The Anniversary

Transgender Dysphoria Blues Turns 10

Total Treble/Xtra Mile
Total Treble/Xtra Mile

In a doctor’s office around 2012, I saw someone reading a Rolling Stone issue with the text “EXCLUSIVE: The Secret Life of a Rockstar Who Became a Woman,” as if “rockstar” and “becoming a woman” were mutually exclusive.

I quickly skimmed through a copy while no one was looking, keeping the image of Laura Jane Grace in a towel hidden away from anyone sitting next to me. When you’re closeted and trans, there’s a paranoia that everyone can see right through you; in reality, people are too obsessed with their own lives to care about yours. When I started questioning my gender in 2015, I knew to reach back to the woman in Rolling Stone. I listened to Transgender Dysphoria Blues hoping it would tell me something about myself, but it only made me more reluctant about transition. So did reading Grace’s memoir. It wasn’t until the onset of the pandemic five years later when I knew I didn’t have a choice. Only then would I start to understand that frankness could be a comfort, not a deterrent.

Every move a closeted, struggling Laura Jane Grace made in her first decade fronting Against Me! seemed to piss more people off: She put out Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose on a tiny label, and her punk fans got mad. Then she signed to Fat Wreck Chords, and her fans graffiti’d the tour van. Then New Wave and White Crosses came out, slick records produced by Nevermind maestro Butch Vig, and people paid money to see her shows just to boo Grace for selling out. Scene politics don’t matter as much when you come to realize your very existence will be politicized forever. Before she could deal with that, though, she was in constant motion. If she wasn’t constantly touring, she’d have to stop, take some time to think, and figure out what’s important to her.

Yet, even in her time on a major-label, she couldn’t get away from her gender surfacing: New Wave lead single “Thrash Unreal” came into being because Butch Vig challenged Grace to write a song like “Walk On The Wild Side” or “Rebel Rebel.” In the video for “Unreal,” Grace requested to wear a dress, but the director made her go shirtless instead; from the outside, Against Me! had become a generic macho rock band. Grace tried to play along, giving into every label and A&R note she’d resisted for White Crosses, but it didn’t do what she or Sire wanted. The band had an uncertain audience, some no-man’s-land between their punk origins, heartland rock, and alternative radio. By the time “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” came out, Laura Jane Grace shared alt-rock airtime with Three Days Grace, increasingly out of step on Warped Tour but not successful enough for much else. Vig later said on Pensado’s Place that he thought Against Me! would get as “big as the Clash,” but that’s not what was happening.

Immediately after finishing White Crosses, Grace began writing for her next record. The songs poured out of her. By New Year’s Eve 2011, she performed “Black Me Out,” the closer to the album she’d eventually make. Grace said she wanted to make a record about a transgender prostitute, as a way to write about her actual struggle. Listening to a demo, guitarist James Bowman had asked her whether she could use the word “faggot,” and Laura abruptly confessed that was transgender herself. In 2012, she came out via that Rolling Stone article.

The initial reaction to her coming-out was less hateful than… confused. There were not a lot of transgender people in the public eye – they existed, and books like Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl broke ground during the 2000s. Few of those figures were famous enough for media coverage (The only one I knew was Dee Palmer, which I learned from a Music Choice factoid.) Few outlets knew how to deal with something that, culturally, was a punchline. Gradually, the pieces clicked: Laura Jane Grace was always writing about her identity, from the earliest EPs to the song that closed out White Crosses, “Bamboo Bones.” Making art and transition are both inevitable — if you feel the urge to create or the urge to explore your identity, it will come out whether you want it to or not. And thus, we have the obligatory mention of New Wave’s “The Ocean,” where the second verse starts with “If I would have chosen, I would have been born a woman/ My mother once told me she would have named me Laura.” All those weird digressions and cryptic phrases in her writing suddenly made a lot more sense, and in those cases were as literal as her political songs ever were.

Somebody had to be the first high-profile transgender rockstar, and we could do a lot worse than Laura Jane Grace. If she could make the lyric “Because of the shame I associated with vulnerability I am numbing myself completely” into a massive chorus, she could write a compelling song cycle about transition. Not that she had a choice: When you get to that point in the closet, it doesn’t matter what other people think anymore. Transphobia is obviously a very real danger, but as the diaries featured in her memoir prove, so is not transitioning. She would have to come out, and so would these songs. It’s the same realization a lot of trans people go through: It’s not going away, so you might as well embrace it if you can, So, 10 years ago this Sunday, we got Transgender Dysphoria Blues, 10 songs daring cis listeners to empathize.

