Last summer, when Caitlyn Jenner came out as transgender, headlines exploded as if the world had never seen a trans celebrity before. But meanwhile, Laura Jane Grace, the front-woman of popular punk-rock band Against Me!, had been out for three years and had long been making music about trans issues. Even before they came out, her struggles with gender identity found their way into her songs, she told a jam-packed room in Bushwick art and performance venue The Silent Barn Thursday night. “Every single Against Me! record has songs that are just me dealing with gender dysphoria.”
She was in Brooklyn for a benefit concert hosted by Gender Is Over, a group she has supported by sporting and raffling off a T-shirt with its logo to raise money for organizations that assist the trans community. The proceeds from Thursday’s show went to help undocumented immigrants gain representation, which is disproportionately difficult for LGBT people.
The whole night centered around social justice. Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and Worriers front-person Lauren Denitzio performed songs like “They/Them/Theirs” that critique the gender binary. Singer/songwriter David Dondero sang “New Berlin Wall,” which calls on the government to help immigrants with the resources it currently uses to keep them out.
The shaky tenor of Dondero’s voice would make you think Conor Oberst inspired his work, but it’s the other way around: Oberst has cited him as a major influence. Given his poetic storytelling, it’s easy to see why. His music’s candid autobiographical vignettes are well worth a listen.
But even during these performances, the audience yelled for Laura Jane Grace to come on stage. Gender Is Over didn’t list her among the evening’s performers — they only named a “special guest” by the pseudonym Clarice Starling — but most attendees had caught who the headliner was through word of mouth. When she finally got on stage, she misheard “I love you, Laura” as “Fuck you, Laura” but didn’t seem to mind. “I’m flexible,” she reassured everyone.
With her new act Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers, she played Against Me! favorites like “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” and “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong.” She sang her old lyrics the way she originally wrote them, before she revised them to hide her gender while living as a man. In “Pretty Girls,” she added the line, “You wouldn’t think something like gender identity would complicate something like asking for some company.” What seemed like a tribute to the nerves associated with asking someone out was in fact a confession about how Grace’s gender impeded her romantic relationships.
Grace also read passages in progress from her upcoming book, which documents everything from her childhood identification with Madonna, who she thought she was singing “Cheerio girl,” to the pressure she felt to stay silent when her colleagues made transphobic remarks, her spontaneous proposal to her ex-wife, and her decision to stop caring whether or not she passed. All these stories, in different ways, called for smashing the patriarchy and gender roles.
The mainstream media still present Caitlyn Jenner as the go-to authority on trans issues. But unlike the politically conservative Jenner, Grace has long been advocating progressive politics in her music, and she has never advised any trans woman not to “look like a man in a dress.” Based on the screaming crowd’s reactions to the powerful words she spoke and sang, she’s the role model the trans community is rallying around.