Laura Jane Grace

“Tranny” by Laura Jane Grace: A Riff On Punk Rock, Anarchy, and Gender

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Jeffry Iovannone, PhD

Jeffry J. Iovannone is a queer feminist scholar-activist, who has a PhD in American Studies.

If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman.

My mother once told me she would have named me Laura.

I would grow up to be strong and beautiful like her.

–Against Me!, “The Ocean”

Laura Jane Grace, best known as the frontwoman of the Florida-based punk rock band Against Me!, enters the genre of transgender memoir with the controversially titled Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout (co-written with music journalist Dan Ozzi). Grace came out publicly as transgender in a May 2012 article published in Rolling Stone magazine, and Tranny covers her experiences growing up in a military family in Florida, the formation and mainstream success of Against Me!, and her struggles with drugs, alcohol, relationships, parenting, and identity. The memoir consists of a chronological narrative that is interspersed with verbatim excerpts from Grace’s personal journals, meticulously kept since 2000. Musings on gender identity and gender dysphoria are mentioned throughout, though the main thrust of the story is squarely focused on the history of Against Me! and the politics of the music industry.

Laura Jane Grace
“Tranny,” published in November 2016 by Hachette Books, has been named as one of Billboard’s “100 Greatest Music Books Of All Time.”

Tranny deals explicitly with gender only for about the final quarter of the book and concludes around 2012 shortly after Grace comes out, begins her transition, and writes Against Me!’s sixth studio album Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which was officially released in 2014. As such, the memoir is firmly situated within the “transition narrative” of transgender experience, which is the dominant narrative through which trans people have been represented within popular culture. The genre originated when doctors working with transgender “patients,” such as Magnus Hirschfeld and Harry Benjamin, encouraged them to write about their life experiences as a way to provide both personal insight and broader cultural understanding and empathy towards transgender people. Benjamin, for example, also included “testimonials” from transgender people whom he “treated” in his landmark book The Transsexual Phenomenon (1966), in which he outlined the standards of care that are still used by many healthcare professionals today when assisting trans people who desire to transition medically. These “testimonials” functioned both as education for non-transgender readers and as advertisements for Benjamin’s services.

The “transition narrative” has been critiqued by contemporary transgender writers and activists, who note that trans people’s struggles do not simply end once they transition, and that not all trans people desire to medically transition in the first place. The “transition narrative” is also problematic because of its “freak factor,” in that it plays into cisgender people’s curiosities about trans people’s bodies, more specifically, their genitalia. “Transition narratives,” therefore, often position trans people as spectacles to be gawked at, not fully complex human beings. Grace repeats some of the problems associated with this narrative when she concludes her story with her transition. As a reader, I was left wanting to know more about her experiences and evolving understanding of her identity as a trans woman, punk rock star, and advocate in the gap between when the memoir ends and when it was published in 2016.

Grace, surprisingly, includes no discussion of why she chose “tranny” as the title of her memoir. Should we assume that because Grace is a self-proclaimed anarchist, she would naturally select the most provocative and controversial title for her book? While some trans women and individuals on the trans-feminine spectrum regard “tranny” as a reclaimed term–the writer and activist Kate Bornstein has suggested the term was first used by Australian transsexual women activists and drag queens as a way to invent a unifying label for themselves that did not originate within medical discourse–the amount of criticism leveled at the term from the transgender community, and transgender women in particular, necessitates a more careful and nuanced discussion than what Grace provides. Her personal relationship to the term “tranny” is left unclear. She does not explicitly state whether she has reclaimed the term as a source of pride, if she regards it as a badge of rebellion, or if she views it as a slur or dehumanizing insult. As such, trans women might find her lack of care in handling “the t-word” unsettling and an example of unchecked privilege, as Grace’s celebrity has perhaps provided her with a level of respect and protection not afforded to most trans women.

Throughout Tranny, Grace remains generally unaware of her privilege in relation to the vast majority of the transgender community. In a particularly cringe-worthy scene, she purchases around 800 dollars worth of women’s clothes and accessories only to throw them away in a ditch shortly after in a moment of despair and indecision. It is not my intention to diminish the extent of Grace’s suffering by pointing out the extent of her privilege. To the contrary, stories of trans celebrities such as Grace and Caitlyn Jenner illustrate that privilege and suffering can co-exist, that one does not automatically negate the other. Given the fact that transgender women, particular transgender women of color, are one of the most vulnerable populations in the United States at present, it bears mentioning that Grace does not explicitly consider the fact that many trans women and trans feminine-spectrum people are not able to finance the cost of food, shelter, and basic healthcare, let alone clothing, accessories, and makeup.

To Grace’s credit, her writing is honest, raw, and confessional without veering into the territory of spectacle and voyeurism. She does not shy away from representing herself in a negative light, particularly in relation to her drug usage and struggles with marriage and parenthood. Her journal excerpts, spaced throughout the narrative to provide intimate snapshots of her private struggle for self-acceptance in stark contrast to the public acceptance of her music, are particularly effective in conveying her inner turmoil. The most interesting and illuminating of Grace’s confessions are those that detail how her experiences in the punk rock scene impact her experience of gender dysphoria and vice versa, particularly in relation to norms of drug and alcohol consumption. Grace, at times, uses drugs and alcohol to keep her dysphoria at bay, while at others her substance use exacerbates her feelings of distress and dissatisfaction with her assigned gender. Gender dysphoria and punk rock create an explosive and unsustainable combination that push Grace to make peace with her identity after 30 years of struggle.

Common barriers to medical transition and how transition can significantly impact trans people’s familial, professional, and romantic relationships are thoughtfully detailed. Grace’s wife, Heather, is initially supportive, but their marriage does not survive her transition. Grace also discusses her difficulty finding appropriate medical and mental health services in Florida, and how her therapist is reluctant to recommend her for hormone replacement therapy until she conforms to his stereotypical notions of what a women should look, act, and dress like. Though again, she is not adequately critical of the level of access she has due to her racial and economic privilege and celebrity status in comparison to the majority of trans women. While her story is in many ways unique, the book as a whole speaks to the necessity of foregrounding the stories of trans women who are not the most privileged or normative members of the community.

Tranny is ultimately an unsatisfying read because Grace (and Ozzi) were faced with the difficult task of appealing to both longtime fans of Against Me! and those who became fans of Grace more recently because of their support of transgender issues. The book was marketed as one primarily about gender–listed as a bestseller in Amazon’s “transgender” category and shelved in the LGBT section of Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores–even though, given its content, it is better classified as a music biography. Though Grace makes reference to her “anarchist beliefs,” she does not discuss what exactly these beliefs are, or how the ethos of anarchy and punk rock intersect with her understanding of gender. Her reflections on gender do not touch upon the activism she has engaged in since coming out, such as the popular Buzzfeed article “10 Questions It’s Never OK To Ask a Transgender Person” and her web series True Trans, which was nominated for a 2015 Emmy award. Tranny would be a more effective transgender memoir had Grace included more of her experiences and observations post transition. As is, Tranny will mostly appeal to fans of Against Me! and punk rock music, not those interested in gender and social justice.

Grace is, after all, a musician and songwriter, not a memoirist, and the most true and poignant explorations of her identity are found in her music and lyrics: “You want them to notice, / The ragged ends of your summer dress. / You want them to see you / Like they see every other girl” (“Transgender Dysphoria Blues”). Despite Tranny’s flaws, Grace remains someone to take notice of, and both her music and her story are, undeniably, important contributions to the history of punk rock.