Tom Gabel probably didn't want to be praised for her decision to come out as transgender; she just wanted to be comfortable in her own body. But I'm going to praise her anyway.
Because when Gabel announced to Rolling Stone on Tuesday that she planned to begin living as a woman — after struggling privately with gender dysphoria for years — it was undoubtedly the most personal thing a major recording artist has ever gone public with, an admission that's sure to make her the target of cruel insults and petty insinuations (to say nothing about what it might mean for the future of her band, Against Me!). But rather than focus on the close-mindedness of a select few, it is certainly more worthwhile — not to mention important — to laud Gabel for what is, in its purest form, a genuine act of bravery.
To be fair, Gabel is not the first musician to come out as transgender. In the 1970s, electronic artist Walter Carlos announced that she, too, suffered from gender dysphoria and underwent sexual reassignment surgery to live life as Wendy Carlos. And just last year, Life of Agony singer Keith Caputo made headlines when she became Mina Caputo. But Gabel's case is different. Since her earliest days, she has always been a punk pariah, criticized for "selling out" at every step of her career.
I got the sense this bothered her on some level (how could it not?), because when I interviewed Gabel in 2006 for AM!'s major-label debut, New Wave, she definitely made mention of it, saying: "There is no pleasing everybody. ... I guarantee our new record will get the same reaction that all our records get. Some will be like 'It's awesome,' and others will be like 'I absolutely hate it.' But fast-forward a few years, and the ones who said they hated it are the ones who say they loved it all along."
It will be interesting to see how Against Me!'s fans — and detractors — react when Gabel begins living life as Laura Jane Grace, because they definitely can't accuse her of selling out anymore. If anything, her decision to begin gender reassignment treatments is the most punk-rock thing imaginable: being true to one's self, being unafraid to be different, speaking out regardless of the repercussions. These are the tenets the genre (and, for what it's worth, way of life) were founded on — and, really, what they should still be about today. If you have a problem with Gabel's decision, you're probably not a punk at all.
In coming out as transgender, Gabel will undoubtedly inspire others to do the same. She is proof that the truth is nothing to be ashamed of, that there is nothing as important — or admirable — as living the life you want to, on your own terms, detractors be damned. And the fact that Gabel's wife, Heather, will remain by her side as she begins this new chapter is not only equally inspiring, but, in the wake of the passage of North Carolina's Amendment 1, which made law that only a "marriage between one man and one woman" would be recognized by the state, it seems even more important. Because truly, is there any greater definition of love — or support, or dedication or unwavering union — than what they share? You can quote biblical verses to deny that fact, but really, you'd be missing the point.
For years, fans like me have marveled at Gabel's pained yet poignant lyrics, with their searing desires to break free and find a place in the world (on the standout New Wave track "The Ocean," Gabel growled, "And if I could have chosen/ I would have been born a woman"). It turns out, it went much deeper than that: Gabel was at war with her own body, and now, finally, she's found the courage to make peace with that conflict. It's beyond admirable; it's downright brave.
Like she told me six years ago, "There is no pleasing everybody." Ultimately, you've got to please yourself. And with courage and conviction, Gabel has done that. No matter how you feel about her new life, you can't deny that it's everyone's basic right to live life on their terms. That goes beyond music or politics or religion: It's humanity, pure and simple.