Transgender Dysphoria Blues

Musician and writer Corey Claxton Blaustein is our newest Off Paper regular contributor. He originally hails from Los Angeles, and has lived in Seattle for the past six years. Here, he considers our current topic, "Transformation." 

The title of this post comes from the title of the new album by the rock group Against Me! Started in 1999 by Florida native Tom Gabel, Against Me! started as an acoustic project, an outlet for the 17-year-old punk. After years of recording and touring, the band grew a solid and loyal fan base that fed upon the signature sound of aggressive punk rock that is reminiscent of the fervor and urgency of protest songs during the 1960s. Today, Against Me! is still very much on the radar with major radio airplay and a touring schedule that spans to every inch of the globe.

Why am I talking about a punk band? In 2012, Against Me! went through a change that surprised fans and the punk community as a whole. In a Rolling Stone interview, Tom Gabel came out as transgender and planned to make the transition to living as a woman. The article talked about Laura Jane Grace’s (Gabel’s new name) struggle in dealing with her sexuality, something, until that February, she kept from her fans, her band members, and even her own family, including her wife and daughter.

Grace knew that she was a woman since she was young and struggled with it until she came out in 2012. Much of the suppression forced Grace to lash out in different ways, much of which contributed to her ultimate career with Against Me! It wasn’t until she ran out of topics to write about that she finally succumbed to bringing the skeleton out of the closet. Scary as it might have been, Grace was welcomed with open arms and had the full support of her family, her band, and her fans.

Photo by Cass Bird

Photo by Cass Bird

After hearing about her gender dysphoria and her transition, I started to wonder about her past works when she was still Tom Gabel. Does Against Me!’s back catalogue have a different meaning now? Do certain songs give light to the internal struggle that she dealt with, and where do those songs stand now that the identity of the songwriter has changed? How will Laura Jane Grace be remembered and how much say does she have in the matter moving forward?

Against Me!’s newest effort is one that touches upon Grace’s internal struggles in both lyrics and musical presentation. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is an album that is dark and angry but ultimately ends with an inspirational message about overcoming personal demons. It’s a musical battle that pits societal personal affirmation against societal assumptions. Grace’s voice is in the middle of a hormonal transition and a feminine quality can be heard making its way into the first few tracks. What I found pleasantly surprising is the change of tone in the fourth song on the album “Drinking with the Jocks.” It’s in that track that we hear the clash between who was Tom Gable and who is now Laura Jane Grace. Her angst and fervor rivals any machismo exuded by your typical big male archetype and it’s honestly a relief to hear. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a great insight to struggling with identity. The music might be harsh and loud, but so is the struggle.

I wanted to end with a lyric from Against Me! new album:

“You should have been a mother

You should have been a wife

You should have been gone from here years ago

You should be living a different life

Who's gonna take you home tonight?

Who's gonna take you home?

Does god bless your transsexual heart?

True trans soul rebel”

- “True Trans Soul Rebel” from Transgender Dysphoria Blues 2014

Here is a video of band performing the song live