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Trans Punk Icon Laura Jane Grace Talks Love In The Patriarchy And Writing A Memoir

Laura Jane Grace. (Leslie Lyons)
Laura Jane Grace. (Leslie Lyons)

Laura Jane Grace is writing her story.

The tale has been rehashed many times in the media. In 2012, Grace, the lead singer of the Florida punk band Against Me!, came out publicly as transgender. There was a big feature in Rolling Stone and a revealing interview on MTV. Against Me!’s 2014 album, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” dealt almost exclusively with the coming-out process.

Grace weathered the publicity storm and shouldered the mantle of transgender spokesperson with an ease befitting her new surname, but the whirlwind left her feeling precarious. Her marriage crumbled; it was Grace’s second divorce. She moved from Florida, where she once shared a home with her wife and daughter, to Chicago.

Grace at last began to work earnestly on a memoir that had been percolating for years. The task involved sifting through her old tour diaries, which she had been keeping since she was a teenager. Her coming out story had been told, practically in real time. Now, she was finally looking back, turning the pieces of her selfhood over in an effort to know who she had been, and by extension, who she was becoming.

Grace will appear at The Sinclair in Cambridge on Feb. 17 as Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers -- a trio with Marc Hudson and Against Me! drummer Atom Willard. The show will intersperse acoustic songs with stories and readings from the in-process memoir. The concert is part of a small solo tour that comes on the heels of the release of Against Me!’s 2015 live album “23 Live Sex Acts” and on the cusp of the band’s next LP, which they have almost finished recording. Grace recently spoke over the phone about the new album, finding love in the patriarchy, and the curious process of writing your own story. The following interview has been excerpted and lightly edited for clarity.

Amelia Mason: So much of the press that I've read has been about the last album [“Transgender Dysphoria Blues”] and the coming out process, and I understand that the album was written in the throes of that process. So I guess my question for you now would be: A few years down the line, where are you at with that? And in terms of your art, what kind of things are you writing about? How has the transition process evolved after the dust has settled a little bit after that initial revelation?

Laura Jane Grace: Spending this new year going through old journals, reflecting on the past and everything like that, has put me in this place where I'm really ready to slingshot forward. There was a lot of coming out and being under this public eye and having to process your emotions in real time. That really was tough to do. And it was kind of scary at points. And as I went along it got better, and it got easier, and I got more of a grasp on it. And now, definitely, as I said, having gone through 15-plus years of journals and remembering every second of the past … and reevaluating some songs, realizing what the actual meaning was behind them … has just been really valuable, and I think has helped me grow, not only as an artist, but as a person.

That process sounds very familiar to the coming out process of being gay or queer, when you suddenly reevaluate your entire life. You go back and you're kind of creating another narrative for yourself in light of this thing that finally is really conscious and up front in your mind.

Totally. And doing it -- to relate it even in a real physical way that has also been part of my process: You're cleaning out your attic. And you come across a box of old T-shirts that you used to wear. And you pick up those shirts and you think about who you were when you wore that shirt. When that shirt was your skin. And then saying goodbye to it in a lot of ways. Giving it away to Goodwill.

What's the story that you're telling of yourself, to yourself, as you go through your old material and you look back?

I guess it’s about transcending. It's about moving beyond. And that's been so much of the band's history anyways, on even a DIY punk level. This is what you have, how can you grow from that? And how can you build on that, and how can you use that, even if it's a bad thing? And how can you grow from that?

Do you keep a journal every day?

I do. Yeah, I forget what age I was when I decided, like, I need to do this. And I initially started doing it in hopes that it would make me better at writing lyrics.

Were you surprised at anything you found? I mean, obviously you can't remember everything you wrote. 

Yeah. I guess really -- I don't know if surprised is the right word, but I guess it really makes me — no it was, it was surprising to me how sad I was. I've gotten to do some really amazing things, gone to some really amazing places, and just have some really unique experiences. And if I have one regret looking back it's that — not a regret even, because I think that's kind of labeling depression as something you can control — but I just wish I would have been able to enjoy it more fully. That I wouldn't have had this barrier between me and the experience. And now, having that barrier gone, I am able to enjoy things more fully. And that, in answer to your initial question, has been really what the last two years of my life have been about. Of being able to be present and in the moment, and focused on that, and enjoy life.

Is the writing of the book — when you were writing the songs for this album, were those two things connected? Did you write songs about this process of looking back on your life?

I saw this interview with PJ Harvey at one point, and she was talking about her last album, "Let England Shake." And she was talking about [how] that album's about war. And she was talking about how it took her a long time in life [before] she felt like she was able or capable of writing about the topic of war. And I thought about that, and I was like, “Wow. I've written a lot of songs about war, anti-war songs. I play in a punk band, that's pretty natural territory for a punk band to sing about.” And I started thinking about love. And I started thinking about how, being trans before, where I was closeted, how that related to love. And how that related to relationships that I had and what held me back in relationships. Especially coming out of my second divorce now. And then, going forward now, what does love mean to me as a trans person? Dating, or being in a sexual relationship, or whatever. And what does it mean to be a modern trans person in that world? So I guess that's kind of what the new album is focused on.

So PJ Harvey had trouble writing about war, and you had trouble writing about love.

For sure. And again, that's something that, in the punk scene, it's like, most of the time love is thought of as something of a feminine topic, however stupid that is. That it's not something that a bunch of macho tough guys want to talk about or think about it. They don't want to think about their feelings or be in touch with them. And I do. And I want to explore those things.

Do you think love is political?

For sure, a hundred percent. To quote Ian Mackaye, “your emotions are nothing but politics.” The way you love, especially living in the patriarchy. Growing up in a society where so many fucked up things are normal. And so many dynamics of a relationship, specifically a heteronormative relationship, are just accepted as the way things should be. And once you break down those walls, and once you realize, as I said, “OK, I'm f---in’ twice divorced, maybe that model isn't natural to me, and doesn't work to me.” So if that's not the case, what does?

It seems like your relationship with punk has evolved a lot, too. Do you ever feel alienated from it?

Yes and no. That makes me happy, I guess, in a way, to hear you say that. Because, to me, that makes me immediately think, “Well, I guess that's because I've constantly thought about it and I've never settled on one thing that it means to me, and that it [doesn’t have] to be this rigid thing.” Especially growing older in the punk scene, being 35 now, and I went to my first punk show when I was like 13 years old. What punk meant to me then, I hope, is different [than] now. But at the same time, some of the things are still very much the same. But being in a state of constantly examining and reexamining and thinking about it, actively challenging and redefining, I think is really important. And is what makes punk continually valid.

The last album, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” talked a lot about this idea of dysphoria, and I wondered: When are the moments that you feel least dysphoric?

I guess living in the moment. And getting to that place where you can live in the moment, where you aren't thinking, actively thinking, about your gender. And traveling, for me — I'm not sure exactly why it gives me that feeling. I feel different when I'm in motion than I do when I'm stationary, living somewhere. And when I'm on the move, when I’m going — for instance, this last year I went to Japan three times. And traveling on my own was just so exhilarating,

Amelia Mason Twitter Arts And Culture Reporter
Amelia Mason is an arts and culture reporter and critic for The ARTery, WBUR's arts and culture team. She covers everything from fine art to television to the inner workings of the Boston music scene.

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