Then in 2006, after the band signed to Warner Bros. and its career took off, Gabel swore off cross-dressing for good. "You go through periods of binging and purging," he explains. "I was 25, we were about to go on a long period of touring, and I was like, 'That's it. I'm getting rid of all this. I'm male, and that's it.'" He says it wasn't that hard: "You're living with four or five other guys constantly, on a bus or in hotels. You don't have any personal time. You're just distracted."
It was on that tour that he met Heather Hannoura, a punk-rock chick from Detroit who designed merch for bands like My Chemical Romance and Green Day, as well as making art of her own. She and Tommy first met in Nevada in 2006 – fittingly, in a town called Sparks – when Heather was on tour with the band Alkaline Trio and Against Me! were their openers. She'd seen him in magazines, and somehow, she just knew they'd end up together. "He seemed really shy, which I thought was cute because he doesn't come across that way in his band at all," she says. "In the context of what's happening now, it seems cliché to say that he lacked machismo or bravado, but that's part of what I liked."
The two of them spent the summer together on Warped Tour, then moved in together later that fall. Gabel got Heather's name tattooed on his chest, and she got his tattooed on her hip. In December, Gabel proposed. A year later, they were married.
According to Gabel, this all came at a time when "the dysphoria wasn't completely overwhelming." He says he'd firmly committed to living as a man, he was attracted to Heather and had fallen in love. "There wasn't any malice in terms of withholding anything," he says. "Our relationship completely consumed my thoughts." He assumed if he tried hard enough, he could go on suppressing it forever. As it turned out, that lasted about three years.
Right around the time Heather got pregnant, in February 2009, the feelings "started coming back really strong." For about a year, he vowed not to act on them, to make sure it wasn't some passing thing. But then in 2010, around when Against Me! got dropped from their label, the feelings became unavoidable. He started taking weeklong writing trips by himself, checking into hotels dressed as a woman. Finally, in September of that year, he realized he couldn't write about anything else. That's when he knew: He needed to transition.
In hindsight, Gabel says, those songs may have been his subconscious's way of forcing him to do what he wouldn't, or couldn't. They started pouring out of him: He told the band he was writing a concept album about a transsexual prostitute, called Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Then one day this February, they were in the studio together, and Gabel decided to stop beating around the bush. "I'm transgender," he told them, "and I'm transitioning." They were shocked. "I was like, 'Wait, are you fucking with me right now?'" says Kleeman. "'Or are you telling me some crazy-deep personal thing?'"
"I felt like I drop-kicked them in the face," says Gabel. "You could kind of see this look – like, hold it together, hold it together, hold it together..." The guys asked him a few questions: Did he plan to have surgery? (He didn't know.) Would he perform as a woman? (He hadn't decided.) Then for a while, they all just sat there, until somebody suggested they go smoke a bowl.
Afterward, says Gabel, "we had the most awkward hug ever, and then they left. And the second I shut the door, I was like, 'What the fuck did I just do?'"
Driving back to Gainesville in Kleeman's Jetta, Kleeman, Bowman and bassist Andrew Seward were just as confused. Seward, who doesn't usually smoke pot, was bugging out: "I'm really high right now – this is real, right?" They all decided they needed to start working out, so that if anyone messed with Gabel they'd be able to throw down. "We gotta take care of Tom!" Kleeman said. "We gotta protect him!" (Later, in a moment of lesshighness, he says, "The more I think about it, I don't know that that's really necessary.")
Over the next few weeks, Gabel came out to a few more people. He sent an e-mail to the band's drummer, Jay Weinberg, the son of E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg, who lives in New Jersey. (Weinberg – who only joined the band in 2010 – says that on a scale of one to 10, his surprise level was "about a six.") The next person he told was January Hunt. The first question he asked her was, "Will you be my friend?" The second was, "What kind of conditioner do you use?"
