​ Portrait by Harry Griffin

Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock's Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout

While much of Laura Jane Grace's memoir, 'TRANNY,' deals with the nuances of everyday life as a transgender person, this exclusive excerpt indulges in full-on sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.

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Oct 31 2016, 12:00am

​ Portrait by Harry Griffin

This article appears in the October issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

There is an endless library of rock star memoirs out there about sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. Pick any of them up, and you can flip to a page about groupie fucking, hotel-room trashing, and white-line snorting. So when Laura Jane Grace and I started working on her book, TRANNY: Confessions of Punk Rock's Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, about her life fronting the punk band Against Me!, we wanted it to be different, because while she has definitely engaged in plenty of bad behavior, there was so much more going on underneath it all.

While the band was chugging along, Laura was hiding a secret that she wouldn't reveal until she was almost 32: She was a transsexual. She would soon drop her birth name, Tom Gabel, and live as a woman. Throughout TRANNY, we took great care in describing her struggle with dysphoria and gender identity to the reader. We explored it in detail in the earliest pages, as she fought to understand it as a misbehaving teenager, but then we faded it into the background toward the middle of her story, when she became distracted by the lifestyle of her rock star adulthood.

The midpoint of the book captures this era of her life. Laura (still known as Tom then) had recently eloped with her second wife, Heather. Against Me! had just released its major label debut, New Wave (2007), which brought newfound fame but also a small army of pissed-off fans who felt they'd been shafted by the leap. The rising profile of Against Me! and the taxing schedule that came with it caused tensions and fights among its members. And on top of it all, Laura wasn't much caring for the face of the selfish, perpetually hungover prick she saw staring back at her in the mirror every day.

The selection below is from that part of the story, when Tom Gabel couldn't get out of the way of their own damned ego. So while much of TRANNY deals with the nuances of everyday life as a transgender person, this is the section where Laura and I said "fuck it" and indulged ourselves in some full-on sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll writing. And yet, for all the proverbial dick-swinging of this scene, it's also a moment when her rock star persona begins to crumble and gives way to Laura Jane Grace. —DAN OZZI

The tour bus was waiting for me in the parking lot of the Leon County Jail at 4 AM after I was processed, charged with battery, bonded out, and released on $500 bail. Radar, our bus driver on that run, gave me a kind nod and smile as I jumped onboard with a sigh.

In my cell, I had been seated next to a bleary-eyed man dressed only in a pair of sweatpants and a white tank top who went by the name of Mills. "All the prisons gonna start farming out inmates' body parts for profit," he told me. He seemed like a seasoned veteran of the system, and I didn't question his wisdom. I nodded my head, listening to him talk, but mostly my mind wandered, lost in regret. I thought about what a stupid mistake I'd made and how much hell was in store for me.

Earlier that day, Heather and I walked to a coffee shop in Tallahassee that shared a parking lot with the Beta Bar, a venue Against Me! was scheduled to play that night, a place we had played regularly. We ordered tea, and I walked toward the back to use the restroom, where I saw a bulletin board on the wall with various flyers and notes tacked to it. One was a write-up for our show cut from a newspaper. Someone had taken a pen to it, crossing out all our eyes with "Xs" and scrawling the word "sellout" across my forehead. I tore it down, crumpled it up, and threw it in the trash. When I turned around, there was a punk right in my face.

"What'd you do that for?" he snarled.

"This was insulting to me, so I threw it out," I told him.

"Who the fuck do you think you are? This is our space, not yours." He turned his back to me, walking to take his seat at the counter.

I chased after him. "I'm a fucking human being, and I don't know you. Why are you treating me like this?"

He sat in front of his coffee, ignoring me. "What's your problem?" I pressed.

"As far as I'm concerned, this conversation is over," he said, flashing me a smug look.

Laura Jane Grace (then known as Tom Gabel) practices in Florida with her first band, the Adversaries. Photo courtesy of Laura Jane Grace

As far as I was concerned, it wasn't. I snapped. At that moment, this guy was every person who'd ever called me a sellout, every punk in the crowd who'd given me the finger, every asshole who'd ever slandered my band's name in a fanzine.

He raised his cup to take a sip, but I knocked it out of his hand before it reached his lips, sending coffee splattering in all directions. I grabbed him by the back of the neck and slammed his face down, pinning his cheek against the wet counter. I was completely blacked out. I don't know what I would have done at that moment if I hadn't been torn off of him by some people who started taking shots at me.