Recording the album continued Grace’s streak of bad luck. As the record was near-completion, drummer Jay Weinberg (who, it must be said, Grace would later call a “little bitch boy“) suddenly quit via a tweet. Then bassist Andrew Seward quit. Then a tree fell and destroyed Grace’s fledgling new studio. She, James Bowman, Atom Willard, and Inge Johansson finished recording in a Georgia studio called Earth Sound, where the engineer recorded with a gun on his hip. In Grace’s memoir Tranny, she said: “I traded everything I had for these 10 songs. They were all I had to show for a dwindling career, a failing marriage, and a decaying life.” Thankfully, the record did see completion, and it provided a path forward for Grace instead of the dead end she feared.

Transgender Dysphoria Blues was universally considered a breakthrough in trans representation and one of the most important albums of the 2010s. Ironically, it’s so well-regarded for its importance that I never saw a lot of reviews actually talk about the music, just the context surrounding it. During the band’s major-label era, Laura Jane Grace stuffed wordy social commentary into radio-rock hooks; the big chorus on their major-label debut single went “They sang protest songs/ In response to military aggression!” On Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Grace dispensed with that, developing her efficient songwriting from White Crosses and simplifying the words, not the messages. They finally found the clarity they were looking for.

The directness results in the most accessible, rousing songs in the entire catalog, where Grace sounds relieved even as she gets into darker subject matter. Before the last pre-chorus on “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” Willard gets a delightful drum fill, and the guitar lines are as melodic as they’ve ever been. Grace, self-producing, learned well from her days with Butch Vig — the record was even mixed by Billy Bush, a frequent collaborator with Vig, and while it’s harsh and often distorted, it’s always listenable. Contemporary reviews described the production as both “luxurious” and “rough and ready,” and they’re both right.

The poppier songs like “Dead Friend” and “Unconditional Love” weren’t a million miles from tourmates Green Day — relistening again and again for this piece, the echo of “How could I not have guessed?” became my favorite detail on the entire record. As dark as these songs could get, it was also a record of band members learning to have fun again. “”Drinking With The Jocks” was noisy and angry, but grounded in smart songwriting: I especially love how lines like “wishing I was one of them” and “there will always be a difference” can apply both to cisgender women and the jocks themselves.

A darkness is always apparent underneath, as early as the title track. The word “obvious” came up twice in “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” – it’s hard to enjoy living as a woman when you’re paranoid about people not seeing you as one, and the potentially fatal consequences. Even as “FuckMyLife666” has lines like “There’s a brand new world raging inside of me,” the song also alluded to Grace’s impending divorce: “All things made to be destroyed/ All moments meant to pass.” This has a reputation as a triumphant album, but there were seldom moments of true optimism, particularly when the hopeful ballad about Grace’s daughter was called “Two Coffins.” The most optimistic thing about Transgender Dysphoria Blues is that it exists at all.

Many still dismiss the songs that aren’t about transition, but from this vantage point, they all are. “Osama Bin Laden As The Crucified Christ” was out of place, even as I like how it reinterprets aggro butt-rock riffs — but look at the verses, where the darker side of embracing your identity is laid bare: “What’s the best end you can hope for?/ Pity fucks and table scraps.” And the songs that directly approach the subject have their own digressions: The chorus of the title track was taken from a diary entry otherwise about Pope, Against Me!’s former lighting designer and the subject of “Dead Friend.” The world doesn’t just stop turning in transition. Loss and grief still occur, and you may still wonder if your wife kissed your late lighting designer while he laid in the casket.

The most devastating song was “Paralytic States,” a song left over from Grace’s initial transgender prostitute idea. It’s Grace worst nightmares at being a trans woman coming to pass – that she’d get everything she wanted and still be a “fucked up kind of feminine.” Yes, “By the time the ball dropped it was already over” is a cringeworthy double entendre, but being trans is cringey! It’s embarrassing! It’s not logical! You’re “making yourself up as you go along”! But it’s followed by “Black Me Out,” the first song Grace publicly performed from the album, one easy to read as a fuck-you to Sire (though she denied this) but can apply to all of the forces that kept her closeted across the album.

