The former Tom Gabel's music told us more about her than we picked up on.
So, as you may have heard, Against Me!'s Tom Gabel is coming out as a transgender person and moving forward with plans to begin living life as a woman. It takes a lot of strength to take this kind of step, especially in the public spotlight. But this is an even braver move considering that Against Me! isn't exactly a band that traffics in sensitive circles. That's not to say that their music isn't emotional, because it is, but punk has its reactionary side. Despite pioneering transgender punks like Genesis P. Orridge, I suspect there’s a segment of the ostensibly open-minded punk audience that won’t exactly be tactful about this news.
That said, if you go back and examine Gabel’s songs, this isn’t that big of a shock. As our own Jeremy Glass noted, there’s a line in "The Ocean" from New Wave where Gabel sang, "If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman / my mother once told me she would have named me Laura." And, indeed, Gabel announced today that she's going to start going by Laura Jane Grace. Even ignoring that line, Gabel has always written convincingly and empathetically from the point of view of a woman — songs like "Pints of Guinness Make You Strong" and "Thrash Unreal" are prime examples, with the former told from the point of view of a woman widowed by alcoholism, and the latter a nuanced portrait of a woman that includes the line "No mother ever dreams that her daughter’s gonna grow up to sleep alone." The Clash might have said that the personal is political, but rarely has radicalism sounded so intimate — and vice-versa — than in Gabel's lyrics.
Of course, there are plenty of songwriters who can empathize with people outside of their own experience. But, to my mind, there’s a distinct divide between songwriters like Tom Waits, who are clearly creating characters in a theatrical way even in their most personal songs, and people like Gabel, whose performances have always felt searingly real, even when she was singing from a point of view that wasn’t necessarily her own. What’s interesting in Gabel’s case is that now we’re able to look back and see that she wasn’t just a songwriter who happened to be especially talented at writing songs from a woman’s perspective — she was a person who was so unhappy in her own skin that, for her, writing songs like that was aspirational.
Making art gives you control, lets you try out identities that are bigger or stronger or that just feel more like home to you. It’s a thread that runs through plenty of music: the blues have exaggerated boasts and bragadoccio, punk has an element of rebellion that may or may not necessarily extend to real life, and heavy metal is often devoted to creating entire worlds that listeners can escape to.
In that sense, you can read much of Against Me!'s discography as the creation of an identity in a larger world for Gabel to escape to before she was fully able to live it in real life. And, knowing that, what’s so beautiful about Gabel’s story is that she never gave up on that world. Living so unhappily in your own skin can be devastating day after day, but she never succumbed to bitterness, directionless anger, or self-destruction. Those themes are present in her work, to be sure, as they’re present in all of our lives, but as angry as Against Me!’s music may seem, there was always an element of positivity moving through it, and it’s refreshing to see that that hope, that earnestness, was never in vain. As Laura Jane Grace once sang, "There’s joy in all I can see — a joy in every possibility."