What I didn't realize was that later that night, this coffee shop was holding a protest show to counter the Against Me! show next door. Most of the people there knew who I was, and they tried to wrestle me to the ground. To me, they were just strangers throwing punches, but they knew my name. Every blow that landed on my body was a mark of revenge on behalf of the punk scene. It was a headbutt that brought me back to reality. It wasn't that it hurt; it was just that the idea of getting headbutted was so ridiculous that it snapped me to my senses.

"Just let me go," I told them.

"I'm going to release your arms," I heard someone behind me say. "If you hit me, I swear to God I'll fucking kill you."

Sure, bro, I thought. You're going to kill me. Right.

I had no idea what Heather was thinking as we left the scene. She said nothing. We walked in silence along the nearby railroad tracks until it was time to get back to the venue. There were two police cars waiting in the parking lot when we arrived.

I walked up to the first officer I saw, introduced myself, and asked if they were looking for me. He informed me they had to arrest me, but gave me a choice: I could go straight to jail or play the show first. I chose to play, setting myself up for a terrible performance. I was distracted throughout the whole set by an inner rage of defeat and the dread of what was waiting for me when it was over. I had been wrung through the legal system before and knew the long, arduous process I was in for.

After the show was over, I changed clothes on the bus, popped two Valiums, and met the officers waiting for me behind the venue. They handcuffed me, put me in a squad car, and started driving me down to the station.

We pulled out of the parking lot, alongside some fans exiting the venue. The cruiser circled by the coffee shop, and from the backseat, I looked up at its marquee, which had been changed— tallahassee punks: 1, against me: 0.

I woke up to find my mug shot plastered all over the front pages of music websites along with my arrest report for battery. "Hair: Brown. Identifying marks: Tattoos all over. Sex: M."

Grace, age 19. Photo courtesy of Laura Jane Grace

There were two messages waiting for me, one from my manager with a list of legal defense options and the other from the Boss, Springsteen himself. Bruce had praised our band in the press and come out to see us play, an always gracious, humble guest, and about as low-key as you can get if you're Bruce Springsteen.

Dear Tom, Hope all is well. In regards to some of the criticism you say you've been taking for your great album, some real smart guy once said "he who is not busy being born, is busy dying" (Dylan). I still hold that to be true. I can't count the amount of changes I've been through that have pissed off some fans. If you have a long career, not only will that happen over and over again, but it's supposed to. The Clash's second album, Give 'Em Enough Rope, was produced by Sandy Pearlman, high production values, hard guitars, and received some similar criticism from "the faithful." Who remembers that now besides old guys like me? Nobody. All they remember is the Clash went on to be one of the most important bands we'd ever seen. It just comes with the turf. If you're not reaching out beyond the audience you have to the greater audience you might have, you'll never find out what your band is truly capable of, what it's worth, and how much meaning you can bring into your fans' lives. If you act honorably, which means writing well, performing like it's the only thing that matters on a nightly basis, and giving the best of yourself to pull out the best in your audience, you've done your job. Then you let the chips fall where they may. Protect your heart, your art, your band, your friendships, then CHARGE ON, BROTHER, CHARGE ON! I'll be catching up with you along the way. Come out and see us any time.—BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN

I felt humiliated in front of Heather. I had let my band down. I had let Bruce down, too.

Afterward, my legal charges hung above me like a dark cloud that followed me to every city we went to. In an effort to strengthen my case, my attorney asked me to provide a portfolio of press clippings about the band to prove that I was famous. None of them were helpful, though, because they all mentioned my battery on an officer when I was a teenager. There was even one article from a few years prior where I told a journalist that I liked fighting. I have no idea what made me say that. I hated fighting. I'd never even won a fight and had a long history of getting my ass kicked. I pointed him to the issue of Maximum Rock n' roll that encouraged people to attack me so that the court would understand the aggression I was constantly faced with.

The stress drove me further and further down a hole of alcohol and cocaine. Binges turned into benders that lasted for months. It became impossible not to drink before shows, usually at least half a bottle of Jameson. If I wasn't drunk, all I could think about were the charges against me. The stakes were high, and I was blowing it.

