Last night, Against Me! fans learned that the group’s singer Tom Gabel plans to begin the process of transitioning and will eventually take the name Laura Jane Grace. The full story will appear in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, on newsstands this Friday (May 11th.) We spoke to contributing editor Josh Eells about reporting the piece.
What was your first reaction to the news about Tommy?
It would have been surprising news with most bands, but especially with Tommy. I think the reason that a lot of people have been so surprised – at least from what I’ve seen over the last day – is that a lot of people saw the band as “masculine,” for lack of a better word. Their music is so aggressive and his voice was so deep and raw and all these these things we associate with maleness. It seemed like a very male band. It’s the kind of band where most of their fans are angry teenage boys, so it became especially surprising to me in that context. That obviously doesn’t have anything to with with how Tommy feels inside, but it’s sort of ironic within the context of this band.
Tell me about your first meeting with Tommy.
Tommy was playing a show at the Bowery Ballroom in New York at the end of March. I went to soundcheck and met her afterwards. She said, “I have a meeting to go to. Can you walk with me because I don’t know my way around the city.” At first I thought she was easily lost, but I realized she just wanted to go talk away from everyone else. At this point nobody on the tour knew, and very few people outside of her immediate family knew either. On this walk we ran into Jay Weinberg, the drummer for Against Me!, and Tommy stopped talking and just went, “Hey Jay!” They talked about the show for a bit. She told me later that Jay didn’t know yet. That’s how small the circle was. Even the drummer in the band didn’t know.
Was she open to sharing so much personal stuff with you right off the bat?
At that point she had decided, “If I’m going to be comfortable with this story, I want to be comfortable telling all of it.” She was very open and honest and generous throughout the whole process. There wasn’t single question she wouldn’t answer. It’s a huge thing to tell a stranger – especially when you haven’t told your mother or father. But she didn’t seem nervous or like she was trying to hold anything back. She made it incredibly easy.
Do you know why she wanted to reveal this in such a hugely public way?
I’m not sure why she wanted to do it in exactly this way, but I think she wanted to not have a thousand conversations with people. This was a way to push herself a little. She said that so many times she’d make a goal to tell her wife Heather or the band, and she’d make excuses and put it off. This was setting up a deadline for herself. She knew this would come out at the beginning of May. Also, she just wanted to have something she could point people towards. Instead of having people e-mail and call over and over, she could just say, “This article explains everything and after that we can talk.” It was a good way to get the news out all at once.
How much did you know about this topic before writing the story?
I was like Tommy growing up. I knew what I half-gleaned from popular culture and stuff like that, which was not very much or very accurate. I had no personal experience with transgender people. It was a total learning experience. She was happy to explain the most elementary things to me.
Is she worried about the affect this will have on her career? How about on her singing voice?
She’s hopeful that the percentage of fans that won’t be cool with this will be small. She said, “I know our fans and it may be too much for some of them to take, but I know that a lot of them are open-minded and welcoming. I hope they’ll come on this journey with me.” The reaction I’ve seen has been almost all positive.
As far as her voice, she’s not worried right now. So far the only kind of medical thing she’s having done is hormones. She says the estrogen doesn’t affect your voice. If she goes ahead with some of the cosmetic things – like tracheal shaving, which whittles down your Adam’s apple – there’s a possibility that might affect her voice. But she’s really hesitant to do that because of that. As of right now, she should sound the same, as loud and aggro and awesome as ever, just as a woman.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the singer’s chosen name in the headline and to clarify the language around her transition.