I remember my first and, so far, only Against Me! concert. It was in Montreal, and the day got a rough start when I narrowly missed my train and had to rebook for the next one, taking six hours out of the time I could spend with my girlfriend and a mutual friend in the city before the show. Punk rock isn’t a genre that has held much appeal for me in the past, but knowing that Against Me!’s frontwoman, Laura Jane Grace, was transgender and that the band was among my girlfriend’s favorites inclined me to give it a chance. It was also hard to pass up a trip to Montreal, even if it ultimately did not involve much sightseeing between my arrival and the show.
I enjoyed the experience far more than I thought I would. Against Me! is every bit as shouty as all the punk rock I never learned how to like, but comes with an emotional, personal current that I did not find in encounters with other artists in this genre. Grace and I, it turned out, acted on our desire to transition at roughly the same time, and followed broadly similar gender journeys. So, her music was speaking directly to the version of me that was listening, a handful of years into our respective embraces of womanhood, when everything was still new and raw and exciting and scary, when the old things had not finished falling apart and the new ones were still being built to replace them. I left that concert with a copy of Transgender Dysphoria Blues, some of whose songs featured in the set list, and which she had written just a few years earlier, when everything was immediate for both of us. I won’t say I was smitten—that word belongs to the slow, euphonious pop and electronic music that generally holds me—but I was impressed, and my horizons broadened. So, I was not as nonplussed as I would normally have been when I received Laura Jane Grace’s memoir as a gift.
I don’t usually read books about music, as it is a relatively small part of my life and the lives of its artists are not generally paths I find relatable. The book sat on my bookshelves for four years before I picked it up. Honestly, I was put off by the title. In keeping with her punk values and with the general edginess that comes with the territory, Grace titled her book Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, with the former word in sizable print on the cover. As one of the people against whom this slur is aimed, she has every right to reclaim it and I do not begrudge her decision to do so, but with most of my reading happening in waiting rooms and while traveling, I was not eager to hold that word where onlookers could see it and get entirely the opposite idea about my sympathies. Its presence here speaks to a fundamental difference between Grace and myself, one that I enjoyed experiencing through this book.
Confessions follows Grace from her childhood through to shortly after the release of Transgender Dysphoria Blues, and the path it describes is intense. Grace was a troubled child, as one might expect, and that extended into a young life filled with drug use, petty crimes, and involvement with punk and anarchist scenes. Her tone is disarmingly matter-of-fact, presenting situations from her parents’ failing marriage to the grungy shenanigans of her first anarchist circle to her teenage self snorting lines of cocaine in school bathrooms with the straightforward ease of someone who does not see her own path as an oddity. It is a deadpan technique I know exceedingly well from my own writing, wielding that dissonance like a droll stiletto to capably sets up the gut-punches to come.
Grace is not subtle about how her vices provided outlets, sometimes unwitting and sometimes not, for her gender dysphoria. There are a lot of reasons why an Army brat stuck in a city like Naples, Florida might fall in with a rebellious crowd and try to numb the suburban tedium with every substance she could find, and none of them hang as heavy or as immanently as living in a body and a gender identity that do not fit. Her processing is familiar even as her methods are not: bafflement at her combination of attraction to women and desire to be one; sampling feminine clothing as a secret, shameful indulgence; repeatedly collecting and disposing of a small feminine wardrobe; confusion as to what could make her feel this way; effort to uphold masculinity despite how awful it feels. It is an omnipresent distress that becomes the background radiation of being alive, and just as with regular radiation, one of the most effective forms of temporary protection is to drown it.
But it is not her only struggle. Laura Jane Grace is also trying to find love, build her band, navigate the politics of the anarchist-punk scene, and survive the toll her substance use is taking on her, all at the same time that her gender seethes in the back of her mind. A recurring theme is the anarchist-punk scene’s seeming resentment of anything resembling success, heaving the invective of “sellout” onto Against Me! and onto Grace specifically with every step they take toward financial solvency or mainstream appeal. It is a testament to her and her co-writer Dan Ozzi’s craft that she does not have to directly call out this self-defeating spiral for its sad reality; her encounters with hostile “fans” speak for themselves.
For all that Confessions is a story that places Laura Jane Grace at the center of its action and is, fundamentally, about her decisions, she is rarely in control of the events that unfold. This is a story about the steps she takes to navigate her life from childhood to where it was in 2015 or so, but more than that, it is the story of every situation she felt cornered into, non-decision that happened around her, and coping mechanism as automatic as it was chosen. There is a recurring tension in Confessions, regardless of the specific situation: Grace is cornered into a choice between what others want from her and what she wants, or what would be best for her versus what would fulfill others’ visions of what she should be. She vacillates between combative defiance and detached resignation, she numbs entire months with miscellaneous intoxicants, she treats her gender identity like an addiction, and all of it is a lurching quest for agency. The narrative becomes a rollercoaster between these poles, mirroring her own struggle with the various substances her life will not let her avoid even when she has the willpower to fight them. When she is fulfilled, in the story’s beautiful final section, it is because she has at last gained the freedom to exist as herself, not just in gender, but in the rest of her life, too, however much it cost her.
The true strength of Confessions is that it is liberally interspersed with Grace’s journal entries. Grace journaled meticulously throughout her life, and these texts both provided source material for the rest of the narrative and provide beautiful, emotional windows directly into her mind. Where the rest of the prose is spare and careful, Grace’s letters are vivid and raw, sentence fragments and half-finished thoughts taking on extra poignancy because they fill in the emotional gaps. Her feelings are not hard to discern in the rest of the narrative, but here, they are inescapable. It is in these letters that we first encounter her gender dysphoria, before she herself knows the term. Toward the end of Confessions, I began catching unremarked snatches of lyrics and titles from the songs in Transgender Dysphoria Blues in these letters, and this context makes the album’s sometimes-cryptic lyrics stand out as poetic triumphs in their own right.
So, here’s to Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, a wild, beautiful ride. When there’s rough surf on the coast, one could do worse than spending a day alone with this book. Just don’t forget the tissues, and maybe a discreet paper cover.