The Secret Life of Transgender Rocker Tom Gabel

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Gabel says he and Heather are staying together. "For me, the most terrifying thing about this was how she would accept the news," he says. "But she's been super­amazing and understanding." According to Hill, this is rare but not unheard of. Roughly a third of transgender women are attracted to women, and some of them try to maintain the relationships they're in pre-transition. "There are people who start off staying together and, after the full transition, start to trickle out," Hill says. "But just by being willing, they stand a much higher chance."

Gabel gets in their 1964 Mercury Comet and we drive to his favorite fish-taco stand, where, at a picnic table under a palm tree, he starts telling his story. "Growing up, my experience with transsexualism was nothing but shame," he says. "It was something very hidden, and dealt with very privately." The first time he remembers feeling that way was when he was four or five, and he saw Madonna on TV and fantasized about being her. He also remembers playing with Barbies – his mom says he was really into the hot-pink Corvette – as well as his father not being happy about it. "For me, that was a moment when I remember, 'OK, I'm obviously doing something that's not OK in my dad's eyes,'" he says. "But even when I would play G.I. Joes, I wouldn't play war – I would make up stories."

Gabel's dad, Major Thomas Gabel, is a West Point grad who served 20 years in the Army, and Tommy grew up hopping from base to base: Fort Benning, Fort Hood, an Italian NATO post during the first Iraq War. Then when Tommy was 11, his parents got divorced, and he and his mom moved to Florida to live with his grandmother.

"It was a bad divorce," Gabel says. "A nasty divorce. I don't know what the failure of the marriage was – I never asked." But whatever it was, it was bad enough for his mom to never speak to his dad again. Sometimes Gabel would go stay with him during the summer, but it was never fun. His mom says, "I think Tommy became the catchall for the anger of the split."

Florida is the first time Gabel remembers being severely depressed. "It probably had a lot to do with where I was puberty­wise, and hormones," he says, "but that was a period of extreme dysphoria – of just not wanting to be male." Some days, he would pray to God: "Dear God, please, when I wake up, I want a female body." Other times he'd try the devil: "I promise to spend the rest of my life as a serial killer if you turn me into a woman." He thought he was a pervert, or had some kind of fetish. There was no Internet back then, so all he knew was what he'd seen in movies, which basically meant The Crying Game and The Silence of the Lambs – or, as Gabel puts it, "the sad tranny and the fucking scary tranny."

For most of his teenage years, Gabel was "miserable." Because he'd moved around so much, he'd never had many friends. He got picked on at school, called a "faggot" because of the way he dressed. By 13, he'd started experimenting pretty seriously with hard drugs, graduating from alcohol and pot to acid and cocaine. He'd go on to struggle with addiction well into his twenties; in retrospect, he thinks, he was doing whatever he could to numb the pain.

Even today, Gabel can't look at his reflection in the mirror without being disgusted by the parts that look male: his Adam's apple, his square jaw, his shoulders, his hips. Back then, the only way he knew how to cope was to cross-dress: "Just the act of looking in the mirror while presenting femme is immediately calming," he says. Sometimes he'd skip school and watch TV all day, dressed in his mom's clothes. (He tried to be sneaky about it, but suspects she may have known; "I had no idea," she says.) Other times he'd shoplift from stores or swipe clothes from his female friends. "Anytime you thought you could get away with taking something," he says, "you'd take it."

For a while, Gabel wondered if he might be gay. "I definitely asked myself, 'Am I attracted to men?'" He says he made out with a couple of guys when he was younger, but never anything more than that. He just always found it easier to be with women – both in a physical sense and an emotional one. "I've never had trouble talking and expressing my feelings," he says. Adds his mom, "He was always just so gentle."

Well, maybe not always. When he was in junior high, Gabel fell in love with punk rock. He was attracted to the nihilism, and the idea of fighting back. Against Me!'s guitarist, James Bowman, has been Gabel's best friend since they met on their first day of high school; he gave Gabel his first tattoo, they raided Gabel's mom's liquor cabinet together and played "machete avocado baseball" in the backyard. "I don't think Tom gives a fuck about much," Bowman says. "I've known him for a long time, and that seems to be his general attitude about life."

Against Me! started as a bedroom project, Gabel playing alone and acoustically. (In hindsight, the name seems like a nod to his conflicted identity.) When he was 18, he moved to Gainesville and turned Against Me! into a full band, playing dive bars and laundromats, sometimes to an audience of zero. For a few years, Gabel lived a life of unimpeachable punk cred: volunteering for socialist groups like Food Not Bombs; paying 100 bucks to live in a house with 12 roommates across the street from an experimental waste dump; and making ends meet by dumpster-diving and selling his plasma. ("They didn't give you a snack – but it cost less to get drunk that night.") Meanwhile, Against Me! began touring the world, playing some epically grungy shit holes, like an anarchist squat in Poland where the tenants kept rotten eggs on the roof to fight off the junkies, and Nazi skinheads robbed people at gunpoint. ("Touring Eastern Europe is fucking hardcore, man.")

Being in such a male-centric scene forced Gabel to confront his own masculinity. "With the band especially," he says, "I felt more and more like I was putting on an act – like I was being shoved into this role of 'angry white man in a punk band.'" He started realizing punk was just a glorified boys' club, one that he felt increasingly alienated from. Recently, he's been going through old journal entries from that time, looking for hints of who he'd become: He found one entry where he described stealing his roommate's birth-control pills to see what they would do to him ("Word to the wise: Don't do that"), and a lot of days where he just wandered the streets of Gainesville, gazing at dresses in shop windows and imagining how he'd look in them.

It was around this time that Gabel started sprinkling his lyrics with oblique confessions. There was the song "Violence" ("Oh, you've been keeping secrets... nothing but shame and paranoia") and "The Disco Before the Breakdown" ("I know they're going to laugh at us/When they see us out together holding hands like this"). For Against Me!'s biggest hit, the song "Thrash Unreal," he even tried to convince their A&R guy to let him cross-dress in the video. ("They shot me down.") But the most blatant reference came in a song called "The Ocean," off their 2007 album, New Wave.

In retrospect, the lines are almost shockingly direct: If I could have chosen I would have been born a woman / My mother once told me she would have named me Laura / I would grow up to be strong and beautiful like her / One day I'd find an honest man to make my husband

Gabel says he thought he was "completely outing himself" with a lyric like that. He expected to be confronted – a part of him even craved it. But if anyone suspected anything, no one brought it up. "When we did that song, I was like, 'What is that about?'" says Butch Vig, who produced Against Me!'s last two albums. "He just kind of laughed it off. He said, 'I was stoned and dreaming about what life can be.'"

"I must have listened to him sing that song 500 times," adds the band's manager, Jordan Kleeman. "And I never thought twice."

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