Reflecting on Against Me!: The Tension Between Trans* and Punk

by: ellie june navidson

i was planning on going out tonight, but things happened and i’m sitting at home thinking about Laura Jane Grace, of Against Me! coming out. i’m shivering as i read and re-read the lyrics to the acoustic tune that’s getting passed around my social media universe. As Laura hammers away at her guitar she screams, “Your tells are so obvious.” The last syllables are dragged out in a way that would be familiar to any Against Me! fan.

Upon hearing this, the first line of the song, i flinch with pain of memory at the same time that i weep with joy. The heartache in this song is more obvious to me than any tell. It’s a familiar pain that i know all too closely.

i’m irate at the parts of the media who have not switched the pronouns they’re using to describe her; i’m disgusted by some of the comments people have made on blogs warning her that she may be making a mistake. These make me think of my own struggles with pronouns and a brother who still “hopes i’m doing what’s right for me.” But–and this is incredibly unfortunate–this is a fairly standard level of consciousness around trans* issues in our culture.

Mostly i’m left thinking about the specific intersection of trans* and punk. Coming across a dialogue between Rolling Stone’s Andy Green and the person who did the story on Laura, Josh Eells reminds me of the most painful fact about punk culture in this humble trans* femme’s experience: the hyper-masculinity. Eells says, “i think the reason that a lot of people have been so surprised – at least from what I’ve seen over the last day – is that a lot of people saw the band as “masculine,” for lack of a better word. Their music is so aggressive and [her] voice was so deep and raw and all these things we associate with maleness. It seemed like a very male band.”

People’s surprise aside, this is not just about folks’ perception of Against Me!, it’s endemic of the nature of punk culture. It’s a youth counterculture that celebrates things that are acculturated as male belongings. Things like aggression, technical musical skill, outspokenness, anger, etc. are all put on a pedestal within punk culture.

This is not to say that non-males cannot embody these attributes. It is also not to imply that these are inherently bad attributes, especially as punk culture at least attempts to spin these around to lash out against an oppressive system. But these masculine standards produce a culture that is largely very hostile to femininity and to queerness.

As Laura sings “You want them to see you like they see every other girl,” i am transported back in time. i’m hanging out at a friend’s house the day before the war started. The suburban kitchen is brightly lit and plastered with photographs of kids who are only dressed nice for a photo opportunity.

i’m sitting at a table eating frozen strawberries with three young punk women. We’re all clad in ragged earth toned clothes covered in patches.  We’re discussing what we should paint on this banner we’re planning on draping over highway when our nation goes to war. This is one of my fondest punk memories. It’s also one of the only ones that felt totally congruent with my sense of self. It was a joyful, affirming, feminine space, where we were coming together to resist imperialism.

i think of punk boys i knew in high school. Every time i smoked a cigarette, one of them would make a terrible joke about me “sucking on a fags butt.” Although i didn’t think that would be such a bad thing, i internalized their hostility. i learned to be quiet about my gendered feelings. If the punks i knew were this homophobic, i am terrified of what they would have done had i tried to come to terms with my trans* identity at that age.

i pit these memories against a memory of a pit. i’m in a warehouse in Chicago watching Vitamin X play. Enormous young men wear spikes on the shoulders of their leather coats. They spin and stomp in circles and i can’t help but think that they are trying to hurt each other. i don’t voice this. i’ve learned that this punk community that i call my own is not receptive to my interpretation of pacifism. A young person gets picked up and his head gets smashed open on the concrete. The show only stops for a minute.

Almost everyone in the pit and in the band reads as male. The walls are lined with young punk women, and me. i’m not a woman in this memory; i’m a grudgingly accepting man. This community, and i struggle with that word, is the only place i’d found that felt close to right. The intentional resistance, the politicization of everything, those were as important to me as gender. And i didn’t know any radical queers yet, so i thought i had to choose.

i turned to drugs and alcohol. i hid behind my politics. i got disingenuously cocky so that i could “hold my own” with the other punks. i taught myself to set my guitar on fucking fire. i learned to conform to a set of gender standards that didn’t feel right… It’s feels strange to have learned this once as a child and then again as a young punk.

In a lot of ways punk taught me to hide whom i was. At the same time, it taught me to organize, to resist in all moments, it taught me to value my voice, my difference, myself in the face of taunts and bullying. Punk gave me the tools that I would eventually need during my transition process. i couldn’t have dealt with the violence and harassment i faced as a trans* adult, had i not learned to cope with homophobic violence and harassment as a punk kid. i don’t think that i would have learned to see myself as beautiful had punk not taught me to value things that aren’t traditionally beautiful.

At the same time, i no longer feel welcome in punk circles. So despite punk’s crucial role in teaching me the personal skills i needed to transition, i ultimately had to leave it behind. i think about Laura coming out. i think about how Eells characterized her band, and accidentally stumbled on a sad truth of much of punk culture.

i want to be hopeful. i hope that Laura knows that she’s beautiful in every possible way, and i’m not just talking about how gorgeous she looks in that Rolling Stone photo. i hope she feels her fierceness and strength. i hope she finds happiness and fulfillment. i hope she knows that there’s at least one trans* femme punk out here who totally celebrates her and wishes her the best on this beautiful exciting road. Mostly though, i hope the punk community receives this as a moment of learning and growth. Because to me, when i boil down punk and when i boil down trans* i find the same base element, resistance.

ellie june navidson is a queer, gender non-conforming creature. She has a degree in Gender and Women’s Studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her activist experience is as varied as her identity, but currently, she is involved in queer/trans safe-space organizing and does written explorations of gender and normativity. Her personal blog can be found at invisiblyqueer.blogspot.com.

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3 responses to “Reflecting on Against Me!: The Tension Between Trans* and Punk

  1. Great post and very relateable for me. I grew up in the punk scene and had to deal with the fucked up dynamics there within that few people talk about. There is almost no criticism of the culture from within because there is this false idea that they are “too radical” for that sort of thing. Bullshit.

    I was talking with someone recently who I was friends with growing up about Laura Jane Grace and mentioned to her that the reaction from the community on this shows in part why I no longer consider a punk show a safe space. Wish that weren’t the case in many ways, but it is.

    Absolutely loved how you wrote about it and this should be spread far and wide in punk circle, even though it will most likely be ignored by those “too radical” to question their own actions/beliefs. It may be true that radicalism will eventually succumb to it’s own conservatism.

  2. Love this. I wanted to write a piece about this too, but Nico told me you beat me to it. Honestly, it would have been incredibly similar to yours…Reflecting on the beauty of punk spaces, and the fucked up stuff…..

  3. Pingback: InvisiblyQueer repost | dirtybirddistro·

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