For most of the band's history, Gabel has been officially credited as "Tom." But he's always been "Tommy" to his family and friends, and he prefers it right now because it sounds less masculine. Once he starts fully presenting as a female, though, he'll go by a new name that he picked out. The last name, Grace, is his mom's maiden name. The middle name, Jane, he just thinks is pretty. And his first name is the one his mother would have chosen. "It's Laura," he says. "Laura Jane Grace."
The next day, Heather is sitting on the patio of her favorite Mexican restaurant downtown, in a sea of, as Gabel sings in the song "White Crosses," "beach-blond college girls" and "tourist-filled bars."
The Gabels moved here in 2010, when Evelyn was about one, because the house was cheap and they wanted to be by the beach. But Heather doesn't like it much. It's too Southern, too Christian, not very tolerant. She also doesn't have many friends here, and she gets lonely when Tommy's on the road. They argue about it sometimes. In fact, they were arguing about it the day Tommy told her his news.
That morning, they'd gone to the farmers' market to pick up some groceries. They're not sure how the fight started, but it was the same old issue. Fuck it, Gabel thought. We're unhappy here, and you think I'm a guy. So if we're gonna be unhappy, I might as well be a woman. They went back home and put Evelyn down for a nap. And then he said, "Come here."
"We got in bed," Heather recalls, "and we just started hugging. He was hugging me really close. And then he just said, 'I have to tell you something.'"
He told her he was transsexual, and her response was, "Of all the things you could have told me, that is the least worst." But it took a couple of tries for the news to really sink in. ("At first she thought I wanted to cross-dress at home," Gabel says, grinning, "and that's not what I meant.") When it did, she had one major concern: She wondered if he would leave her.
"He wants to be a woman," she remembers thinking. "What's going to make him feel more like a woman than a man?" When Gabel said he was scared she would leave him, her response was, "That's nuts!"
Afterward, Heather says, "I was like, 'If you have some master plan, just hit me with it now.' And he's like, 'I have no idea – I just want to explore this.' And I was like, 'OK. Let's do it.'" They took a shower, woke Evelyn up, went to dinner. Then, they talked some more and had sex. ("Like normal," she says, "but better.") "I kept waiting to get mad," Heather says. "Like, 'Tomorrow I'll be really upset.'" But even two months later, the only thing she was pissed about was the fact that Gabel had gone through it all by himself. "That did kind of hurt a little. I was like, 'You could have talked to me.'"
Gabel says he tried. He remembers one night when they were messing around, and Heather "took off her shirt and she was wearing a bra and matching panties. And I was like, 'That's from Victoria's Secret – this collection, this year.'" Heather didn't pick up on it, he says. "But I knew, because I fucking had it."
Looking back, Heather does remember some other funny clothes-related things – like the black Burberry belt he was always stealing, or the way he liked to help pick out her shoes. ("I just thought he had good taste.") Sometimes they'd trade tops or jeans, and Heather would joke about it – like, "If you ever started cross-dressing, you would have the best wardrobe!" Gabel would laugh and change the subject. But in his head, he was thinking, "I know."
Basically, she's been about as cool as anyone could possibly be. "I'm not really a think-about-the-future kind of person," she says. "I'm like, 'Let's see what happens, and we'll just roll with it.' My friends have been like, 'What about you?' But I'm fine. I just want him to be who he is, and for us to get on with phase two. You know. Just... charge!"
Gabel's friends say they're not surprised but still impressed. Bowman says, "If I dropped that on someone and they freaked out and took off, I would completely understand. But Heather's not like most people."
"As long as I've known her she's been strong and super down-to-earth," says Kleeman, "so it's no surprise that she's standing by him. But, I mean... hats off to her."
Heather admits that if she'd first met Tommy when he was a woman, she probably wouldn't have been interested. But lately she's been noticing his more feminine qualities, and she likes them. She helped him pluck his eyebrows and pick out stage shoes. She's even beginning to get jealous of his figure. "When he starts taking hormones, he's gonna get these cute little boobs," she says. "I've always wanted that svelte body with little tits. I've never been attracted to girls, but when he has that cute little boob sticking out of the side of his tank top... hi-ya!" (Says Gabel, "That's awesome.")
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