This Band Helped Me Embrace My True Trans Self
A week after I came out publicly as a woman, my wife sat me down and told me she needed time. She was overwhelmed, she said, and felt very suddenly as if her life was out of control. She needed to pull back for a few days, and consider, really consider, if she was prepared for the changes that would be coming. She said she owed that to each of us.
I can’t blame her for being frightened. One thing that’s changed since realizing I was transgender is that it’s suddenly much harder to make promises. I don’t know what the future is going to look like; I don’t know what I’m going to look like. I’ve begun a journey to become who I am, and I only have a vague idea of where it’s going to lead me.
These are the first words I’ve written publicly about being trans, and I’m writing them because of Laura Jane Grace. On Shape Shift With Me, the new album from her band Against Me!, she sings: “I don’t want to hang around the graveyard/waiting for something dead to come back.” This is the band’s second album since Grace came out as a trans woman in 2012. The first, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, was an impressionistic, vibrant exploration of struggling with gender dysphoria and a budding identity. It was about the messy realities of rebirth, about clawing out your own resurrection with teeth bared. Shape Shift With Me is about love afterward, and about the struggle of trying to live a new life while still carrying so much of the old one behind you.
Letting Down the Barriers
I discovered Against Me! in college, years before Grace or I would reveal ourselves to be women. At the time, she was known as Tom Gabel, the fiery lead singer of an embattled anarchist punk band from Gainesville, Florida. Something about the music immediately clicked. It was largely political, screeds against power and sketches of life compromised by the grip of a political system you don’t trust or want. “Baby, I’m an anarchist,” Gabel sang on the band’s first album, Reinventing Axl Rose. “And you’re a spineless liberal.” The fury came with an acute eye for intimate details and wordplay. This was music you embraced because of the rebellion and stuck with because of its deeper, humanistic elements, the sense that it understood something about people in pain. My best friend would tell me stories about singing himself hoarse driving around his home town of Birmingham, Alabama, nearly ruining his voice trying to imitate Gabel’s plaintive snarl.
When Grace came out, it was the closest I had knowingly come to the lived experience of being trans. I read intently, following her career and life even more closely than before, and even then, four years before I would come to see my own experiences with gender as part of a trans experience, her words resonated with me. In 2014, when Transgender Dysphoria Blues dropped, I was unspeakably moved by it. It was a chronicle of never being safe in your own skin, of not even sensing that you can tell what your skin looks like to the world around you. Its sense of displacement, of loss and hope amidst that loss, felt like an articulation of my own identity running out of sync. It hit wounds I didn’t know I had.
Over the next two years, I would find my gender increasingly difficult to talk about. I would befriend more people from the trans community, and I would feel something approaching envy toward them. Throughout my life I’d imagined what it might be like to live in a biologically female body; increasingly, I found myself picturing life in the bodies of my friends as well, seeing a trans face looking back at me in the mirror.
My barriers fell slowly, then all at once. I was at my desk this summer, reading stories I found through Twitter, when I came across an essay about a trans woman living in the closet as a man. It wasn’t a particularly good essay, but the writer’s experience—her alienation from her own sense of self—resonated. For the first time, I let myself ask a question that had been slowly building at the base of my neck for years. I put on Against Me! and cried.
Living With Necessity
Shape Shift With Me is a collection of songs about living, and loving, with improvisational necessity. In a restless 38 minutes, Grace sings about drawing people close and pushing them away, writing about love and loss with the same urgency and inevitability she brought to her political jeremiads. “Now I’m swinging broad and wild and random,” she sings on “12:03.” “Whatever direction takes me away from you, that’s the direction I’m going to head in.” There’s a sense of something close to but not quite self-destruction, a feral need to break anything that impedes the discovery of who you truly are. Grace wants to build connection, and she builds them throughout Shape Shift With Me with ruthless honesty. “I have nothing to offer but myself and the shitshow I’ve left behind me. I don’t know where I’m going except forward.”
A few days after coming out, I told a friend, a trans woman whom I had reached out to while wondering if I was trans, that I was tired of attending my own funeral. Coming out, I’ve quickly learned, often has that tenor to it, people singing the death knell of the man they thought I used to be. Shape Shift With Me is the rare mainstream trans narrative written by a trans woman and wrestling with life beyond coming out, living beyond your own mistaken wake. It’s as bitter as it is utopian: low dirges alongside driving ballads of fleeting love, drizzled with images of death and the occult. On “Delicate, Petite, & Other Things I’ll Never Be,” she sings:
I am still waiting for the visions
Possession has yet to take hold of me
We all want to burn on a pyre
Tell me: what kind of witch are you?
As I sit here, wrestling with the repercussions of my self-realization, that sentiment resonates. Rebirth is a clumsy metaphor for my experience; it’s less being reborn than it is learning how to be something you always already were. In some renderings of the Christian Gospel, Lazarus was still rotting after Jesus resurrected him. Shape Shift With Me, alongside my own experience, reminds me of that. You’ve come back to life, but now you have to figure out how to live inside your own corpse. The more powerfully your heart beats, the bloodier it’s going to be.
I don’t mean to romanticize my struggle, or to suggest that my experience is universal. I don’t think Grace intends to, either. We’re both simply trying to make sense of it. There’s still so much I don’t know. My transition has barely started. I don’t know about hormones, or hair removal, or when (or if) I’m going to take on a new, more obviously feminine name. I find myself deeply connecting to Shape Shift With Me for that reason. By Grace’s own admission, shared in press releases and interviews, the goal was to write a personal album about relationships from her distinct perspective, a response to Exile on Main Street or Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. In doing so, she’s written an album for the not-knowing. It feels like a signpost, marking a path on her new road—and on mine, too.
A few days after my wife told me she needed time, she brought home a cake from Whole Foods. It was chocolate, its dark icing emblazoned with a single word in her favorite purple. It said, “Yes.” She had taken her time, and she realized that while some things may change, the important things haven’t, at least for the foreseeable future. I’ve gotten bad at making promises lately, but that doesn’t mean other people can’t make them to me.
In the most unambiguously hopeful song on the new album, “333,” Grace sings about her desire to find love despite “cycles of death and regeneration, sensations of absence and loss.” It’s an invitation:
All the devils that you don’t know
can all come along for the ride
I just want to be as close as I can get to you.
It may not always be true. But it is now. So I sing it with her.