Image: The cover of Laura Jane Grace's book "Tranny" which is all white with black stenciled words and Laura's eyes lined with thick black eyeliner, nose, and mouth in the center of the cover.
I read this book as someone who became interested in Laura Jane Grace after she came out. That definitely shaped how I approached reading this book and what my interest in Grace is centered around. The first time I heard about Against Me! was when several of my friends in anarchist communities were hurt and saddened by "I was a teenage anarchist" being released. Their anthem, "Baby, I'm an anarchist" meant a lot to them and they felt betrayed. This book put so much more context into that entire event that I wonder if any of them would still feel angry having read Grace's side of the story. When she came out, many people did seem to wake up a little and embrace her more, but then again, my circles were mainly queer people. I am not sure if the cishet anarcho punk world ever came around.
I want to comment on the title and design of this book. I really loved the illustrations and overall graphic work put into designing the print copy of this book. I often don't comment on these type of things but, for this book, it is a definite part of the experience. I very much enjoy the unapologetic, self-effacing, tongue-in-cheek title. However, I put black electrical tape over the word "Tranny" when I took the book to read in the doctor's office. As a trans person, I didn't want to have to discuss it if someone asked what I was reading. There's something about that word being on the lips of cishet people that really bothers me. Can cishet people speak this title? Will it make them think they can start saying that word otherwise? I sure hope not. And, I don't think that's Grace's responsibility anyways.
Grace is honest and brutally self-critical in this memoir. Anyone within punk scenes that saw her as a thoughtless sellout will be challenged in reading this. There was great struggle going on through every step of the way and even at her most "mainstream" moments in music, she and the rest of Against Me! were facing regular social and financial ruin. The struggles of any kind of fame, regular drug and alcohol issues, and the great struggle of discovering herself and her gender are apparent throughout the book. Mixed in with Grace's present day writings are excerpts from her past journals which are edited in nicely throughout the book. I noticed regularly how well written Grace's journal entries were.
Throughout the book, there are a lot of critiques of punk and/or radical cultures that are sound and also extend out to various other countercultures.
"Initially I had been attracted to punk and anarchism because I saw them as a means to make a positive change, where everyone was equal. While there were some people in the scene who upheld those values, the more punks I dealt with, the more I realized that most of them were privileged white kids taking advantage of this idealism."
Even if we don't agree that "most of them" are, there is a great, stinging truth to this and I think anyone over 30 (or probably younger) can agree with this sort of assessment of punk and/or anarchist movements. It doesn't mean we stop believing in the causes, but we have become jaded.
As Against Me! began to make any sort of living through their music, they faced backlash and attacks from parts of punk scenes, including violence and having their van tires slashed among other things. Grace's 2005 journal remarks, "Where are you supposed to go when you no longer feel welcome in the places you turned to because you didn't feel welcome anywhere else?" Grace does not merely dismiss these criticisms, though. While expressing her upset with ostracism and attacks from some punks, she also acknowledges other critiques that she believes were correct.
Grace's teenage anarchist song takes on a new meaning when you read this memoir, realizing that she was dealing with a regular fear that she would lose everything if she were to be out about who she was. She already lacked support and was in a very rigid, macho environment. When she did come out, she did lose a lot in part because of stigma but also because many things simply had to change. She struggled to adapt and, like many of us, doubted herself and her transition. She tells an accurate account of her struggle to access basic trans medical care- all too familiar to many trans people. All the barriers standing in the way of trans people are a recipe for self doubt, shame, and regret. But, it wasn't all bad, she states:
"There was also a new community of trans and gender-queer fans that I'd picked up in the year and a half since I came out. Some of them weren't even interested in punk; they just came out to support me... Many told me that my visibility helped them to understand their own gender identity, and meeting them often did the same for me."
The only thing I would have liked more of in the book is more about Laura Jane Grace's beliefs, politics, etc. Perhaps this book is written for the person who has listened to every Against Me! song and not someone like me, thus it centers almost entirely on Grace's day to day interpersonal experiences. Since Grace and I are almost the same age, I was able to put all of her experiences in context with my own and what was going on in the world at the time. But, I would have liked to hear more of her thoughts and beliefs about the larger world- what does anarchism mean to her and how has that changed throughout her life? I understand that many people want memoirs to be short, though I would have been happy to read more of her story.
Laura Jane Grace brings the book to a close in a lovely way, full circle again referencing a music icon that inspired her as a child- Madonna- and sharing a similar moment with her own daughter. Even though the book is full of lots of struggle, depression, and defeat, she leaves us believing it all might be ok. Afterall, this journey is still in its infancy in comparison to how long she had to wait to come out. She doesn't have to hide anymore. That's a great start to a new life.