I don’t know much about transgender dysphoria, but it doesn’t sound pleasant. However, I do know Tom Gabel the songwriter and performer quite well, as I was immersed in his artistic output for years of my life. His recent announcement of his longtime transgender dysphoria, and subsequent plans to undergo an intensive transformation to begin life as Laura Grace has sent the press into a frenzy (Rolling Stone’s exclusive interview hits shelves today). While there never is an opportune moment to radically change one’s life, this announcement feels timely as the nation becomes more welcoming and more alienating at the same time.
For the better part of the Aughts, Against Me! was my favorite band. Obsessed with honesty and compelled by personality, they stayed true to the core of punk rock with simple song structures that explode with life and positivity in the face of a dying and restricted scene. My love for Against Me! has defined my personality and my own creative output, and has enabled me to enjoy life’s questions with a cold beer, ringing ears and sore vocal cords. While I have had my disagreements with the band in recent years (namely White Crosses), the majority of their work has left a profound impact on my life that will not wane or tarnish with age. And as the leader and songwriter of Against Me!, my love and respect for Tom Gabel will prevail as well. That said, the news of her transformation has not strayed far from my mind these last few days.
In light of her surprising (but not unbelievable) announcement, everyone—myself included—is looking to his confessional lyrics for insight. The most obvious excerpt comes from the phenomenal second verse of “The Ocean” that closes their fourth record, New Wave, produced by Butch Vig. “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman/My mother once told me she would have named me Laura/I’d grow up to be strong and beautiful like her.” He then goes on to describe his imagined family, complete with an honest husband and a home on the Gulf of Mexico. However, the most devastating line from that song comes at the end: “there is an ocean in my soul where the waters do not curve.”
Upon further review, there are other startling moments of honesty that provide depth to already strong songs. There’s “Thrash Unreal”, also on New Wave, which tells the story of an aging female punk. “They don’t know nothing about redemption/They don’t know nothing about recovery.” What was once an interesting piece of catchy fiction, now reads as an imagined autobiography.
There’s also “Searching for a Former Clarity”, the shattering and chilling closer off the album of the same name. On the surface, the song is about a patient dying of AIDS, which is certainly deep enough. Upon initial release, I heard it as a swan song to his former life as a relative icon in a scene ready to dispel him. Post-announcement, the song takes on a much more personal and specific meaning: “Confessing childhood secrets of dressing up in women’s clothes/Compulsions you never knew the reasons to.” He goes on to explain the toll the “disease” has taken, pumped by the heart. Now, it’s clear that the song is a document of his internal war, and it’s never been more powerful.
If you were familiar with Against Me! prior to this announcement, you would know they aren’t strangers to controversial decisions at the cost of alienation. Once identified as leaders in the anarchist punk movement, Gabel led his band from self-released cassettes to a major label record deal, from empty basements to arena tours. Gabel was maligned, protested and slandered by the anarcho-punk community for his band’s success, eventually claiming “they set their rifle sights” on him, and that “their revolution was a lie, ” on White Crosses’ key track “I Was a Teenage Anarchist”. Being a member of the anarchist community is not for the faint of heart, and neither is taking them on publicly, but courage and conviction is something that has long defined Gabel, and will continue to define Laura Grace.
While he has distanced himself from what was once his guns and butter, there is much we can learn from a young Tom Gabel, and find sentiments that will certainly help her during her transformation. On one of the most classic Against Me! songs, “Those Anarcho Punks are Mysterious…”, Gabel manages to explain the magnitude of the anarchist plight in a few short phrases. Strangely enough, it applies to her current decision and announcement: “And we rock ‘cause it’s us against them/We found our own reasons to sing/And it’s so much less confusing when lines are drawn like that/When people are either consumers or revolutionaries/Enemies or friends hanging on the fringes of the cogs in the system/It’s about knowing where everyone stands.” What was once a cut and dry song about the tenants of anarchism, is now a compelling work that challenges social constructs and how they affect one’s identity.
If you peruse the comment sections of the initial Rolling Stone announcement, you’ll see plenty commendations or condemnations (2225 at last count). It’s clear that this will be a heavily discussed and argued event within the punk and transgender communities. Fellow FP contributor Tim Myers informed me that when he was at a Voice of Addiction (Chicago punk band) show in Columbus, OH, the singer urged Tom to “Stop! Take some time to think,” aping his line from New Wave’s “Stop!” Laura Grace knows that this disrespect and ridicule will be rampant, and how she deals with that is entirely her business. Maybe she can take comfort in one of Tom Gabel’s lines from Reinventing Axl Rose’s tranquil closer, “8 Full Hours of Sleep”: “The sun’s always rising in the sky somewhere.” Hopefully, this is the sunrise she’s been seeking.
We commend her bravery and look forward to the newest incarnation of Against Me! with Laura Jane Grace at the helm. Below, enjoy a Spotify playlist of our favorite Against Me! songs.
Peter Lillis is Assistant Editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He doesn’t have anything snarky to say about this one.