Grace and her guitar at College Street Music Hall

Touring in support of New Wave felt like a fight to the death that we weren't winning. We were on the road all year, playing tours that were financially disastrous and destroying the band's relationship.

A strange dynamic had developed within the band that no one could really explain. When three of us were together, our relationship was fine. But with all four of us, we'd always end up at one another's throats. If our significant others were with us, it threw gas onto the fire. Andrew and I in particular had a difficult time communicating. Sometimes entire days would go by on tour without us talking. We wouldn't even make eye contact when we passed each other in the venues. My paranoia would lead me to run through dark scenarios in my head, imagining what he was thinking about me, and I'm sure he was doing the same.

It all came to a head one night in Rhode Island, on a stretch where Andrew and I hadn't spoken in more than three days. I couldn't remember ever feeling that unhappy on a tour. Two songs into our set at Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel, I walked over to his side of the stage and shouted in his ear over the feedback, "I like this deal we have worked out between us. You don't talk to me unless I talk to you first, and I won't talk to you unless you talk to me first. That way, we'll never have to talk again."

I wanted to provoke a reaction out of him, and I got it. He punched me square in the chest, sending me back a few feet. "Go fuck yourself, man!" he shouted. "I quit, how about that?" We rushed through the rest of our set, and I stormed offstage.

The crowd was chanting for an encore, but I pushed my way through everyone to the backstage exit. I headed to the bus and grabbed my bags. My plan was to split—stay at a hotel and work out a flight in the morning. Halfway to leaving, I stopped, turned around, and headed back into the venue, where I could still hear the crowd cheering for us.

"You got anything else you want to say?" Andrew asked when I came back in. He didn't wait for me to give an answer, not that I had one worth a damn. He laid into me, told me he was sick of my shit, that I manipulated everyone, and that he hated being in a band with me. "You can't quit," I pleaded.

"Why not?" he asked.

Grace and former Against Me! bassist Andrew Seward do a midair high five. Photo courtesy of Bryan Wynacht

I stood in silence because I could think of no reason other than that the band was all I had. But I couldn't bring myself to say that. I couldn't reveal how lonely I truly was.

I asked Warren and James if they wanted to quit too. James said no. Warren, in his typical passive aggressive way, said, "It seems like that's what happening right now."

The crowd was still out there, still chanting for that encore, so we agreed to put everything aside for a few minutes and give it to them. We marched back onstage, picked up our instruments, and as we started the intro to "We Laugh at Danger..." the entire place erupted. The long wait for our return built up an excitement in the crowd. Bodies went flying in a blur of fists and singing faces.

Sometimes being in a band is a lot like being in a sexual relationship. If you don't communicate properly, you're destined for explosive fights, but the makeup sex will be incredible. Despite our differences, I really loved Andrew. He and I caught eyes mid-song as a thousand people jumped up and down and sang along.

"This is why you can't quit!" I shouted to him. He smiled at me, and I smirked back.

Seward carries away a drunk and shirtless Grace. Photo courtesy of Laura Jane Grace


Journal Entries by Laura Jane Grace

November 2, 2007—Asbury Park, NJ
Tomorrow we're headlining the Saints and Sinners Festival. Ticket sales are low. The promoter overpaid for us and he's losing his ass. There's mythology surrounding the area here, the convention center is cool because it's forever tied to Springsteen but it sounds like shit playing there unless you're actually Springsteen. This is our schedule for the day:

8:00 AM—Bus Arrives at Venue
8:45 AM—Crew Lobby Call
9:00 AM—Load In
10:15 AM—Band Lobby call
10:30 AM—Sound Check
12:30 PM to 1:30 PM—Radio interview with WHTG
2:00 PM to 5:00 PM—Photo shoot for Magnet Magazine 6:30 PM—Interview with XM Radio
7:00 PM—Interview with WSOU
7:30 PM—Interview with the Cleveland Scene
10:30 PM—Set Time

We can't say no to anything. Every show and every interview, everything offered, we agree to.

I've passed the point of feeling tired. I have a headache. My eyes hurt. No real sleep on the plane. Nothing vegan on the hotel lobby restaurant menu that I can eat.

