Laura Jane Grace never wanted to be mainstream. She grew up as a punk in the Florida of the ’90s, alienated and isolated, with only drugs and music to hold onto. It’s a textbook story: the making of a rock star.
But for Laura, rebellion wasn’t about the traditional teenage malaise. Something else was wrong.
“All those sleepless nights praying to God for this one miracle never got me a word back,” writes Grace in her new memoir. “After everyone was asleep, in a moment of pure desperation, I turned to Satan.”
This is the unfolding of the story around which Grace’s memoir centers. A rock star is born, and then reborn. Laura Jane Grace was born Tom Gabel. The title of her book?
Subtitle: Confessions of punk rock’s most infamous anarchist sellout.
As far as trans memoirs go (an exhilarating, burgeoning genre), Tranny begins much like any other. Young Laura was the child of a military father. She would guiltily sneak on nylons, plays with Barbies instead of trucks, get beat up, and indulge in emo behaviors (cutting, cocaine) all the while wishing she was “her”—the woman she wanted to be. And was, all along, but didn’t have the permission to be. And then adolescence happened.
“I tasted cocaine for the first time at 13 years old,” she writes, “snorting lines in the bathroom of the public library, right off a copy of Jack London’s A Daughter of the Snows.”
Rock provided an early (if imperfect) canvas for gender rebellion. Grace “spiked [her]hair up with Knox gelatin” and donned the uniform of punks and ’90s alt-rockers. She lost her virginity while watching Hackers with a girlfriend, but the sex didn’t change anything. Neither did her success fronting a rock band, Against Me!, formed in 1997.
She would guiltily sneak on nylons, plays with Barbies instead of trucks, get beat up, and indulge in emo behaviors (cutting, cocaine) all the while wishing she was “her”—the woman she wanted to see in the mirror.
This might be where the story ends—or at least becomes boring—in a normal drugs-and-rock-and-roll memoir. For Laura, the story begins after she gets what she was never supposed to want as a true punk—widespread success of a highly lucrative variety.
“Fuck MTV and fuck major labels. Fuck commercial art. Fuck the whole capitalist system! I wanted nothing to do with any of it. All of these new records and cassettes I was discovering made music seem accessible in a way it had never been before.”
Music was a way into something that seemed not only inaccessible but impossible.
“Deep, deep down inside of me, I know that I am not a mistake. I do not feel sick. I do not feel like a pervert. I am not gay. I am not a fag. I am not a drag queen. I am not a tranny. I am not a transsexual. I am not transgender. I am just her—a daughter, a sister, someone’s girlfriend, just like all the other pretty college girls on campus.”
Tranny is dotted with diary excerpts of this kind, raw and bleeding. Between Grace’s retelling of her formative years and her journal entries, we get a sense of someone striving for a kind of change that even music couldn’t bring about.
“Would I ever be a pretty girl? Would I be happy as an ugly girl?” she writes in an entry before coming out. “Would anyone ever accept me as a girl? I could never have a child. These thoughts kill me. Would it ever be enough?”
She started to find out in 2012 after publicly coming out as trans. The work that followed bore the mark of someone starting to know themselves for the first time after a lifetime of searching. Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues provided the inspiration for Against Me!’s 2014 album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues.
In between the story of self-discovery and personal agony, there are a few classic anecdotes that can go toe to toe with any of the best rock-and-roll memoirs:
“Most of the gatherings would devolve into a campfire ‘Depends party,’ named after the adult diapers, where people would dress up in nothing but a diaper and then proceed to piss or shit themselves for a laugh. If I was drunk enough, I would hang my chain wallet from my dick piercing and swing it around for a party trick. Everyone was all about non-monogamy. In other words, it was an orgy.”
Grace has lived the kind of life that most punks only dream of—and she’s lived it, for the most part, from a tortured place of in-betweenness.
“Not knowing who you are,” Grace writes, “is a terrible feeling.”
Tranny is the story of a beginning—it has the feeling of ending where life begins.