The horrific shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that left 49 people dead and numerous others injured early Sunday morning was the latest tragedy in a trying past few months for the LGBT community. This election year has sparked a rise in homophobic and transphobic rhetoric, and states are legislating away the bathroom rights of transgender people, most notably with the passage of North Carolina’s contentious HB2. When Against Me! played in Durham, North Carolina, last month, Laura Jane Grace – the punk band’s venerated frontperson and self-assured transgender advocate – burned her birth certificate from the stage to protest the meaninglessness of an assigned gender.
Last June, Pride parties around the country were celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage. One year later, on Tuesday in Oakland, streaming music platform Pandora hosted a “Pride Unplugged” fireside chat with Grace to a standing-room only audience of its employees, and the conversation inevitably started with a somber question about the mass shooting a few days earlier. “There’s no other way you can feel right now than sadness and extreme grief,” Grace said of the hate crime that occurred in her home state.
Grace came out to Rolling Stone as a transgender woman in 2012. Two years later, Against Me! released Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which further exposed Grace’s inner struggles to the public. In between touring, she’s become a vocal ally for others across the gender spectrum, most notably through her Emmy-nominated AOL Web series True Trans and her “Mandatory Happiness” column for Noisey.
Of course, being such an outspoken activist and punk hero doesn’t exclude Grace from the everyday insults transgender people endure. She tells the gathered crowd that the vast disparity in education about and attitudes towards transgender people is part of the problem. “One of the last times I flew out of SFO, I was going through the body scanner machines, and the TSA agent on the other side said, ‘How would you like to be identified as?’ and ‘Who would you like to pat you down?'” Grace contrasts that level of sensitivity with a recent interaction with a TSA agent at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. “Someone was patting me down and looked at me and said, ‘This is the reason why I hate my job so fucking much.'”
After years of self reflection, Grace says the gender confusion she sees in strangers’ reactions to her is no longer her issue to resolve. “I’m totally fine with myself. It’s the other people I run into out there who are so hung up on gender,” she says. “The way it trips them up is their problem, not mine.”
After receiving a genuine standing ovation from the crowd and grabbing a bag of free trail mix from Pandora’s plentiful snack wall (“Trail mix is so expensive at the airport!”), Grace sat down with Rolling Stone to talk about Against Me!’s new record, her new memoir and the deeper issues beneath this year’s big transgender headlines.
You said that your first reaction to the shooting at Pulse in Orlando was deep sadness. Where did your mind go next? Did you feel like you needed to take some kind of action, or to write something?
I know where Pulse nightclub is; I know that area. We play shows there all the time. I grew up going to that area. So it touches you in a different way when you can relate to that. Even with the Bataclan [shooting in Paris], I’ve played the Bataclan, so I can picture myself there, trying to think what would happen if I was there. It’s insane, but that’s naturally what you start to do.
My immediate reaction [to Orlando] is not wanting to write about it – no. It’s more like I fucking hate people; I hate humanity, I don’t know what’s wrong with the world. It’s more that kind of disgust with what’s happening in this day and age.
“My immediate reaction [to Orlando] is not wanting to write about it – no. It’s more like I fucking hate people.”
Through your Web series and your column, you’ve hosted discussions about the everyday violence that happens to transgender people. Does the public conversation about this mass shooting also need to include discussions of the violence trans men and women face regularly?
It’s hard to relate the two because [Pulse] was a queer nightclub but it’s not like the transgender people were specifically targeted in what happened. But I do think it’s important to talk about the everyday violence that happens against transgender people. That’s what talking about HB2 is really about. It’s like laws like that, people’s mentalities like that, that are thinly masked transphobia and that equates to violence.
Last week you tweeted that you wrapped your new album. Can you tell us the name?
We’re still arguing that out [laughs], but it’s coming out in the fall.
What are the major themes of this new record?
They’re love songs. I’m feeling like I’m in a place where I can write about things that I’ve never been able to write about before. It’s a fairly cliché topic but it’s also always relevant. Being able to write about love through a trans lens is something that’s not really represented when it comes to love songs.
What song on the album stands out to you right now?
A song called “Suicide Bomber.” I was thinking about the crazy shit that’s happening in the world today and about the people who are on the periphery of that – like someone’s parents. It’s the idea of, as a parent myself, how does your love relate to your kid if your kid grows up to do something so fucking horrific like a shooting or a bombing? How does the love of a parent then change based on that? How does the idea that you as a couple created something that went on to create such havoc or such terror or chaos? How do you wrestle with those feelings? I wrote that song shortly after the Bataclan incident, thinking about, how do the parents feel? It wasn’t their fault. Do they no longer love their kid?
