by Ryan De Freitas
Even by Laura Jane Grace’s standards, 2016 was an intense year. As well as recording and releasing Against Me!’s seventh studio album, Shape Shift With Me, Grace also wrote a book, produced two albums and conducted an unfathomable amount of promo around it all. The last thing she needs right now, as her final tour of the year winds down, is to be faced with another interview. Sorry, Laura.
As we walk up to her dressing room, navigating the maze that is the backstage of London’s Electric Ballroom, Grace is in high spirits and doesn’t seem to be too mad at me for encroaching on what little time she has to herself.
“Yeah, that was a bad idea.” She says, in reference to releasing a book and a record in the same year. “But it worked out. I actually think the reason that there is a new Against Me! record is because I was doing a book. All the pressure, in my mind, was on writing the book, so it became this thing where I was focusing on songwriting because it seemed more fun to me. It was odd in that way.”
That Grace’s idea of procrastination is to write an entire album worth of songs says it all about her work ethic. And with the book, TRANNY – Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, being, as she puts it, “Mostly admin work,” organising decades of personal journals into a book of memoirs, it makes sense that a more creative practice would offer an essential outlet.
And Grace will surely cherish that period of being able to indulge in art for art’s sake even more in retrospect, given what followed.
“Honestly, in August, I think I did press every single day, aside from three days of that month,” Grace says with a wince. “It was too much.”
“I wanted to be in a band when I was younger,” she continues “I wanted to be an artist. I want to create great records, books, whatever. I’m shit at painting, but wouldn’t it be nice? But it’s almost like in this day and age you have to be really good at the actual art and then you have to be really good at interviews too, otherwise you aren’t gonna make it. That sucks.”
Grace is no stranger to these media machinations, given the burning intensity with which the spotlight has focused on her since coming out as transgender back in 2012. But the last twelve months have presented a few new challenges and experiences.
In the first half of the year, Grace burned her birth certificate onstage in North Carolina as a protest against that state’s hateful NB2 law, a legislation that denies trans people the right to use their identified bathroom. And the internet exploded with outrage from terrible people and overbearing concern from misinformed ones.
“It was hilarious,” laughs Grace. “People were like, ‘What are you gonna do now?’ and ‘You shouldn’t have burned that, you need it!’ And my thoughts were just that I had to go and ask my mom for it. I haven’t actually used it in 25 years! It’s just this arbitrary piece of paper you were given at birth to prove you were born. Of course you were born, you’re right there!”
Then, in September, Grace posed topless in Rolling Stone and the internet did its thing once more. At this point, though, comment sections don’t faze her.
“There’s always bullshit comments,” Grace sighs. “At this point, I’m pretty much just like, ‘fuck it’.
“And that was actually my idea. It wasn’t like a calculated or pre-meditated thing, I was just in LA at an Air BnB where we did the photoshoot. At one point the photographer said, ‘How about we fill up the bathtub and play around with that?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah sure!’ So I got in and that’s what happens.
“It was maybe a two hour photoshoot where we took a bunch of photos and that just happened to be the one they used.”
“Not at all. It created conversation,” Grace reasons. “It’s a big part of The Trans Question. Look at Instagram and the censoring of the nipple, for example. There are certain things that are denied to me because I’m trans and my driver’s license says ‘male’ on it, but at the same time I would get arrested if I were to walk around topless, because I have tits. That hypocrisy is intriguing to me so it was fun to push that button.”
The picture, of course, was removed from Instagram.
Away from the media circus and the scrutiny that comes with it, Grace’s home life provides much-needed respite. So you can imagine her horror as that, too, came under threat this year.
“The way I’ve kinda designed my life is that there’s a real stark contrast between when I’m on tour or promoting a record or whatever and when I’m at home during my real life personal time. It’s not like I walk around my neighbourhood and people know who I am, I live a really anonymous life when I’m off the road and that takes the heat off of it.
“There was fallout from the birth certificate thing where I started getting harassing phone calls and I had to change my cellphone number – that was new.” Grace nervously laughs off the ridiculousness of the situation. “That became a security worry and I started wondering if people were going to attack me at shows or something. That was a really a horrible new feeling.”
Even with her number changed, however, there is also the occasional, far more innocent threat to Grace’s sanctuary.
“I have a friend who is a doctor in the area of Chicago I live in who, bless her she was just trying to be sweet, bought an extra copy of my book and gave it to our local library and it was just like, ‘ah fuck’. I wish she hadn’t done that just cause it’s so close to home and I want to go to the library and not be on the shelf.”
2017 sees Grace, rightfully, taking some time out. With TRANNY now out in the world and a far less demanding touring schedule on the immediate horizon, she can finally relax. If only she can figure out what that word actually means.
“I don’t know who to ask this question to,”she starts as we wrap up the interview, “but I’ve wanted to ask it to someone: How do you revitalise your soul and recharge your spirit?”
My simple answer – weed and Rocket League – is met by with a, “Man, preach to that.” And I genuinely hope Grace can find some time to give it a try, but her parting words don’t fill me with optimism.
“Honestly,” she says, as I leave. “I feel like I need to devote the next year to charity work or something – just anything other than fucking talking about myself.”