Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout
The first thing you need to know about this memoir is that it gets better. Not only does life get better for Laura Jane Grace (née Tom Gabel), but the book itself gets better. A mix of first person narrative and journal entries, there is much here that is rock writing at its most clichéd, male-centric, and self-obsessed, but the first of the journal entries (indicated through use of a typewriter font in the text) is so viscerally honest it’s almost as if the pages that lead up to it are a quickly forgotten preface. As I read Grace’s words I kept wondering how differently it might have read overall if she had leaned on a female rock writer instead of Dan Ozzi. Before you slam me for gender bias, it’s essential to understand that traditional gender binaries are heavily present in this memoir, and the prose reflects this. I should also clearly state that while I’m a longtime self-identifying female punk rocker, I’m more aligned with the generation that came before Against Me! (Grace’s long-running band) and have a very different view of the punk scene and its music than that presented by Grace.
Grace writes a lot about the struggle to maintain some kind of internal balance while fighting against accusations of “selling out” and her ongoing efforts to repress her self-defined gender dysphoria. To understand both of these themes it’s essential to understand how Grace seemingly defines both punk rock and gender. Grace comes out of a scene where bands are primarily male and women are for sex, selling merchandise, or in Grace’s case, sex and sometimes marriage and babies. Outside of Grace’s own struggles with gender dysphoria, there is very little introspection here around issues of gender-based oppression, the li mits of seeing people as either “male” or “female,” and attaching traditional structures to these concepts of gender. This is not to belittle Grace’s struggle but to highlight instead the difficulty of writing about gender in general and specifically in the punk rock scene.
Like most rock memoirs, Tranny has a lot of band fights, violence, drugs, alcohol binges, sex, and more drugs. While Against Me! fans might enjoy these anecdotes, I’ve always found that side of the rock world completely uninteresting. What makes this memoir compelling are those moments when Grace rises above detailing her cocaine abuse, “road tales,” name-dropping, and actually writes about her creative process, her loneliness, and her internal struggle. Grace writes with brutal honesty about her trips to seedy motels to spend time with “her” (Gabel’s female self prior to becoming Grace), equating time spent dressing in women’s clothing with cheating on her wife, and the stark loneliness of her inability to tell her wife or her closest friends what she is going through.
As an “old school” punk myself, I can’t write a review of this memoir without taking issue with some of Grace’s sweeping comments on punk rock. As an elder-statesman of punk once said to me, “Kids need to learn their history.” There is a certain frustration I experienced in claims such as Against Me! being the first punk band to play acoustic (do I need to provide a list?), that no one else had ever worn a dress on stage or in a video (Falling James, Kurt Cobain, Wayne/Jayne County—the list is long), and then there is the confusion of categories: Danzig’s “She Rides” is “perhaps the greatest video of all time,” but Butch Vig is at first considered “too mainstream” to produce Grace’s band since Vig produced Nirvana. And then there is the confusion around the words “anarchy” and “anarchist.” Grace claims she believed in equally splitting the take at shows among all band members because she is “an anarchist.” For Grace, this means she is aligned with the latter day American “crustpunk” scene and also some vague notion of the politics of English anarcho-punks CRASS.
Another central theme in this memoir is the issue of “selling out.” It’s an issue many punk rockers have struggled with over the years: how to maintain any credibility with the “scene” or oneself while also following ambitions for making music, having a “real” job, or even simply paying rent and eating on a regular basis. I read Grace’s journal entries detailing the major label bidding war for Against Me! with great sympathy. I distinctly remember my own internal struggles over “selling out” when I took my first (and only) major label job. I also remember listening to much more successful punk musicians than Against Me! doing the verbal soul searching involved in trying to maintain integrity while living in a capitalist society where all labor and all art is considered commodity. But while Grace’s struggle to maintain integrity makes sympathetic reading once again, there are missed chances in this memoir. She writes about feeling conflicted when she sees Ian MacKaye (famed frontman for Minor Threat and Fugazi) at a show and fears MacKaye will see her as a “sell out” but doesn’t address MacKaye’s own complicated take on credibility within the punk scene nor the obvious dichotomy between MacKaye’s anti-drugs and alcohol ethos and Grace’s substance abuse. I also have to question this struggle for punk rock artistic integrity coming from a musician who chose to come out as transgender in a feature interview in Rolling Stone—a brilliant act of publicity but not one necessarily in line with punk rock credibility.
There are other similar missed chances that point directly at a central flaw in this memoir: the lack of introspection that would bring it above a disjointed narrative split between Tom Gabel’s tales of a wild rock lifestyle and Laura Jane Grace’s struggle to exist. But there is also much here that deserves both sympathy and respect: the courage to write about gender dysphoria, the difficult decisions Gabel made to become Grace, and the desire to find and maintain both artistic and personal integrity. Overall, Tranny is a worthwhile read and an important document of the difficulties surrounding the struggle to maintain artistic integrity in the American music scene and also finding a positive space for diverse expressions of gender identity in an often binary world.