What drove you to write a memoir?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and I’ve kept journals since I was eight years old. I did a field trip in school and the teacher gave me an assignment to keep a journal and I just kept keeping journals ever since. So at this point I have like five or six huge boxes that are just full of journals. Once the book is out I’m just going to burn them all and then I no longer have to carry all these journals with me [laughs]. I can start fresh. It was a little motivated by the need to put an end to this chapter and move on and start writing in a different way.
How meticulous are your journals? Do you record conversations you’ve had with people?
Totally. And it’s something that Dan Ozzi, who helped me with the book, we talked about. Often times you go back and you’re like, “I’m going to write a book,” and you go, “Now I have to remember what happened all those years ago,” and your memory will get skewed and you’ll remember things differently. I kept meticulous journals where, it’s still my perspective, but I don’t need to try and remember where I was on August 23rd, 2003. I know exactly where I was, exactly how I was feeling, down to, like, I always write the time. If I’m on a flight, I write the flight number. I write what seat I’m sitting in. If I’m in a hotel, I write what hotel room number it was; I would give detailed descriptions of the hotel rooms. But that also meant having to go, “You don’t need to include all that.” [Laughs]
How did going back and reading all your old journals change your perception of your younger self?
I feel sad for just how miserable I was most of the time. I had all these incredible opportunities to go to all these places, tour with all these amazing bands, do all these crazy things – that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it a lot of the time – but privately I was just fucking miserable.
“I had all these incredible opportunities … but privately I was just fucking miserable.”
You’ve been so open about so much of your life. Was there anything that was difficult to write about in a memoir?
Mostly family stuff, and thinking about how what I’m saying now in a book will be read by my dad, who I haven’t talked to in four years. Or my mom is going to read it. My mom thinks I’m joking, but I’m like, “Mom, you can’t read my book.” [Laughs] She’s like, “I’m gonna get it.” And I’m like, “No, do not read my book.”
People come up to me and they’re like, “I’m really excited for your book,” but I’m so fucking terrified of my book coming out. I’m worried that it’s going to come out and I’m never going to be able to have any kind of normalcy in my life again because of this book. On the flip side, I hope that maybe that means it’s good. But also I’m totally terrified – I have a kid who is one day going to read my book and I didn’t hold anything back.
What was your thought process behind giving your memoir the controversial name Tranny?
I hate that word. I loathe that word. Obviously with the subtitle too, of calling myself a sellout, that’s a word that was thrown at me throughout my career, and tranny is a slur that’s been thrown at me. So there’s a certain amount of word reclamation but there’s also a certain amount of representing that part of the experience of gender dysphoria, of being trans, is self-hate. And that was a big part of my journaling, was self-hate. Just writing about how much I fucking hated myself and how much I felt like a disgusting fucking tranny. That’s where the title comes from.
What was the experience like playing in North Carolina under HB2?
I just assumed that was how it already was going to be in North Carolina. I already operate under that level of fear in public of bathrooms, of going into the men’s or women’s restroom. My reality is when I go into North Carolina, if I’m using a public restroom, I have to operate under that kind of fear that there might be violence.
My first instance of any sort of transphobia was when I was with my daughter at her soccer practice. This was right after I came out, in St. Augustine, Florida. Small town. I came out in Rolling Stone; a lot of people knew about it. And [my daughter] was like, “I have to go to the bathroom.” She took off running right into the men’s room. I went after her and this huge dude jumped out in front of me, blocking the doorway and was like, “Wrong restroom.” And so he has me in this position where I’m looking over and seeing, well, the women’s restroom is filled with mothers and all their daughters. You’re going to have the same reaction if I try to go into the women’s room. So I have no restroom scenario that I can use right now. And that’s what this is really about. It’s about transphobia.
I just assume that what is the law for HB2 is the law everywhere I go.
Your approach to Web series and your column has been to spotlight a variety of people along the gender spectrum, living in cities around the country. Are you consciously making sure that you’re bringing out stories of different types of people, as opposed to just telling your story?
Totally, and in general feeling totally uncomfortable any time someone says that I’m a spokesperson for the trans community. I don’t necessarily want that title. I recognize that I’m in a band, and part of being in a band is doing interviews, and I do have a platform so I want to use that platform to talk about things that are real. This is real; I know how to talk about it. But at the same time I don’t want to pretend that I represent everyone, so I’m lending the microphone to someone else to speak about their experience. I’m also demonstrating that gender isn’t a binary, it’s a spectrum, and there are lots of differences. Saying “I’m trans” doesn’t necessarily mean one thing.