Laura Jane Grace used to be best known from Against Me!, a punk rock band famous for aggressive songs like “Thrash Unreal” and protest tunes like “White People For Peace.” More recently she’s become an outspoken critic of North Carolina’s anti-transgender bill, burning her birth certificate on stage at a concert in Durham. With that persona in mind you might expect a discussion with her about transgender issues to be as forceful as her music.
You would be wrong.
Like fellow punk legends Henry Rollins and Greg Graffin, offstage Grace is an intelligent and thoughtful speaker, worlds away from the genre’s power and hostility. And that gravitas was in full effect at her compelling chat about transgender issues at Pandora’s offices in Oakland with employee experience manager Colleen Finnegan as part of the streaming service provider’s Pride Month activities.
It began, of course, with a question about the recent massacre in Orlando. “There’s no other way we can feel but sadness,” Grace said. “I can only sympathize. I share those fears [of being targeted]. But I don’t think the answer is to hide.”
From there it moved to her upcoming album and book, which is “a memoir of being really closeted while being in a band.”
“It was about upping the ante on distractions,” she said. “We got signed to a major label and two or three years were just gone, from touring to recording.”
“Then it spit me out the other end and I was just extremely unhappy. I was married with a kid, in a house I own, two cars in the garage, a band, a career, and I was still unhappy.”
So Grace came out as transgender. How did her band take it? “I wasn’t particularly tactful. I just couldn’t stop coming out. We were talking about a song or whatever and I just told them. Everyone looked like I drop-kicked them in the face. But after that it was no big deal.”
“When I came out I didn’t know what to expect [from the music community] and was overwhelmed by the amount of support. From my band, other bands, fans, roadies, everyone.”
That doesn’t mean everything is smooth sailing. She told stories of a TSA employee at O’Hare Airport who, in the middle of a patdown, told her in more colorful terms that that “this is why he hates his job,” and of a coffee shop employee who got stuck in a loop referring to her as “ma’am…sir…ma’am…sir…ma’am…”
“You’re struggling to deal with this,” Grace emphatically said, “And all I want is coffee.” That led to one of the major morals of the discussion: “What I thought is my problem is actually everyone else’s problem.”
What should people do to to avoid struggling with it? For strangers Grace defers to they/them/their pronouns for everyone, regardless of gender. And for people she knows, “While there’s a time and a place and a way, there’s never any harm in asking.” One positive example she mentioned involved Lars Frederiksen of Rancid, who took her aside and asked what pronouns to use for no reason other than to be respectful.
Steering the conversation to Grace’s new album, Finnegan asked about the responsibility of sending a positive message for the transgender community.
“I don’t want to think about it like that,” Grace replied. “Being your authentic self, to me, means not writing for audience approval.” Instead, she says she wants to write from “a perspective other than coming out trans or growing up trans. That’s what I’m interested in creating.”
Of course not all media portrayals are positive. “Growing up, all the representations were Silence of the Lambs and Crying Game. I learned it was something to be ashamed of.”
But she relayed a story of parents’ night at her daughter’s school, where a series of questions or statements from the other parents made her more and more uncomfortable. “Then someone said something about Star Wars,” she said, “And that was it.”
“I’m not as worried about what the media is teaching my kid as what other parents are teaching their kids, who are spending all day around my kid.”
Society seems to be slowly, gradually changing.
“A couple steps forward and a couple steps back,” she says. “You just have to hope the steps back aren’t as far.”
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.