By Shannon Carlin
Radio.com Winners! This is the first of five essays this week about artists who are pushing music forward and not looking back. Today, we talk about Laura Jane Grace and Against Me!
Gender, male and female, has never been a binary system, but in 2014 this un-radical notion is finally becoming part of the larger conversation. Gender is a construct, much more about identity than genitalia. It’s certainly not predestined. Sometimes life doesn’t get it quite right the first time and you have to correct things on your own.
Grace always portrayed herself as an outsider, even playing with gender roles in her older songs writing about men and women being caught in between of what has been deemed appropriate for their gender. On 2007’s “The Ocean,” she sung, “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman/ My mother once told me she would have named me Laura.” In hindsight, it was not just a progressive and poetic statement, but a statement about Grace’s struggle to find herself.
Grace was an underdog punk kid who grew up in Gainesville, Fla. and later became the heroic voice of anyone who hailed from rural climes flung far from cultural centers or bastions of progressivism. For 17 years, she delivered throat-shredding cow punk and pop punk anthems, whether she’s putting our government to task or laying out her own anarchist agenda. But she is at her most radical on the band’s latest album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which chronicles her own struggles with gender dysphoria with an honesty unheard of in pop music.
This year, people started talking more openly about the “T” in the LGBT community. A state law was passed in California that allowed transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice. The Minnesota High School League voted to allow transgender athletes to play on the sports team that they feel best align with their gender. A loophole allowed transgender soldiers to serve in the military, while Obamacare covered gender reassignment surgery bringing relief to low-income transgender men and women who were previously struggling to afford care.
Transgender stories were also more prominent throughout pop culture this year. At the 68th Annual Tony Awards this year, the glam rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which tells the tale of an East German transgender singer, took home four of the eight awards they were nominated for including Best Revival of a Musical and Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical for Neil Patrick Harris’ portrayal of Hedwig.
Transgender actress Laverne Cox starred as the trans-female inmate, Sophia Burset on the Netflix TV show Orange Is The New Black and graced the cover of TIME next to the headline, “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s Next Civil Rights Frontier.”
The Amazon series Transparent—created and directed by Jill Soloway—focuses on the late-life transition of Maura, a father with three adult children. The semi-autobiographical story (Soloway’s own father came out as transgender in 2011 when she was 46 years old) received some backlash for casting a straight male actor, Jeffrey Tambor, as Maura, but Soloway tried to mitigate concerns by enacting a “transfirmative action program,” which favored the hiring of “transgender candidates over non-transgender” ones. More importantly though, the show portrays what it’s like to come out as transgender later in life and the effects it has on those around you.
But this sudden burst of trans-awareness in 2014 doesn’t mean it’s easier to be transgender. According to the website, Trans Violence Tracking Portal, a website that allows users to reports acts of violence against the transgender community, transgender people make up 1 to 1.5% of the world’s population, but are about 400 times more likely to be assaulted or murdered than the rest of the population.
Transgender male and females fight for what should be inalienable rights, but being transgender often means living one’s life feeling excluded, or worse, forced to fight to even have people acknowledge your existence at all.
That is why Laura Jane Grace is one of the most radical of the transgender icons for trying to bring trans-politics to the forefront of rock music, a genre dominated by white males since time immemorial with by far the most male-driven fanbase of any other music genre.