Against Me! has always been a radical band. The band’s best-known early song, “Baby, I’m an Anarchist,” proudly, if somewhat self-effacingly, wears its politics on its sleeve. For years, the Florida band’s punk energy has been inexorably linked to its hard-left political views.
But after 17 years on this path, Against Me! changes gears with their latest record, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” here offering deeply personal takes on gender identity and expression. The songs are fueled by lead singer Laura Jane Grace’s 2012 announcement to change her birth name of Tom Gabel and begin living as a woman. Grace’s transition and the alienation stemming from her gender dysphoria make up the bulk of the album’s content.
In eschewing political concerns and honing in Grace’s struggle with gender dysphoria, Against Me! has created their most radical album ever, not to mention their best in at least a decade.
For starters, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” is simply a well-produced record. It strips away much of the over-processed sound found on the band’s last two albums, “New Wave” and “White Crosses,” for something rawer. But where “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” really shines is its direct and relatable approach to gender identity. Listeners may not have experienced the specific issues Grace has gone through, but on some level, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” allows them to identify with her anyway.
The press coverage of Grace’s transition and her latest album has been overwhelmingly positive, which can sometimes undermine exactly how courageous her announcement really was. Transgender people are murdered at alarmingly high rates. In July 2012 alone, 23 transgender people were murdered across North and South America, a rate 50 percent higher than gays and lesbians experience.
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In the United States, where violence against transgender people is less prevalent, a full 97 percent said they had been harassed at work, while 26 percent lost their job because of their transgender status. Fifteen percent of trans people report living on less than $10,000 a year, double the national average. California is the only state in America that legally protects transgender students’ right to choose which bathroom to use or sports team to play on. Even that protection is under attack, after the conservative group Privacy for All Students launched a lawsuit to repeal the recently-enacted law. Only 17 states offer laws prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity. No federal law offers this protection either.
Even Grantland, which published a glowing in-depth look at “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” has come under fire for its treatment of transgender people. Last week, the site published a longform piece on inventor Essay Anne Vanderbilt, a.k.a. “Dr. V.,” which posthumously outed her as a transgender woman after she killed herself when writer Caleb Hannan uncovered this fact.
It is dangerous to be transgender in the world today. With any luck, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” can change that, at least for some people.
Against Me!’s early audience was largely composed of politically conscious radicals, but when the band moved to a major label in 2007 and Hot Topics across the nation began carrying “New Wave,” they picked up a much broader audience. A sizable portion of these listeners have likely never given transgender issues a serious thought until Grace made her announcement in 2012. Simply considering the myriad of issues that transgender people face may not change the world right away, but it’s undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
A common form of “othering,” thinking of trans people as different and alien, and usually as less valuable or human than cisgender people. This kind of thinking leads towards both casual and systematic discrimination against transgender men and women. By and large, the reason transgender people experience so much discrimination and even violence is because others don’t always see them as equals. On “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” Grace intentionally highlights the relatable aspects of her dysphoria, forcing listeners to find common ground with the singer, no matter how the listener may have felt originally.
“Dealing with depression is really what a lot of that’s about,” Grace told Grantland’s Steve Hyden. “On the surface level, the album may be transgender-themed, but underneath it, there are those universal themes — alienation, depression, not being happy — that I think that everybody can really identify with.”
Previously, when Against Me! addressed radical issues, it was always with a sense of humor and some distance. “Baby, I’m an Anarchist,” from the band’s first album, “Reinventing Axl Rose,” works hard to skewer supposedly ineffectual and authoritarian liberals, but also takes some jabs at the anarchist scene that Grace once described as somewhat “full of shit.” “White People for Peace” spends equal time savaging both pointless wars and the hypocritical rock stars who rally against them. But on “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” Grace never allows herself this distance. The songs are simultaneously personal, relatable and deeply visceral.
When Grace asks, “Is your mother proud of your eyelashes?” on the excellent “Fuckmylife666,” it’s as much a question of how the audience sees her as anything else. When she bemoans her “Silicone chest and collagen lips” and asks, “How would you even recognize me?” it’s hard not to relate and put oneself in her place. Her questions are so close and so honest that the listener has no choice but to grapple with them.
“Blues” never shies away from the truly dark points of Grace’s dysphoria, either. “True Trans Soul Rebel” talks openly of suicidal thoughts, depression and roads not travelled. “Paralytic States” delves painfully deep into Grace’s distorted image, cutting herself to become “a fucked-up kind of feminine.” “In her dysphoria's affection, she still saw her mother’s son,” Grace says of herself.
As dark as the album can get, though, there are traces of hope as well. As “Fuckmylife666” comes to a close, Grace sings, “No more troubled sleep / There's a brave new world that's raging inside of me.” Hopefully, the record can inspire a brave new world inside others as well. The record certainly won't change the world overnight, or likely even hit the top of the Billboard charts, but alongside a growing number of other trans-positive works like "Orange is the New Black,” “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” can play a part in changing the way America values and treats its transgender citizens.