In a recent interview, Laura Jane Grace, lead singer and guitarist of Against Me!, stated that her greatest moments of gender dysphoria before coming out as a trans woman were when she was on stage and in her interactions with media. When an artist is on stage, they perform more than just the music. This is why pop music is so obsessed with brand image. Being on stage affects people, and so they act in a way that they might not necessarily do otherwise. Does anyone know what Kanye West is really like? Obviously with the dawn of social media we can have more insight into a person – Amanda Palmer is an example of a musician who has whole-heartedly embraced this – but still, being in a public space with potentially millions of people getting your updates equates to a similar performance. When there are thousands of people observing this performance and reacting to that persona, it creates pressure to conform to that image. This dichotomy of the public and private personas seems very much related to what Grace was talking about: her jarring experiences of the public reaction to her appearance as a male punk frontman.
The genre has quite a history with gender, especially in the early years. The New York Dolls massively toyed with gender, presenting themselves as stereotypes of women; as did Patti Smith, especially in her iconic androgynous portrait on the cover of Horses. Likewise, The Ramones and Debbie Harry of Blondie pushed their own gender to unprecedented levels, while Iggy Pop’s aggressive stage presence and vocals were held in contrast to a feminised appearance, such as in the cover of Raw Power. However, despite the undeniable huge impact these artists had, musically and socially, they all were almost exclusively heterosexual and cisgender (i.e. not identifying as transgender). More modern artists such as Against Me!, Limp Wrist and Condenada morph the male cis-het aggression that punk had developed into a queer force of liberation. Punk evolved as a reaction against the mainstream, as all subcultures do, and so a queer element formed. The queer is othered by society, but punk is an active choice to other the self from society, and so the combination of the two is a way of self-determining identity.
This is exactly what Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues is about: a reclamation of Grace’s trans identity. This is one of the factors that make it one of the best punk albums released in recent years. The album presents the issues of her trans experience, going through songs such as ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’, in which the first lyrics of the whole album are “Your tells are so obvious, shoulders too broad for a girl”, presenting the direct issues she faces, then ending with the dolefully triumphant ‘Black Me Out’, which channels the punk’s rage against society: “Black me out, I want to piss on the walls of your house/I want to chop those brass rings/Off your fat f*cking fingers/As if you were a king-maker.”
Together, these songs represent the violent revolutionary spirit (see ‘Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ’ – “You’re gonna hang like Benito from the Esso rafters”) and the rage against the system that is omnipresent in all good punk. Moreover, Grace’s individual experience of otherness allows her to go even further; her greater oppression at the hands of society, of misogyny, transphobia and transmisogyny, allows her to unleash a much greater reactive force, and therefore her output is vastly amplified compared to the angry straight white cis males who have dominated the genre in the past.