Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Book Review: Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace (by Robyn Pierce)


I finished reading Tranny by Laura Jane Grace within five days of picking it up. The style of the books feels as though you’ve just found a quiet moment to sit down with the lead singer and pioneer of the band Against Me! to discuss her struggles with gender dysphoria and self-acceptance. This makes it an accessible and uncomplicated book to read, but also leaves you feeling like you’ve been trusted with something personal – the raw ‘confessions of punk rock’s most infamous anarchist sellout’. The book is co-written with Dan Ozzi, editor of Noisey, but the narrative voice belongs solely to Grace. Ozzi’s influence can be seen in the careful structuring of the book, which moves between Grace’s retrospective writing and journal entries from the time of the events that she is discussing. There must have been hundreds of journal entries to sort through and the skillful selection of these personal excerpts helps to maintain the pace of the book and brings immediacy to the emotions that Grace is describing.


Tranny begins with a five year old Tom Gabel mesmerized by the image of Madonna as she sings ‘Material Girl’ on TV. This starting point becomes increasingly important as the book progresses and Grace finds herself entangled in the politics of trying to be a successful punk rock band. Madonna stands as a symbol of everything that Grace hopes to be: a respected and popular artist who derives confidence from a female identity. The strength of this book is that it doesn’t attempt to gloss over or sugarcoat the trauma of Grace’s dysphoria. The self-hate and isolation, the reliance on drugs, and the strain put on personal relationships are laid bare. Grace also doesn’t hold back in her assessment of Tom Gabel, essentially labelling him as a self-centered ‘prick’. Many of Tom’s problems are shown to be linked to his inability to fully accept his desire to be ‘her’. When Laura Jane Grace finally lays Tom Gabel to rest and emerges as ‘her’ it is a triumphant moment, because she is now able to live an open and authentic life (even if this comes with its own challenges). Tranny also peels back the polished veneer of the band Against Me!, with insights into band tensions and disputes, touring, and the recording process. This helps to shed any romanticized notions of what it must be like to be in a punk band, and it’s clear that Grace’s efforts to try and run from her dysphoria by going on tour often serve to worsen her symptoms. The book follows Against Me! from its early beginnings on Plan-It-X records, through its Fat Wreck days, to Sire and opening for bands like Green Day and Foo Fighters. From the moment Against Me! moves to Fat they are attacked and labelled as ‘sell outs’. Grace does well to deal with this quite openly: admitting to falling prey to certain pressures while also criticizing the selfish possessiveness of many punk fans.

Grace has noted in interviews that she understands, and agrees, that ‘tranny’ is an offensive term, but that it is a fitting title for her book because it deals with the fear and self-loathing experienced by Grace during her dysphoria. I think this is a brave move on Grace’s part which does fit in with the core focus of her book. At its heart, Tranny is a book about confronting the worst thought you’ve had about yourself and gaining confidence by overcoming it. I blew through this book wanting to get to the victorious transformative moment at the end – and I can assure you that there is a poignant moment with Grace’s daughter that put a lump in my throat and left me feeling deeply satisfied – but it’s clear by the end that this will be a continuous journey for Grace. And really, the journey described by Laura Jane Grace is much like the one every person must embark upon as we all attempt to develop and become our best selves. This book will satisfy Against Me! fans who want to know what went down behind the scenes of their favourite albums and shows. However, Grace has become an important advocate for the transgender community and, while this book certainly focuses on her personal experience, her confessions in Tranny offer vital insight into gender dysphoria and transgender experience.