So the story of Against Me! was rewritten – not of a punk band that signed to Warner and lost their cred, but a band whose identity crisis turned out incredibly literal. The press was positive and hopeful: She’s beautiful! The wife is supportive! Everyone is supportive! You have to be 100% confident all the time because you’re the only big trans person in the public eye! If you fuck up the world will think all trans people are depressed and delusional! And anyone who listened to the album beyond “True Trans Soul Rebel” knows it’s not all happy. In Tranny, she wrote: “[Fans] told me that I was their hero, and that I gave them the courage to come out and start HRT. But I didn’t feel like anyone’s hero… I wanted to scream some sense into them and beg them not to do it. ‘Look at me! Hormones ruined my fucking life and will ruin yours, too! Are you really willing to risk everything and everyone you love for this?’ But instead, I just smiled and posed.”

Listening now, three years out of the closet, TDB resonates much more. I try not to care that “there will always be a difference” between me and the cis women I interact with, I try not to care that I have no “cunt in my strut,” I try not to think about all the ways I know I’m viewed differently, and hearing Grace voice the frustrations means more to me than the more immediately celebratory moments. In my circles, trans women are accepted enough that I don’t need to be hyperfemme or prove myself; I can just be me, and that’s a really nice difference between the world a decade ago and the world now. But those thoughts are always in the back of my head, especially as the anti-LGBTQ backlash goes on.

Two years later, Against Me! released a follow up called Shape Shift With Me, a minor record in the band’s oeuvre but a necessary companion piece to Transgender Dysphoria Blues. It’s a subgenre of Difficult Follow-Up record I admire, where the catharsis isn’t as strong as the previous triumph but the emotions get knottier (see also: Little Oblivions to Turn Out The Lights). Transgender Dysphoria Blues was labored over; Shape Shift With Me feels slapdash and stream-of-consciousness, but that winds up endearing. She approaches the end of her marriage with a sense of humor and candor not always in her past work, with songs like hookup anthem “Rebecca” and actual new wave strut “Delicate, Petite, & Other Things I’ll Never Be.”

Grace would continue the more specific, personal writing on her work with the Devouring Mothers, screaming less and goofing off more. (“You caught me,” she deadpans on the otherwise political “The Chicago Song,” “This is actually just another divorce song.”) She has a new record out in February, Hole In My Head, and it’s as direct as ever: “Dysphoria Hoodie” apes “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” while quite literally singing about the hoodie she wears when she’s dysphoric. You wanted more explicitly trans songs on Transgender Dysphoria Blues? You got a solo career full of ‘em.

The decade since Transgender Dysphoria Blues has been a bizarre mixed bag for transgender people. In 2016, Against Me! influence (and Against Me! fan) Bruce Springsteen canceled a concert over “bathroom bills” in North Carolina, and countless artists followed suit. Then the transphobic bills kept on coming; if you were to cancel concerts now, you couldn’t tour in half the country. As Katelyn Burns wrote in 2019, the more awareness came across the 2010s, the more backlash ensued. Transgender identity is mainstream enough that the closet is shrinking; more people know the signs, more people know what an “egg” is. Today, if any major musician pulled the shit Grace did in “The Ocean,” fans would catch on immediately. Grace’s young paranoia that someone would figure it out is unfortunately more justified than it was then.

There are positives to trans life today, too. I frequently see music by queer and trans artists pop up in my inbox, and a trans woman got one of the most memorable line readings in last year’s biggest box office hit. At the same time, the governmental backlash has been fierce. There’s the dangerous KOSA bill, the violent rhetoric from the US and UK right wing, and the increasing anti-trans legislation across the US. Florida, famously the Against Me! place of origin, has become even more unsafe for trans people. It’s all genuinely dangerous, with far-reaching consequences, even if it’s also the last gasp of politicians feeling their power and relevance slip away from them.

So I don’t know what the future holds for transgender people, if things will get better, worse, or anything else. But in 2014, Laura Jane Grace showed there was a future, whatever it took to get there.

Stereogum is an independent, reader-supported publication. Become a VIP Member to view this site without ads and get exclusive content.

more from The Anniversary