November 10, 2007—Orlando, FL
You can't help but feel a little ridiculous being in a punk band that's playing at the House Of Blues in Downtown Disney in Orlando, Florida. The stage is walking distance from Pleasure Island for fuck's sake. Outside of the venue, families amble along, pushing strollers carrying whiny brats wearing Mickey Mouse ears on their heads while high on sugar and cartoon fantasies. The location trivializes anything you have to say on stage. What a joke we are and the audience knows it.

You don't see all the people in the room who are singing along with their fists pumping in the air. You just see the people in the room who aren't singing along. You see the people leaving through the ones who stay.

Punks yell "fuck New Wave!" in between every song we play. They hate our new album. I'm a fool and I let it get to me. I can't focus and I play horribly. The set feels like it's never going to end. I'd like to think that wasn't me up on stage tonight but it was.

This is the first time I've ever really hated being on tour. I want to go back to the bus and crawl into my bunk and die. I want my heart to stop beating. The band and crew can find me blue-faced and cold to the touch in the morning.

The band, backstage, after finishing up a two-year tour in support of its album, 'New Wave.' Photo courtesy of Wes Orshowski

November 16, 2007
Andrew starts off the conversation apologizing. I apologize to Andrew in return. Warren tells me how much he doesn't like me. "I like you when you make an effort." Warren tells me this band isn't his whole life, it's just part of his life. He tells me that if the band broke up today he wouldn't die. I tell Warren that if the band were to break up today that I would feel like I was dying. Warren wants to tour less and spend more time with his "loved ones." He makes a point in emphasizing "loved ones" a couple times when talking. He is telling me that I am not one of his "loved ones." I get it.

I tell Warren that I'm just blown away that he's surprised by our hectic schedule right now and that if he didn't want to tour he shouldn't have signed a fucking million-dollar major label record deal. You don't get the money for free. You have to work for it. Warren tells me we aren't very inspiring right now. I make the argument that this is the most inspiring we've ever been. It may be ugly but who's to say ugliness isn't inspiring? We're absolutely pushed to our limits. We're climbing Everest. Frostbite has set in. This journey will surely cost limbs. We've run out of food and we're turning to cannibalism. No one gets to leave with their sanity intact. That wouldn't be fair. There's a whole big world full of sensible balanced people, what's so goddamn inspiring about any of them?

November 20, 2007—Cleveland, OH
The past two days have taken years off of my life. I've talked to a million people—friends I wish I could talk to more, journalists I feel stupid for talking to, and label suits I never want to talk to again. If the past couple of days were made into a cartoon flip book, it would be one of me progressively fading.

We have a rule about not playing shows on Monday nights but here we are playing a show on a Monday night. No one is paying attention to what we're agreeing to anymore. Interviews all day long today, radio station performance, meet and greet with contest winners, then finally after all that, we play a show.

I worry. I worry that I'm losing my hair. I worry that I'm getting fat. I worry that I'm going to have a cocaine-induced stroke and spend the rest of my life using my diminished brain capacity to think about how I had it all and then I threw it away. I worry that I'm going to get arrested and convicted of a crime and then sentenced to years in jail. I worry that it will be a sentence just long enough to leave me with some life left when I get out but forever damaged, emotionally dead. I worry that I am too self-centered and egotistical, arrogant and vain. I worry.

We all joked as we headed up on stage tonight that we should get matching shovel tattoos. We've been digging deep.

I've ignored a call from my father everyday since my birthday.

November 22, 2007—Chicago, IL
Just woke up from a dream. Andrew's wife and I are lying side by side on our backs on the floor of the otherwise empty tour bus. I have female genitalia, a detail which I am ecstatic about.

Verité slides her hand down into her pants and starts pleasuring herself. I do the same. She tells me how happy she is for me and how glad she is that we can relate to each other in this way. She turns and moves in to kiss me and her face freezes in time. She is suddenly grotesque and unbeautiful. The thought of my wife enters my head and I pull away. I rise to my feet and her face melts into a look of embarrassment and rejection.

In the dream, Andrew and the rest of the band and crew come crowding back into the bus. We act natural, like nothing was going on.

"I'm sorry," I silently mouth to Verité. Dream ends.

I've taken three shots of Scotch in an attempt to put myself back to sleep. It only makes me want another shot of Scotch. I don't even like Scotch.

Copyright 2016 by Total Treble, LLC. Reprinted by permission of Hachette Books, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

This article appears in the October issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

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