Laura Jane Grace is lying on a plastic-covered bed in the back room of Mohan’s tattoo parlour in Queens. Outside, the No. 7 train rumbles overhead and tipsy drag queens in perilous heels totter past all-night taco stands. Inside, an artist named Kenji bends over Grace’s calf with the focus of a surgeon, inking an intricate geometric pattern around both legs. It’s well past one in the morning. They’ve been at this for more than 13 hours.
Grace keeps dozing off despite the pain. She was up at 6 a.m. with a panic attack, which has not been uncommon since she came out as a trans woman – first drunkenly to a friend, then to her wife, Heather, then publicly in a Rolling Stone article four years ago – and began the process of physically transforming herself from a guy named Tom Gabel into the woman she knows herself to be. Today, her panic has something to do with the stress of being in New York to plug two projects – a new album from her punk band, Against Me!, and a memoir, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout – and all the talking and explaining and answering she’ll have to do over the next few days. But it’s mainly that now, all of a sudden, Grace thinks she might, just might, be able to rekindle her relationship with Heather, someone she thought transitioning had cost her.
And it’s cost her plenty. The day the Rolling Stone article came out, Grace hid, terrified, in Against Me!’s studio outside St. Augustine, Florida. When she emailed the story to her father, a West Point graduate, he tersely wrote back to say that her “presentation left much to be desired”. They haven’t spoken since. Her mum and her brother have been supportive, but other family members haven’t. “As far as friends,” Grace says, “it shed people from my life.”
Then things got worse. Against Me! had long been one of the most exciting and politically outspoken punk bands around – Florida kids who tore up stages with lefty anthems like “Baby I’m an Anarchist” and had enough punk cred to get shit for signing with a major label (they did anyway) and enough charisma to count Bruce Springsteen a fan. But within a year or so after Grace came out, they were hanging on by a thread. They’d been dropped by their label. Their ex-manager was suing them. Half the band had quit. These problems weren’t all related to transitioning, Grace says, but it seemed inevitable that everything would end up in flux: “Coming out started a lot of change in my life in general.”
Then, in a hotel room in Georgia, near where Against Me! were trying to record the album that would become 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Grace had a bad reaction to hormones she was taking, waking up with her body half-frozen, dripping in sweat. She quit the hormones cold turkey, which, she says, “is not something you want to do. It fucks you up. It’s like my brain was not even functioning. The only way I got through was Valium. I would take handfuls and fucking drink vodka every night just hoping I wouldn’t wake up.”
But nothing – not the hormone withdrawal, the rejection from her dad, or even the tree that fell and destroyed Against Me!’s studio in 2013 – was as bad as what happened with Heather. “I’ve never had anything fuck me up more than the dissolution of my marriage,” Grace says. “I’m not over it. I’ll never be over it at this point.” Grace had kept her feeling that she was born in the wrong body a secret when the two married in 2007. But when she announced her transition, the couple – who have a daughter, Evelyn, now six – thought they’d be able to work through it. At the beginning, Heather was in many ways Grace’s cheerleader, championing her honesty and gently correcting people who called her “him”. “I had her back so hard – it was like us against the world in a way,” says Heather when I talk to her a few weeks later. “But it also sort of highlighted problems. With band stuff, all the press, everything, she was even less present. It was overwhelming for both of us.” It didn’t help that the hormones Grace was taking dampened her sex drive and caused physical changes. Or that Heather was attracted to men, not women. “That discussion,” she says, “didn’t go well.”
Grace hasn’t spoken to her dad in four years. “Transitioning shed people from my life,” she says.
Grace eventually found a stash of letters under the bed in their house in St. Augustine, addressed to Heather in her maiden name. She wasn’t sure her wife was having an affair – “It wasn’t what she thinks it was,” says Heather – but when Heather insisted they move to Chicago, where the guy who’d sent the letters lived, Grace agreed. She couldn’t entirely blame Heather for wanting to move on. Nor was she willing to let go.
Once in Chicago, the situation devolved. “We would be at dinner, just crying,” says Heather. “Our therapist was like, ‘You can’t live together anymore. It’s bad for your daughter.’ ” Grace moved out. She was terrified that Evelyn would stop calling her “Dad”, even though the term was painful. And she was afraid of losing Heather for good. “I was socialised male,” she points out. “The idea of your wife starting a relationship with another man is hard enough,” she says, but it was made worse by the fact that she thought her jealousy, her anger, only underscored her male socialisation. “Of course, you can’t own somebody, and the idea of owning somebody in that way seemed like a very male thing. Where’s the line between anger and misogyny?”
Such were the questions Grace was asking herself when Transgender Dysphoria Blues hit the Billboard charts at Number 23 in early 2014, the highest debut an Against Me! album had ever had. Suddenly, she found herself a transgender role model with a fan base that included an overwhelmingly supportive queer community and a revamped career to go along with her decimated personal life. “I had gone from being married with a kid, two cars, garage, nice house in a nice neighbourhood to all of it gone,” she says. “But from an artistic standpoint, it broke down this fucking wall where there’s no filter. I’m feeling stuff emotionally and just processing it.” Her Web series, True Trans, earned her an Emmy nomination in 2015. She says the new Against Me! album, Shape Shift With Me, was the easiest to write of her career.
It was hard to know how to process it all: the success versus the destruction, the media celebration of trans-ness versus the day-to-day reality of living as a trans person out in the world. “I was touring, and people would come up to me afterward and be like, ‘I just started hormones!’ and I’m just thinking, ‘You’re going to ruin your fucking life. Don’t do it.'” She sighs. “I felt like I ruined my life totally.”
