Laura Jane Grace: Trans People Are “Still Out There Fighting” for Equality

"People really want to wrap it up like, 'And then we all lived happily ever after,'" says the punk rock icon. "That's not really the case."

Laura Jane Grace’s life story can’t be summed up neatly, and that’s exactly how she likes it.

A veteran rock star and veritable transgender icon, Grace is best known as the lead singer of Against Me!, a popular punk-rock band she formed in Gainesville, Florida, in 1997. The band’s genre-defying catalog is notable in and of itself, but Grace went on to become punk rock’s most notable LGBTQ+ figure after she came out as transgender in 2012. She’s reflected on her journey in multiple mediums, most recently her audio memoir Black Me Out, available now via Audible’s Words + Music initiative.

NewNowNext caught up with Grace to chat about revisiting her past; channeling her most vulnerable gender feelings through songwriting, even before she was ready to come out publicly; and reminding the world that the fight for transgender safety and equality is far from over. Find our full conversation below.

Courtesy of Audible

Hi Laura! How did the project with Audible come to be?

It’s pretty cut and dry, story-wise: They asked. And I was like, “That sounds amazing; I want in on that.” There’s a Billie Joe Armstrong episode specifically that for me was a selling point in that even listening to that episode, I was like, I could do a companion piece to this episode almost where I talk about all the intersections my life has had with Green Day and Billie Joe Armstrong. But even apart from Billie Joe, there’s so many good episodes in the series, and it seemed like a chance to bring what I’ve already been kind of doing on the road for a couple of years now to a recorded format and to document it at a time that’s a really unique time to document something in our shared circumstances of global pandemic. It’s an interesting time to be introspective and to look back at the past specifically, I think.

Oh, absolutely. I loved how conversational and natural it was. I felt like I was listening to a friend tell me a story.

Right on, yeah. In a way, it felt like I was describing the wallpaper on a house that was burning down around me, you know? It came with this urgency of, remember as much as you can and it might be gone in a second, so just try.

I saw your tweet about the storytelling compiled over eight hours of interviews. Can you tell me more about that process?

I jokingly almost wanted to call it The Last Interview, but I knew the actual interview voice was going to be edited out, so it wouldn’t be apparent that it was an interview. But you know, that was basically the process. We started in June [2021], and it was probably four days of interviews, a couple of hours every day with me and Brenna from Rolling Stone just going through and talking. She would ask questions and I’d tell stories, and then there’d be a day break before the next interview. And during that day break, I’d get into recording songs.

Were there any songs you recorded for the audiobook that didn’t make the final cut?

There were, yeah. I was way over ambitious with that because the format is kind of pretty decided: It’s eight songs and then the talking in between, the words part in between. But originally going into it, I was like, well, how do you pick eight songs? So I recorded more than necessary. It felt interesting too in that Against Me! does have a catalog, and there was the tendency to just do the hits, pick the most popular songs off each record and record those. But I didn’t really want to do that. There were some songs where I just felt like I wanted to approach them now, even if it was for selfish reasons, like wanting to talk to the original recording or just knowing that live we had played it a different way the past couple of years.

Something I found fascinating was how even before you came out publicly, your gender dysphoria came through in your songs. What is it about songwriting that allowed you to be so honest and vulnerable, even when you weren’t ready to be honest with yourself about your gender identity?

I guess it’s because the best songwriting happens when you don’t know what you’re doing. A lot of people will talk about that — if you’re hitting a block songwriting, just allow yourself to suck for the day. Allow yourself to write a bad song. It’s kind of similar where, at least for me, oftentimes if I sit down like, I’m going to write a very pointed song about this subject, it doesn’t work out as well as if I just sit down with a blank slate and start writing without knowing what I’m talking about. That’s oftentimes what’s hard about doing press immediately after releasing a record. You’re put to task to explain something that you don’t necessarily understand yourself.

Totally. You also described coming out to your family and the band as “belly-flopping” into it, which I thought was brilliant. I feel like so many queer and trans folks see celebrities come out in polished, graceful ways, but that’s not really true to life. Was that something you thought about?

Sure. And oftentimes with the public coming out side of it, you’re tasked with a situation where you realize, okay, I’ve got this one chance to get it right, as far as answering as many questions as I can, whether that’s about pronouns or your name or anything. If you have that pressure publicly that’s related to your career, then that takes away so much brain power you could be spending on thinking about how you’re going to approach coming out to family or friends. But at the same time, it’s not like there’s this guidebook you get handed on either side. You don’t necessarily know what you’re doing. And unfortunately, oftentimes when coming out, you’re put into this position of almost feeling like you’re asking for forgiveness, or apologizing, or asking for acceptance, which isn’t what it is and isn’t what it should be. You can only really learn these things after the fact and through the experience, but I’m no different than anybody else in this way. But none of that is malicious or ill-willed. You’re just in survival mode.

You came out publicly in 2012, so it’s been almost 10 years. What changes have you observed in terms of awareness and acceptance of trans people?

Well, there has been a definite raise in awareness. You even had Laverne Cox in 2014 on the cover of Time magazine, the Transgender Tipping Point. I felt that in a cultural way, but at the same time, a lot of that cultural and media awareness doesn’t necessarily translate into real-world experience. And sometimes I’ll get frustrated with people when they don’t recognize that. People really want to wrap it up, like, “And then we all lived happily ever after,” or this attitude of, “Well, we’ve gone over this, and now there is no bad attitude toward transgender people.” That’s not really the case. Transgender people are still out there fighting for equal rights, whether that’s with health care, housing, job discrimination, or just the right to exist in public spaces.

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for SXSW
Laura Jane Grace in 2019.

It’s so true.

I just think that there’s still so much work to be done. I operate with a certain amount of privilege where I have a career, I’ve been a public figure of sorts for a couple of decades. And there’s worlds that I move through — whether that’s in a record store or at a music venue — where I’m recognized and people know who I am. But as far as my lived experience, when I go into gas stations, or I go to the supermarket, or I have to go to the hospital, none of that other stuff is carried with me. The actual experience of being a transgender person in our society is often pretty shitty, for lack of a better term.

Oh, 100% percent. I think people tend to conflate increased media representation with increased safety, but it’s not the same thing. Visibility doesn’t guarantee safety while navigating the world.

Exactly. I think back to maybe two years ago, I had written this article for Oprah’s magazine about pronouns and public spaces for trans people. And when the magazine came out, I had an incident at a dentist’s office — being misgendered and being treated differently because I was trans — where that magazine was there in the waiting room.

Jesus Christ.

It’s this weird world where it’s like, “There are magazines in your office waiting room where I’m speaking about these issues, and you as an office cannot pull it together and just treat trans people with a certain amount of dignity.” And it just clearly demonstrated that disconnect in reality.

Well, on a brighter note, you mentioned in the audiobook that you knew you wanted to be in a band at 8 years old. How does it feel to have realized that childhood dream?

You know, a part of me doesn’t feel like it was ever an option to do anything differently. It’s hard to take moments where you stop and look at it that way, like, damn, you did it, you did what you set out to do. But I definitely do have those moments.

Black Me Out is out now on Audible.

Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.
@_sammanzella