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Laura Jane Grace: true trans soul rebel

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The fearless Against Me! frontwoman talks tattoos, transitions and Transgender Dysphoria Blues

Taken from the Spring 2015 issue of Dazed:

Laura Jane Grace is a force of nature. A daring and individualistic vocalist in Florida punk outfit Against Me! since the late 90s, her fearless blend of the personal and political found new context on last year’s album Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which explored her transition to living as a woman and ignited conversations not often explored within her band’s genre. Yet, speaking on a break from recording a new album in Detroit, Grace insists that her evolution isn’t over – far from it.

How old were you when you started to feel trapped in a male body?

Laura Jane Grace: Those feelings were always there for me, from as early as I can remember. But I had never heard the word ‘transgender’. The idea and concept of transitioning didn’t exist to me. 

What was your reaction to the tragic suicide of Leelah Alcorn, the trans teenager who took her own life in December last year?

Laura Jane Grace: I definitely understand that kind of pain. It’s that sense of not being able to see a future with the way you feel, and how to reconcile that with the way society works. That’s why transgender visibility is so important – it’s about showing young people that it’s possible to have a happy adult life. I know how crushing it can be growing up in a small place like that (Alcorn was from Lebanon, Ohio), especially when you don’t have the support of your family.

Leelah wrote ‘fix society’ in the Tumblr note she left behind – how can that happen?

Laura Jane Grace: It all has to do with education. I find it hard to fault someone if they’re uneducated. It’s important to break the taboos of gender. Conversion therapy should be made criminal – it’s nothing but damaging. When I was in middle school my mother made me go to a church youth group which paid for me to see a therapist and made me feel like something was wrong with me. 

Punk and hardcore are often seen as quite macho and male-dominated genres – is that really the case?

Laura Jane Grace: I think it depends on where you look. I was very much into those British anarcho-peace-punk bands of the 1970s and early 1980s, which had a very strong female presence. That extended over to a lot of things that happened in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s and the riot grrrl movement. Those were the examples of what I wanted to see in punk. I thought that was a space for me to exist in, because I didn’t feel accepted in other places. My friends and I were kind of hippies and we got beat up a lot. So the appeal of punk was the attitude – it was about fighting back and getting angry. 

Do you consider yourself an activist?

Laura Jane Grace: That’s definitely very much where I came from. When I got into the Sex Pistols, it was the nihilism that really attracted me, but that only lasted so long. It was the politics behind it that kept me inspired. Then I discovered the punk band Crass and that just changed my life – my first tattoo was a Crass logo when I was 14. The politics I learned from UK anarchopunk bands are politics I still hold on to today.

“Transgender visibility is so important – it’s about showing young people that it’s possible to have a happy adult life” – Laura Jane Grace

How do you feel about personalities, like Laverne Cox, opening up the conversation, and shows like Transparent winning awards – could you have foreseen that five years ago?

Laura Jane Grace: No, not at all! From my experience, seeing other people come out is encouragement to accept myself. Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine is an example of a positive role model – not the cliché of a Rayon (Jared Leto’s character) from Dallas Buyers Club. I’d really like to see new clichés, like, ‘Oh great, another successful transgender person!’ 

Last year, you were vocal in criticising Arcade Fire’s ‘We Exist’ video, which saw Andrew Garfield cast as a transwoman, and then you changed your position. How do you feel about that now?

Laura Jane Grace: Well, first of all I had no idea that a single tweet would ever reach so far! I woke up that morning, drank a cup of coffee, watched a video and made an off-handed remark. I didn’t delete it, but talking to Our Lady J (transwoman who coached Garfield in the video) kind of changed my mind – she told me she identified with the experiences in the video. I do still stand by the idea that I wish trans roles would go to trans actors. There’s no shortage of transgender actors who can tell their own story. 

You’re known for your tattoos, but why did you recently have an entire arm inked black?

Laura Jane Grace: It was a really, really painful eight-hour session in San Francisco. I didn’t originally intend to cover up every single tattoo, but once they started one thing led to another. To be able to wipe the slate clean is oddly refreshing. It’s black now, but the black will fade, and I’ll be able to tattoo on to the black. I don’t ever want to stop shape-shifting.

You’re currently working on your seventh album. What can we expect?

Laura Jane Grace: I felt a real burst of creativity towards the end of the year. At first it was a little bit hard to wrap my head around what direction to go in. Our last record was very personal and pretty heavy for me. So it’s not like you’re going to take the approach of, ‘So this record’s even more personal!’ I think I just wanted to write a record that’s really fun. It’s fun songs to listen and dance to and hopefully that’ll translate for everyone. 

You’re also writing your autobiography – how’s that going?

Laura Jane Grace: It’s kind of like Get in the Van (Henry Rollins’ 1994 memoir of his years in Black Flag), but a little more transsexual. 

What was your first punk show?

Laura Jane Grace: Green Day – I got into them at the time they were really exploding. It was in Orlando, Florida, at an outdoor venue called The Edge. I went with my best friend. We dyed our hair green with spray-on dye. Because we were all sweaty by the end of the show our skin was totally fucking dyed green. I remember feeling like you had to go into the pit, which was terrifying – I was 13 years old and must have weighed 90lbs. So you went in and you were brutalised and came out knowing you didn’t have any fun doing that but then felt like, ‘I guess I’ve got to do that again now!’

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