Grace with her daughter, Evelyn, now six. At first, Grace was terrified Evelyn would stop calling her “Dad”.
Grace doesn’t feel that way any longer. It’s the morning of her day at Mohan’s, and we’ve met up for brunch at a coffee shop a block away from the tattoo parlour (“Eating’s really important before getting tattooed. You need energy”). Our interview was supposed to have ended two days ago, after a round of gin-and-tonics at the hotel where Grace was staying with Evelyn and her nanny. But a six-year-old – even a cool, precocious one with partially blue hair – isn’t keen to sit and ponder life’s intricacies in a bar, and somehow one drink had turned into two, and two into three (“Least amount of calories in any alcohol but hardest on the liver = gin,” Grace later informed me by text. “Don’t fact-check that, just go along”), and suddenly Grace was the one asking the questions. “Are you married?” “What does dating mean now?” Is someone she dates now attracted to “the fading masculinity? Or the emerging femininity? Will she continue to be attracted to me as I continue to change?”
Grace, all six feet two inches of her, with her neck tattoos and her punk-rock clothes, now hovers like a vampiress over a cluster of strollers by the door. Despite the morning’s panic attacks, she’s fresh-faced and talkative. No, transitioning has not been easy. Yes, it’s cost her a lot. But she recognises now that transitioning was never going to fix all her problems – “Taking hormones isn’t going to solve whatever emotional issues you have; they’re two separate things” – and that the problems it created may have been a necessary part of blowing up her life so she could create a new one. “Trying to cause chaos – I think that’s the way I create change,” she says. “Do you realise how crazy I sounded going into a psychotherapist and being like, ‘I’m coming out in Rolling Stone magazine’?” she’d asked before. “At first they just thought I was out of my mind.”
Sometimes – today, for example – she wonders the same thing. For the past six months, she’s been in a satisfying relationship with a Quebecoise singer named Beatrice Martin, better known as Coeur de Pirate. But since sending an early copy of her memoir to Heather two weeks ago, the lines of communication have been open in a way they haven’t been for years. “She called me a narcissist, but it’s cool,” says Grace. “Writing your memoir is inherently narcissistic.” Now, Grace wonders if she should end things with Martin and try to piece things back together with Heather, however improbable that may be. She wonders if she should break up the band as a way of forcing some sort of change. And she wonders if she should leave Chicago, though she’s not sure where she’d go. The only thing fixed in her life seems to be her relationship with Evelyn, who once, heartbreakingly, asked her not to become a girl, but has come around to the idea (and does still call her Dad). “You realise that kids just want to know you love them,” Grace says. “After that, they’re just like, ‘I want to watch cartoons.’ “
The new Against Me! album is ostensibly about love, but it’s often really about longing, about experiences not had and memories not made. “I keep feeling like, ‘OK, finished a book, finished a record’,” she says. “That’s a monumental closing of a chapter. Something has to change. Life has to be different going forward, and I have to figure it out. What am I going to do for the fucking rest of my life? You know?”
From left; with actor Andrew Rannells at the GLAAD Media Awards in 2015, where Grace won Outstanding Music Artist and; with Against Me! in 2001.
Punk had always been a refuge for Grace, first as a military brat – secretly trying on her mum’s pantyhose and aching to be Madonna – and then, after her parents’ divorce, when she finally settled in Naples, Florida, the poor kid in a rich town. “The majority of kids’ first cars were, like, Mercedes,” she tells me scornfully. Her ride was sometimes the back of a police car. She got beaten up constantly. “That was what was attractive about punk rock – you’re wearing a leather jacket with huge metal spikes on it that’s fucking literally armour, you know? Like, studded bracelets that you could easily slip over your knuckles.” She still thinks of punk that way. “The way I carry myself through the world is, ‘I’m going to look like the type of person you shouldn’t fuck with.’ “
Not that the pressure to pass as feminine hasn’t been “over-fucking-whelming”. She stopped wearing makeup after someone referred to her as a young Alice Cooper. She’s never sure whether to open a door or have it opened for her. She titled one of her new songs “Delicate, Petite & Other Things I’ll Never Be”. “I’ve had those moments in Starbucks where I place my order and they’re like, ‘OK, sir, I mean ma’am, I mean sir, I mean ma’am’, and you’re like, ‘Just give me the fucking coffee. I don’t fucking care.'”
Grace isn’t sure where she’ll end up. She used to have a step-by-step plan for her transition, but now that seems naive and too focused on physical aspects as opposed to emotional ones. Still, she’s back on hormones – “the most powerful drug” – and has found that the injections she sticks in her thigh every week or so work much better than the pills she was taking before. She’ll continue electrolysis to remove remaining traces of her beard. She’s pleased the hormones have given her softer skin and a noticeable bust (“They say you end up X number of sizes smaller than your mother,” she says with a laugh. “My mum’s got the goods”). She wouldn’t mind a brow reduction or a tracheal shave. She’s definitely finishing her suit of tattoos, covering her body in images she finds beautiful. She still feels like she’s in process, and imagines that she always will. “This idea of what you’re going to transition into or who you’re going to be,” she had said, “that’s not how you’re going to end up. You don’t know who that person you’re going to transition into is. You just have to see.” For today, she’ll settle for getting inked and texting with Heather, trying to see where that leads.
Around 2 a.m., Kenji puts down the gun and calls it quits for the night, or rather, the morning. The tattoo is slowly taking shape, painfully becoming what it’s meant to be. Like Grace, it’s not quite there yet. Tomorrow is another day.
Top photo, credit: James Minchin III.
From issue #780 (November 2016), available now.