As Against Me! took the stage on Sunday night in Durham at Motorco, frontwoman Laura Jane Grace produced a lighter and her birth certificate. She lit it on fire. “Goodbye, gender!” she said as the band kicked into its first song, “I Was A Teenage Anarchist”.
Grace, who came out as transgender in a 2012 Rolling Stone article, and her band bucked the boycott of North Carolina that Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr, and Ani DiFranco fostered or followed. As one of the most high-profile transgender women in the country, Grace’s response when asked if she would join the boycott was simple: “I’m going to create an event around the show as a form of protest to say that despite whatever stupid laws they enact, trans people are not going to be scared,” she said. “They are not going to go away.”
The band’s appearance in Durham couldn’t have come at a better time, as the state and the federal governments have resigned to fighting this battle out in court.
The sold-out crowd was one of the most diverse I’ve ever ever seen at a punk show. By the time Against Me! hit the stage, the energy of the audience was palpable. The crowd damn near exploded when Grace burned her birth certificate.
Somehow, the band sustained the feeling throughout the hour-plus set. At the end of some songs, Grace couldn’t contain her own excitement, smiling and clapping along with the crowd. Playing a shockingly even mix of songs from albums across the band’s two-decade run, Against Me! closed with a four-song encore that included “The Ocean,” the closer of 2007's New Wave. Released well before Grace came out, it includes the line, “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman.”
Before the show, the INDY sat down with Grace to talk about the band, HB 2, and transgender rights.
INDY: It’s been a pretty eventful couple of years since Transgender Dysphoria Blues came out. What are you working on right now?
LAURA JANE GRACE: A lot. Literally two days ago I got the masters for the record we just finished. The last five or six months, we’ve been working on Against Me!’s seventh full-length, so now that’s going to come out in the fall. In addition to writing the record, [I've been] finishing up writing a book. And the past couple of years has been super busy, between touring for Transgender Dysphoria Blues, releasing a live album, I’ve done a couple of production jobs, produced a record for a band called Worriers and a couple of songs for a Chicana riot grrrl band called Fea from San Antonio, Texas.
It felt like, in a lot of ways, that the last record could have been, well, the last record. Your studio burned down. Andrew [Seward, bassist] left the band. It was such an intensely personal album that it seemed like an end. Did you ever think that it was over?
Totally. And in a way, that enabled it to be really good going forward, when it was really falling apart. I was like, “OK, we have no bass player. We have no drummer. It’s just me and James in a studio, and we have songs. So if the songs are there, we gotta at least finish them and put them out.” So when we finished the record and put it out, it was different than most records in the past where you’re like, “Well, this sounds this way in the mix, maybe we can tweak that in the master.” This was more like, “Take it away from me.”
Going back and listening to a lot of Against Me! songs, you hinted at the struggle you were going through. What was it like finally being able to 100 percent open up on the last record. Did it feel like a weight being lifted off your shoulders?
Completely. Part of the frustration was feeling like you are putting yourself into music in that way. You’re saying these things, and it’s constantly being misinterpreted, people thinking you’re something you were not and not knowing how to be that person that people wanted you to be. A song like “The Ocean” off New Wave, a lyric like, “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman": there’s no metaphor in that. You cannot get more direct than saying that, and to still have people not even get it was like…you’re not reaching people, and they’re not taking it in the right context.
Since you came out in 2012, trans rights have evolved a lot. How has that evolution happened through your eyes?
I see it as a series of tipping point moments. What helped me come out was seeing the strength and courage of other people coming out. I remember one of the last people was [former singer of New York hardcore band Life of Agony] Mina Caputo, and reading about her coming out, I saw an article on Huffington Post, and I thought, “This is there to speak to me. This is a sign from the universe.” And I know that I’ve had other people come up to me after I came out who said, “That inspired me to come out.” And that translates wider and wider.
You see a lot in the media talking about HB 2, people being like, “There’s only this many transgender people in the world.” And I don’t think that it’s known how many transgender people there really are. There are more and more people being given the safe space and being empowered to come out. You get more of a realization how big this actually is.