Against Me! brings ‘Transgender Dysphoria’ live to Milwaukee

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Against Me! -PHOTO: Andrew Zaeh

After a childhood of dealing with gender dysphoria, Laura Jane Grace grew up to be the leader of a successful punk band. That band — Against Me! — appears live in Milwaukee at The Rave on May 14.

Formerly known as Tom Gabel, Grace is considered the first major rock star to come out as transgender. In her first public comments about her transition to Rolling Stone nearly two years ago, Grace said she was “hoping people will understand, and hoping they’ll be fairly kind.” 

The first major breakthrough for Against Me! came with the 2007 album New Wave. It was the band’s first break into the upper half of the Billboard album chart.  Rolling Stone named it one of the top 10 albums of the year.

Included among the songs was “The Ocean,” which contains the lyrics, “And if I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman.  My mother once told me she would have named me Laura.” No one paid much attention to those lines then.

Following 2010’s White Crosses, an even more successful album, the closet door began to open. The band launched its own studio and label — Total Treble — in 2011. Shortly afterward, Against Me! began recording what became Transgender Dysphoria Blues, and Grace announced to the group and the public that she was transitioning.

“I felt like I drop-kicked them in the face,” Grace told Rolling Stone. “We had the most awkward hug ever, and then they left.”

Grace began hormone therapy, announced plans to undergo electrolysis treatments, and before long the four-piece band had lost two members, leaving only Grace and guitarist James Bowman. Despite all the turmoil in the band, Grace has said the most terrifying aspect of coming out was worrying what the response of her wife Heather would be. The couple has a daughter Evelyn, and they have decided to remain married.

Grace was born the son of army Major Thomas Gabel, and during her early life she moved with her family from base to base.  When she was 11, her parents divorced, and she went to live with her mother and grandmother in Florida.  It was around this time that Grace began realizing that she was female. Lacking the kind of information about transgenderism you can find today on the Internet, she says her only experience of transgender identity was through the films The Crying Game and Silence of the Lambs — films featuring what Grace refers to as “the sad tranny and the scary tranny.”

Grace’s tales of bullying during her teen years are far too familiar, and she channeled the anger and frustration into a musical project. Against Me! began as a solo exploration, but by age 18 she had formed a touring band.

Flash forward 15 years, and this past January Against Me! released Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which deals directly with gender dysphoria. But it’s not all autobiographical. 

On first listen, the 28-minute, 10-track album goes by quickly with music that is very approachable for fans of the punk genre. Grace sings with the venom and spirit she’s always possessed, and many of the songs are injected with catchy hooks. But when you look a bit deeper at the words, the struggles with rage and self-destruction are apparent.

Transgender Dysphoria Blues peaked at #23 on the Billboard album chart, the most successful yet for Against Me! It has received strong critical acclaim for its brave lyrics and engaging populist punk sound. Despite the group’s personnel upheavals, Transgender Dysphoria Blues sounds tightly woven and coherent, just like the work of a solidly established band.

Against Me! hit the road this spring to present new songs from Transgender Dysphoria Blues live along with some of the group’s favorites. The cathartic, anarchic energy of the band’s shows has not changed.  In fact, Grace’s predominantly male fan base seems to have eagerly embraced her and continued to support the group.

If you venture out to the show at The Rave May 14, expect loud music steeped in the musical lessons of rock’s past — from the Clash to Bruce Springsteen. But the words and the story behind them from the woman who’s front and center onstage represent a truly unique moment in music history.