Against Me: What Laura Jane Grace's Music Says About Her Decision To Live as a Woman

The former Tom Gabel's music told us more about her than we picked up on.

by Alex Heigl

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.

"If I could have chose, I would have been born a woman / my mother once told me she would have named me Laura."

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."

Commentarium (19 Comments)

May 09 12 - 9:35pm
--

It's weird to me that it was a huge surprise to even her oldest and closest friends.

May 10 12 - 12:10am
a l l y

I only know of the band through a collaboration with Tegan Quin but I love and admire and respect this individual so much for staying true to herself despite being in the public eye with an already established male persona. Truly an inspiration- what a wonderful time for society and equality and even to be a part of the LBGT community. I think these little advances and stories of single people making such profound and significant impressions only demonstrates and strengthens Savage's "it gets better" campaign.

May 10 12 - 2:34am
Critbo!

Thank you for using female pronouns, Nerve.

May 12 12 - 11:27pm
Amy

Yay!!! I came here to post the same. Thanks, Nerve, for showing your support!

May 10 12 - 12:00pm
lol

thanks for using female pronouns? c'mon, he's not a broad yet. politically correct dorks. against me! still rules!

May 13 12 - 3:39am
td

Ah, you must be one of the "ostensibly open-minded punk audience that won’t exactly be tactful about this news" that the article was referring to.

May 13 12 - 3:45am
Critbo!

I know, right? When I reloaded the thread to see that, I just had to roll my eyes.

May 14 12 - 9:49am
Whizper

Dude, you fail. I figure if she introduces herself to me as a she, who the fuck am I to argue? Git. My girlfriend is trans, and she'd probably roast your nuts if you called her "He".

May 14 12 - 5:01pm
Could be...

Q: If you call a dog's tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?
A: Four, you can call a tail anything you want but it still only has four legs.

Q: If you call Gabel a woman, what pronoun is proper?
A: "He," etc, Gabel will always be a male, his DNA will never change.

May 15 12 - 11:35pm
Jess

That's how I felt too, until I met some transgender people, got to know them, and finally understood what it's actually all about. I stand corrected; hopefully you will too, someday.

May 16 12 - 3:23pm
Cmon

It was very respectful and politically correct to use female pronouns. However, if a person has a penis, I'm calling that person a him, or a he. Vagina = Her, she. Thus if he intends to get hormone therapy/surgical procedures done: I'll call him a her. I kindof hope he continues to sing though. I really dig his lyrics.

Aug 21 12 - 4:48pm
Smuz

Jesus Christ, people. Gender is not the same as sex. If you are a pre-op transexual who was born a male, but you identity yourself as a woman, then your gender is female. Sex is physical. Gender, on the other hand, is psychological. It's performative.

Educate yourselves before you try to say what's what.

May 10 12 - 6:23pm
k8

she identifies as a female, lol. y u h8n?

May 14 12 - 5:03pm
Billionaire

I identify as a billionaire. Anyone who doesn't provide me huge penthouse hotel rooms and private jet transporation is just a hater.

May 16 12 - 9:47am
no.

that's a flawed analogy. being a billionare is objective. gender expression is not.

May 11 12 - 2:50pm
moops

It's a shame we're going to lose such a sexy guy, but I bet she's going to become a foxy woman.

May 15 12 - 1:22pm
Johnboy

Using the female pronouns is good where appropriate, but it makes the headline confusing. "Tom Gabel" is a he. That is how he has always lived and identified himself, even if it's not how he felt inside. "Laura Jane Grace" is (or will be) a she.

May 16 12 - 10:15am
z

'she's married to a woman... so that makes her a trangender lesbian... sorry, but there's gotta be a point where you have to say that this person could have major psychological issues.

May 16 12 - 10:17am
z

I identify as a cute little kitten.. fetch me a saucer of milk!