When Laura Jane Grace made the decision to transition, there was almost no way she could do so privately. The lead singer of punk band Against Me!, Grace is a bona-fide rock star and lives her life very much in the public eye, touring and performing for much of the year.
As trans visibility commands more and more of the spotlight, it’s become increasingly clear not only that trans people have stories to tell, but that the public is finally ready to listen. So when Grace was approached by AOL Originals to create a web series documenting her experiences, she jumped at the chance. “I knew that I was going to be on tour, and so whatever I was going to be doing would have to kind of revolve around being on tour,” she says, speaking from a Halifax hotel room before a show.
A camera crew accompanied Grace and her band for three weeks, filming her in conversation with other transgender people about everything from coming out and finding acceptance to some of the more dangerous coping mechanisms, such as drug and alcohol abuse. The result is True Trans, a web series that plays as part documentary, part reality show. Four episodes are currently available online through AOL, and another four will be released on Nov 4, followed by four more later in the month.
Grace put together a dream list of 100-odd people she wanted to interview about their experiences with gender dysphoria, including friends, people she’d met online and personal heroes like Buck Angel and Julia Serano. “People who I just basically wanted to have a conversation with about gender and kind of, like, the way their lives had shaped them and their views on that.”
Grace, who is often on the receiving end of interviews, says she took the opportunity to turn the tables. “Part of it was selfishness,” she says, chuckling. But while she relished the opportunity to be the one asking the questions, she was also very interested in hearing the responses. “The conversations that I had with people were conversations that I wanted to have. They were questions that I wanted to ask and wanted to hear the answers to from those people.”
The series plays as part autobiography, part confessional and part documentary, with Grace exploring her own past and the origins of her band while also sharing the experiences of others. It was the commonalities that Grace says she found fascinating. Many people discussed their struggles to cope, often turning to drug and alcohol abuse or ending up homeless when their families refused to accept them.
True Trans also addresses the high rate of depression and suicide in the transgender community, with Grace matter-of-factly revealing that she is a part of that statistic.
“Talking about dealing with dysphoria and dealing with addiction stuff and everything like that, that had been already part of my narrative, if you will,” she says. “I think it’s important to demonstrate, just because it shows people the unfortunate side of coping mechanisms oftentimes and how trying to deal with something and trying to make sense of something can have such negative consequences or can debilitate you, or it can affect you in ways that you don’t even realize at the time.”
In a particularly moving sequence, Grace speaks with her mother, Bonnie, about her struggles growing up in conservative Florida, where she was frequently kicked out of school and targeted by the police. “I knew that this was a great kid, that this was someone who had a fantastic heart and spirit, that there was not anything bad about her,” Bonnie says, “but I knew that if she got sucked into that system, I would never be able to get her out.”
Grace says that making the series was a profoundly reassuring experience, particularly when speaking with people who had been out for many years and who transitioned at a time when acceptance was far less common. “Going into this, for me, I was kind of in the place where — I don’t know, I was a little lost with stuff and unsure about where I was at,” she says.
Talking with people like author Julia Serano, whose widely acclaimed book Whipping Girl Grace read before transitioning, made her feel less isolated and unsure of herself. “It was humanizing and it really like — it was humbling,” she says. “There’s no other word besides reassuring that I wasn’t behind schedule or . . . any ridiculous notion like that.”
Grace says that both transitioning and touring can be lonely experiences. She describes using social media to reach out to other trans and genderqueer people, some of whom she speaks with for the documentary. “People will be, like, ‘What does it feel like to have people look up to you?’ and for me, I need that connection,” she explains.
“I’ve sought out that connection not because I want to be put on a pedestal in any kind of way or want to be considered a role model; it’s because I want to actually talk to these people and feel like I’m part of a community and I have a support system.”
“I want that real contact, you know? I want to have real dialogues and real conversations and hear from people in a real way, which is in a lot of ways a lesson that I learned from punk rock, of not isolating yourself and not putting up barriers.” When selecting people for interviews, she says, she wanted to show the broad variance within the gender spectrum and also “that there’s trans people out there doing really cool things, living productive, healthy lives.”
Grace’s music plays a key role in the series, particularly the song “True Trans Soul Rebel,” from Against Me!’s latest album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Scenes of Grace performing the song in concert reveal the powerful connection some fans obviously feel with Grace, particularly those who are transgender themselves.
“I really in the past had gotten to a point where I felt super frustrated and artistically stifled because I felt that constantly my songs were being taken in the wrong context, because I felt like people didn’t realize who was actually singing them,” Grace says. Since her transition, however, she says she feels her work is being understood in a truer and more honest way. “I mean, it’s everything I’ve wanted ever.”