture of me promoting my record and say, ‘That girl is pretty.’” You’re thrown into that world and all the stuff that goes along with it. There is so much to navigate, and that’s where all of the pressure comes from. There are a million different social interactions, a lot to overcome. There’s the pressure of navigating doing interviews where a percentage of the time the person you’re talking to is cis, so you’re struggling against the pressure of being framed by white dudes who are trying to tell your story. It’s a crazy world to navigate.
How has it been getting on the performance stage after transitioning?
I guess it depends on the show. Performers are only human, and artists are only human. If you’re putting yourself up there onstage and there’s a bunch of people looking at you, you’re going to be conscious of things that you perceive as flaws, and that’s gonna influence you.
These last four years have been very difficult for everybody, women and marginalized groups especially. With the new regime and having a female vice president, do you feel hope?
It’s hard to feel right now, as I felt so burnt out by everything leading up to the election. Then even when Biden won, it was still a game of waiting for the Electoral College. Then we had to wait and see what happened on the actual Inauguration Day. There’s just been so much tension and wondering what might happen. Now it’s March, and I’m holding my breath, seeing how 2021 feels. I’m trying to be patient. We are right back in it with issues like the $15 minimum wage, for example, and you end up with that feeling that they’re all politicians, and it’s always the same. It’s unfortunate. I don’t want to think that way, so I’m trying to avoid feeling that way. I guess I don’t know if I’m feeling hopeful. I don’t know how I’m feeling overall in general. As a person, I try to remain hopeful, but I’m so surprisingly burnt out on paying attention to politicians right now and paying attention to the news. I just need to give it a little more bit of time before I decide how I feel about what’s going on with Biden and Harris.
Have you noticed a marked difference between how industry people treated you as a man and as a woman?
I think specifically as a transgender person, people keep you at a bit of an arm’s length; like any kind of objection you have to something or any disagreements you might have is a sign that you’re mentally unstable or just completely off your rocker. I think operating in the world as a transgender person, I don’t necessarily feel some huge societal shift.
In addition to parenting, what else has been occupying your pandemic time?
Well, I put out a record [Stay Alive] in October, and then I’m doing a DJ thing for Vans at House of Vans, playing songs and talking on the livestream. I’ve been thankful for small things like that that come up and keep me busy—they’re almost like having a tour date on the calendar since I can’t tour right now.
Is not touring hard for you?
Yes. That’s what I do. I know I make records, and I record music, but primarily, I’m a live musician. I like to play shows and tour. It’s weird being in a limbo-like holding pattern. Everyone in the band lives in different places, so, unfortunately, we haven’t been doing anything while this is happening.
Are you being as hopeful as some other musicians and booking anything far in advance?
I have one thing on the calendar in July in the U.K., but at the same time, I’ve mentally accepted that it’s not going to happen and will get booked for the following year. In general, I want to be cautious and not book a tour right out the gates because there’s so much risk involved.
You can read the full interview in Alternative Press’ debut Power Issue: Women Rising, available here.