This is the story of a woman named Laura Jane Grace, who was born in the body of a boy named Tommy Gabel, and spent the next 31 years of her life trying to get out.
It starts a long time ago, back when Gabel was 4 or 5 years old and had just watched a televised performance by Madonna. It was the moment Laura first let herself be known, when the boy who spent skinned-kneed summers dressed as a cowboy or Superman realized she was not actually a boy at all. And not surprisingly, given her strict upbringing on military bases across the South (Gabel’s father is a retired Army major), she didn’t understand how to process this rather pertinent bit of new information. All she knew was that, for the first time in her life, she felt somehow different.
“When you’re younger, you don’t necessarily get it, [but] I just completely identified with Madonna,” Laura admits. “Watching ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ and seeing Mia Farrow with a boy’s haircut, was another moment I remember thinking, ‘That’s me, that’s what I’m going to grow up to be, that’s the kind of woman that I’ll be.’ ”
Of course, over the next 20-something years, a life like that seemed impossible. Gabel’s parents got divorced, and she moved to Florida with her mom. As a teen, she lived with a secret shame, experimenting first with cross-dressing — then eventually graduating to drugs and alcohol — as a way of coping with what is clinically known as gender dysphoria, one’s discontent with the sex they were assigned at birth and the gender roles associated with that sex. But back then, without the Internet and only films like “The Silence of the Lambs” to serve as reference points, Gabel felt like she was some kind of pervert or a freak. And the kids she went to school with didn’t do much to dissuade those feelings, picking on her and calling her a “f—-t.” She hated the way she looked, hated the way she felt and, above all else, hated herself. It was, needless to say, the low point of her story.
About this time, Gabel also discovered punk rock, mostly as a way of fighting back. She’d begin writing songs in her bedroom, using the name Against Me!, which she now admits was a nod to her gender issues, and at 18, she moved to Gainesville, Florida, to form a band. Over the next decade, she’d get married (and divorced), live a life of anarcho-punk austerity, tour the world with Against Me! and even get signed to a major label. She’d begin to pepper AM! songs with references to her secret, and at points, she’d even swear off cross-dressing and do her best to bury her transgender feelings. But no matter how much she tried, she just couldn’t do it.
“You don’t understand what’s happening to you … though, as you grow older, you realize this isn’t something that goes away,” she says. “When you’re younger, you have these moments where you’re like, ‘OK, I’m going to choose to be male. I will be male. This is it. I’m going to take all my women’s clothes that I have secretly hidden away under my bed, and I’m going to put ‘em in a garbage bag and I’m going to throw them in a dumpster, and that’s it. I swear off this behavior for the rest of my life.’
“And then you get to that point where you’re like, ‘This isn’t something that’s going away,’ ” she continues. “And you start hearing so many other people’s stories, and you realize, ‘That’s me. This is what I’m going through.’ And it becomes so apparent that you’d be a fool to continue to deny it.”
For Laura, the end of the denial began in 2009, when, newly married and with a daughter on the way, she began to realize that she could no longer continue living two lives. “I couldn’t exist as a woman in hotel rooms by myself and then come home and pretend to be someone else,” she now admits. “I’d end up killing myself.” She decided to finally reveal her secret. Over the next year, she first came out as transgender to her wife, Heather, then her Against Me! bandmates, and finally, the world, via a much-publicized feature in Rolling Stone magazine. And in doing so, she not only became the most prominent artist to live openly as transgender , but for the first time in her life, she felt unburdened. And free.
“I was really, honestly excited. When I first told my wife, immediately it was just like this huge weight being lifted off my shoulders, and subsequently every other person that I’ve told, that feeling was more and more there,” Laura says. “I’ve been completely blown away by the majority of people’s reactions. … They’ve been more than respectful and more than supportive, and it’s been, for me, completely humbling.”
In the month since the Rolling Stone story broke, Laura Jane Grace has begun hormone treatments and returned to the stage with Against Me! And before their show at New York’s Terminal 5 — where they’d be joined by Joan Jett for a cover of the Replacements’ “Androgynous” — Laura and the band sat down with MTV News for their first on-camera interview. For an hour, they spoke openly and honestly about the state of the group and the fallout from Laura’s revelation. There were jokes about personal pronouns and applying makeup in the back of the tour bus, touching moments of brotherly (and sisterly) love — “She can take care of herself,” beefy guitarist James Bowman laughed, when asked whether the band felt the need to protect Laura — and a general camaraderie that, for an act with as tumultuous a history as AM!’s, was positively revelatory. In every conceivable way, they seem like a new band, one as free as Laura herself.
“We didn’t want to make it melodramatic. … It was kind of simple in a way,” bassist Andrew Seward says. “It sounds cheesy, but it’s not: You just want your friend to be happy. When this came out, I think the bottom line for all of us was just ‘be happy.’ ”
“I’ve been a jerk over the past few years. I’ve been an absolute ass in so many ways, just from, you have this thing you’re dealing with that you don’t know how to process it, and it bears on you,” Laura adds. “And it comes out in so many different ways. … You express your anger at what is going on, and you take it out on your closest friends. And now, I’ve obviously apologized.”
And it’s about the only time she’s apologized for anything. Laura admits that her new life hasn’t been accepted by everyone — “It’s completely ended my relationship with my father,” she says — but after 31 years spent wrestling with the supposed shame and stigma of gender dysphoria, she’s finally found happiness in honesty and the supreme freedom of living life on her terms. And she’s never going back now. In a lot of ways, Laura Jane Grace’s story is only just beginning — and we’re honored to be able to tell the next chapter. Of course, Laura isn’t too concerned with any of that. She doesn’t want to be mythologized and isn’t interested in being seen as a transgender icon. Instead, she just wants to enjoy living a life unburdened. And really, she’s earned that.
“I never thought any of this would be possible. It was just something that, conceptually, I could never realize. But … my life improves every single day. I try to make a step every single day, no matter how big or how small,” Laura says. “It feels like I’m in control of my life, and I’m in control of my person, and that’s empowering. Saying to someone ‘I’m a transsexual’ is the most empowering thing I’ve ever felt in my whole life.”