Fiction: ‘A Doubter’s Almanac’ by Ethan Canin

November 21, 2016

Laura Jane Grace has no interest in Thomas James Gabel, the identity she went by before she transitioned to a woman in 2012.

That guy was angry, self-centered, combative.

"A true pr**k," Grace calls him in her new memoir, "Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout."

"I hope we never meet again."

There’s no chance of that. Over the past four years, Grace has held her own as the roaring frontwoman of Against Me!, a punk band formed in Gainesville, Fla., in 1997.

Her transition has brought Grace and her band new attention and new fans, whether they’re curious, drawn to someone like them — or the fact that Against Me! is arguably better than ever.

But the change has also meant a new role for Grace. At 36, she is one of the most public faces in the transgender community — an estimated 1.4 million people — which is gaining more acceptance with each passing day.

"Culturally, there’s been a real tipping point in the last couple of years," Grace said, sitting in a dressing room above the Showbox SoDo one day last month, when Against Me! made a tour stop (with Bad Religion) in Seattle.

"And that’s something I felt part of," she said. "Not something that I led or anything like that."

Maybe not — but she certainly made her mark.

Grace first came out in Rolling Stone magazine in 2012, describing her struggle to stifle the "her" that first emerged at the age of 10, when she saw Madonna performing on MTV and wanted to be her.

In the magazine’s accompanying photo, Grace posed fresh out of the shower, a towel wrapped around her head.

It was an apt image: A person scrubbed clean, ready to start life anew.

The story solved a lot of problems for her, but also created some.

"It was nice to be able to have an article to point to and say, ‘Read this, this should explain pretty much where I’m coming from’ as opposed to having to have countless conversations with people where you’re coming out over and over again," she said.

"But at the same time, you have the pressure of having the spotlight on you, coming out that way."

Grace maintained some control of her story — and others’ — by starring in a 2014 docuseries for AOL called "True Trans" that explored different aspects of the transgender experience: Relationships, community, parenting. The show earned her an Emmy nomination.

"A lot of the benefit of ‘True Trans’ was with letting other people speak," she said. "Yes, I am comfortable talking about myself, but at the same time, I can only say what I know. When you don’t feel like you have it all figured out, but you’re kind of expected to? That can be pressure."

All the while, Grace has continued to tour and write some of her most personal, powerful music: 2013’s "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" and this year’s "Shape Shift With Me."

Now, with the book "Tranny," Grace uses a lifetime of personal journals to describe decades of anger, confusion, resignation and courage, all set against a punk-rock soundtrack.

The book, written with Noisey’s Dan Ozzi, was Grace’s idea.

"I just wanted to do it," she said. "Having kept journals for that long, there’s the metaphoric weight and then there’s the literal weight of that many journals in boxes that you’re carrying everywhere."

She sold the book to one publisher, but let the deal drop when she got a whiff of their plans.

"I felt like I was being pushed into creating something … like a ‘Becoming Laura’ story," she said. " I felt like, ‘That’s not me.’?" She ultimately signed with Hachette.

Grace was raised an Army brat, then moved to Naples, Fla., with her mother and brother after her parents divorced. There were drugs, alcohol, fights with police — and music.

When Against Me! started to take off, the touring life brought more of the same.

It all provided an escape from Grace’s gender dysphoria. She fought and indulged the urge to be "her" as Against Me! gained fame and signed to a major label.

She continued to suppress the feeling, married and had a daughter.

But when the dysphoria came surging back around 2012, Grace decided to save her own life and become Laura Jane — the name her mother would have given her.

The boy, the man, the pr**k, was gone. Good riddance.

"Even the title of the book speaks to a lot of self-loathing," she said. "I feel like that part of the transition process is breaking down your ego and destroying your sense of self in that way so you can move on."

Because of that, it’s hard for her to even look at her finished book.

"I look at it and see a lot of shame, still," she said. "And I wish some things would have been different. And I wish I would have been happier for more of it and all of the amazing opportunities I wasn’t able to live or enjoy because I was like, just f***ed up."

Grace writes openly about the repercussions of her transition, both personal and professional.

She and her wife, the artist Heather Gabel, stayed together at the start of her transition but grew apart. They are now estranged but not divorced, live separately in Chicago and share care of their daughter, Evelyn, now 6.

Grace and her father have not spoken since her transition.

Her mother, Bonnie, is devoted and supportive.

Friends fell away and bandmates moved on.

"It wasn’t because they were transphobic or unsupportive," Grace wrote of her former drummer and bassist. "It was just that things were different."

Longtime friend and guitarist James Bowman has been part of Against Me! since 2001. Drummer Atom Willard and bassist Inge Johansson joined three years ago, in time to record "Transgender Dysphoria Blues," and watch Grace grow into herself.

In May, Grace burned her birth certificate onstage in Durham, N.C., in protest of that state’s HB-2 bill, which eliminated anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people.

"Goodbye, gender!" Grace said, as she set the paper on fire.

"I have a platform and that’s what goes along with being in a band and putting out a record," she said. "And for so many years, the narrative surrounding my band was if people thought it was punk enough.

"So to talk about this is real and feels actually worthwhile," she said with an easy laugh. "I don’t have to make up answers.

"I can just answer honestly, and that’s good."




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