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The Secret Life of Transgender Rocker Tom Gabel

The frontman of the aggro-political punk crew Against Me! has always known he was really a woman. Now he's becoming one.

May 31, 2012 11:05 AM ET
laura jane grace
Laura Jane Grace in a St. Augustine, Florida recording studio.
Cass Bird

On a warm Friday evening at the end of March, the artist soon to be formerly known as Tommy Gabel is walking through Manhattan on his way to meet one of his biggest fans, a 23-year-old woman named January Hunt. When Hunt was 16, she saw Gabel play a show and wrote him a long, impassioned fan letter about how he'd changed her life.

Right now, Gabel is feeling a little nervous. "It's probably stupid to talk to a fan like this," he says. "I don't really know her – I just sent her a cryptic message on Twitter asking if she could meet up. I just don't have anyone else to talk to."

Gabel, 31, is the lead singer for Against Me!, a 15-year-old punk band from Gainesville, Florida, most famous for their radical politics and Gabel's throat-shredding growl. They've sung about economic injustice, dismantling the system and generally fucking shit up on stages from tiny suburban clubs to Giants Stadium, and been praised by Bruce Springsteen and Foo Fighters while shouting about things like "The Politics of Starving" and "Cliché Guevara."

The song that helped change January's life is called "Searching for a Former Clarity," a ballad tucked at the end of the band's 2005 record. The lyrics are about a man who's dying of what sounds like AIDS; midway through, Gabel sings:

And in the journal you kept by the side of your bed...  Confessing childhood secrets of dressing up in women's clothes / Compulsions you never knew the reasons to

The song resonated with January so intensely because it was her story, too. As a transgender teenager in suburban New York, Hunt put on dresses and high heels and painted her nails pink, never daring to tell her friends in the hardcore scene. When she heard Gabel's song that night, it was the first time a punk band's lyrics spoke directly to her experience. And when she showed up six years later to another Against Me! show, crowd-surfing like a champ in her red pencil skirt and shoulder-length blond hair, she had Gabel, in whatever small way, to thank.

Gabel remembered her, too. "When I saw her at that show, I was like, 'Fuck, yeah,'" he says. "I just found it so awesome and empowering. In a way, it showed me what a coward I was being. Because if she had the courage to come out as trans – then why the fuck didn't I?"

For as long as he can remember, Gabel has lived with a condition known as gender dysphoria. As the textbooks explain it, it's a feeling of intense dissatisfaction and disconnect from the gender you were assigned at birth. As Gabel explains it, "The cliché is that you're a woman trapped in a man's body, but it's not that simple. It's a feeling of detachment from your body and from yourself. And it's shitty, man. It's really fucking shitty."

Over the past few months, Gabel has begun the public part of a process that's been going on privately for years: leaving his male identity behind and living the rest of his life as a woman. He's been doing research – reading books like Julia Serano's Whipping Girl, watching transition videos on YouTube. Soon, he'll start taking hormones and undergoing electrolysis. And down the road – in the next couple of years – he intends to have surgery. "Right now, I'm in this awkward transition period," he says. "I look like a dude and feel like a dude, and it sucks. But eventually I'll flip, and I'll present as female."

Walking through the streets tonight in a T-shirt and hoodie, Gabel doesn't look especially feminine. He's point-guard tall and rock-star skinny, with tattoos covering his arms and chest. But if you look just right at his blue eyes or already­lasered cheeks, or the way he brushes his brown curls out of his face, you can almost catch a glimpse of the woman he's becoming.

According to Brandon Hill, research associate and resident transgender expert at the Kinsey Institute, about one in 30,000 men is clinically diagnosed as being transgender. Gabel isn't the first musician to identify that way – the list includes proto-punk singer Jayne County, electronic composer Wendy Carlos and cabaret artist Justin Vivian Bond. But this is definitely the first time someone from such a high-profile band has come out in such a high-profile way. "I'm going to have embarrassing moments," Gabel says, "and that won't be fun. But that's part of what talking to you is about – is hoping people understand, and hoping they'll be fairly kind."

As of this night in New York, he's only shared his news with a handful of people. Even his parents and little brother don't know. "Even now," he says, "there's a part of me that's not convinced I know what the fuck I'm doing. But there's another part of me that's completely, 100 percent sure."

Soon, Gabel arrives at the cafe where he and January are planning to meet. She's waiting for him out front. And for a second, he just stands across the street, working up the nerve. "She seems really cool," he says. "And I don't have any trans friends, and I feel like I need one. Basically," he says, "I'm just going to ask her to be my friend."

One week later, Ggabel is at home in St. Augustine, Florida, in his cozy bungalow on a well-manicured block in one of the unpunkest neighborhoods imaginable. There's a Prius in the driveway and a purple tricycle on the lawn. The only hint of anything rock & roll is the big white Chevy tour van parked out front.

"Hey!" Gabel says when he answers the door, "come in. We're just finishing lunch." He leads the way down the hall and into the kitchen, where, sitting at the table, are a pretty, dark-haired woman in a black tank top and an impossibly cute two-year-old in a blue dress and braids – Gabel's wife, Heather, 35, and their daughter, Evelyn. "Evelyn's about to take a nap," Heather says, smiling. She stands to clear the table, and Gabel grabs his keys. "Should we go talk?"

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