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Against Me! Singer Laura Jane Grace on Gender, Anarchy, & Selling Out

The Shape of Things

"Do people perceive my voice as male, or female, or androgynous, and does that influence how they’re perceiving what I’m singing about?"

Courtesy of Ryan Russell.

Between combing through personal journals for her first memoir, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock's Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, and recording Shape Shift With Me, the seventh album with her punk-rock band Against Me!, Laura Jane Grace has been getting inked, most noticeably having her right arm completely blacked out. As a transitioning woman, she finds that tattoos give her control over her body: "Changing the way my arms look in the past year has completely changed my self-image. It also prepares you for knowing what it's like to undergo bigger surgeries." Here, Grace discusses her many identities and how she approaches each one with honesty -- and sometimes with a middle finger.

Out: How far back do you go in your memoir?

Laura Jane Grace: It starts at the beginning, giving context to where I was born and my upbringing. I grew up in a military family and went from army base to army base until my parents moved to Florida when I was 12. But with that, the book talks heavily about my experience with gender dysphoria and growing up closeted.

Was anarchist punk the first identity you felt comfortable with?

I used to get violently beat up in school, and punk rock had this attitude of "fight back" and "don't just take the hits -- get in there and give a couple of your own even if you can't win the fight." I was so desperate to express myself outwardly, feeling like I couldn't dress how I really wanted. Punk rock offered a certain extravagance of fashion. It was putting on a costume, and it gave you this armor to face the world. It was also reassuring to set myself apart and let people know, "I am not like you. I am fucking different."

Is there a story in the book that you're afraid of people reading?

In 2004, we were on tour in Italy, and after the show, we went out to some roadside food cart, and there were three trans women there. The group of people I was with was laughing and making fun of these women. I felt at the time like, "I got to fit in with my bros," while at the same time so desperately envying and admiring [the women]. Having been someone who has continually been called a sellout for whatever record label I was working with, that's the feeling of selling out. That has always stuck with me when thinking about people calling me a sellout. It definitely relates to my choosing the title Tranny -- it's internalized transphobia that I deal with to this day.

You also have words like infamous, anarchist, and sellout in the title. Are those labels supposed to be in the same tongue-in-cheek tone?

It's more like saying the worst thing about yourself before anyone else can say it, trying to take the power away from it. And it's a little bit sarcastic.

Is it exhausting to be self-deprecating as a form of self-empowerment?

Simply, yes [laughs]. But it's a coping mechanism. I oftentimes rely heavily on sarcasm. Not necessarily being cynical, but being sarcastic is my second language. There are crutches people develop in certain situations, whether it's sarcasm, or dark humor, or even more self-destructive things that help you survive but at the same time drain you and wear you out. After a certain point it's hard for people to change and learn new ways to be.

The new Against Me! album, Shape Shift With Me, wrestles with love, which is not exactly a familiar topic for the band.

All I could really focus on was writing love songs. A lot of that had to do with going through a three-year-long divorce and being single after having been married for seven years. Like, Who am I right now? How do I relate to people when I'm dating? People throw around "promising forever" pretty easily. What does it fucking mean? [The album] also examines the power dynamics in relationships and how that's based on gender, especially how it's perceived when singing about it as a transitioning person. Do people perceive my voice as male, or female, or androgynous, and does that influence how they're perceiving what I'm singing about?

Who do you think should read the audio version of your memoir?

[The German director] Werner Herzog. Werner Herzog talking about being on tour with NOFX. Werner Herzog talking about his love of Madonna. It'd be so good.

Shape Shift With Me is out September 16.

Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock's Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout will be published by Hachette Books on November 15.

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