“I found out it’s hard to press guitar pedals in high heels,” says Laura Jane Grace. In May 2012, following a lifelong struggle with gender dysphoria, Grace – the singer of the punk act Against Me! and formerly known as Tom Gabel – came out as a transgender woman in a Rolling Stone interview. “Coming out was really positive for me,” she says, sitting with guitarist James Bowman by a hotel pool in North Hollywood a few weeks before the release of Against Me!’s sixth album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues. “But it doesn’t mean everything in my life is worked out all of a sudden.”
Dressed down in a long-sleeve black T-shirt and a knit cap, Grace seems happy. Since hormone therapy does not affect the voice, she sounds the same as ever. “Being totally absorbed in making a record doesn’t leave a lot of time to do anything else,” she says. “I wake up, eat breakfast, hang out with my kid for a second and then go to a studio until 11:00 at night, six days a week.”
Even so, Grace describes her life recently as “a whirlwind.” A tree fell through the roof of her Florida studio during a bad storm. A move to Chicago with her wife and young daughter was marred by the theft of $15,000 worth of guitars en route. And half of Against Me! – bassist Andrew Seward and drummer Jay Weinberg (son of the E Street Band’s Max Weinberg) – abruptly quit. Did her transition to living openly as a woman put a strain on the band? “Sure,” Grace says. “But there were a lot of other circumstances that made it more stressful.” She cites the band’s rocky tenure on Sire Records for its past two albums. “That’s what happens when you’re a punk band that signs to a major label,” she says without bitterness.
Against Me! have a new rhythm section (drummer Atom Willard and touring bassist Inge Johansson), but the core of the band remains Grace and Bowman – close friends since their first day of high school in Naples, Florida. “Having all the shake-ups we’ve had this past year really solidified your friendship with me,” Grace says, turning to Bowman. “The fact that we’re still here means that relationship is fucking rock-solid.”
The band’s self-released new album started out as a collection of songs about a transsexual prostitute. When Bowman seemed perplexed early on, Grace – still presenting as male at the time – told him it was a concept album. After she came out, everything became clearer. Grace says the anthemic “True Trans Soul Rebel” is about the fears that surround coming out as trans. “You become more brave about presenting femme, but you’re still closeted, so you have nowhere to go,” she says. “You end up in a weird motel in the middle of nowhere, wandering down halls, hoping nobody sees you.”
Through it all, music has remained a constant in Grace’s life. “I’m a 33-year-old transsexual felon who didn’t graduate from high school,” she says. “My job opportunities are pretty nonexistent, but I’ve been playing guitar since I was eight years old. This is what I’m going to do with my life – even if that eventually means that I’m standing on a street corner, busking for change.”
This story is from the January 30th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.