“And if I Could Have Chosen”

Music, Gender, and Bigotry

News that a popular front-man is about to become a front-woman might not stir such intense buzz if we lived in a world that was truly sexually liberated. Hell, it might not even be “news,” just another instance of an individual becoming more like the person they envision themselves to be; end of story. We don’t live in that world, though. The furor over Tom Gabel amply reveals that.

Rolling Stone announced on May 8th that Gabel, singer and guitarist for Florida punks Against Me!, plans to begin living as a woman. According to the brief story on RS’ website:

Gabel, who has dealt privately with gender dysphoria for years, will soon begin the process of transition, by taking hormones and undergoing electrolysis treatments.

Gabel will eventually take the name Laura Jane Grace, and will remain married to her wife Heather. ‘For me, the most terrifying thing about this was how she would accept the news,’ says Gabel. ‘But she’s been super-amazing and understanding.

The full feature, which was released in the new issue of RS on May 11th, goes into further detail regarding Gabel’s transition. She hasn’t taken on her new name yet, but will do so for a year before deciding whether or not she will undergo surgery; she will also remain the lead-singer of Against Me!

Anyone who has ever come out — be it as gay or lesbian, queer, bi or trans — knows how difficult it can be to tell your loved ones, let alone announce it to the world. In a society as repressed as this, even friends and family who claim to be “open-minded” can balk at the prospect. And that’s true for anyone — not just those who have sold hundreds of thousands of records like Gabel has. Major congratulations are due to Gabel and her wife Heather for taking a step that’s both brave and beautiful.

Not that Gabel has been completely hush-hush about her struggle to forge an identity over the years. “The Ocean,” from 2007’s New Wave, included not-so-thinly-veiled lyrics:  “And if I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman / My mother once told me she would have named me Laura / I’d grow up to be strong and beautiful like her.” In March, during a performance in Corpus Christi, Texas, she performed a solo acoustic version of an as-yet-unreleased song “Transgender Dysphoria Blues.”

Against Me! have also, for what it’s worth, spoken for a variety of progressive and radical causes over the years, including the rights of queer and trans people. Still, it was never quite so obvious just how autobiographical some of these moments were.

Chalking up Gabel’s decision to mere politics (or, for that matter, art) would certainly be insulting. Coming out in any form is a personal choice way before it even gets close to the political realm. On that same tip, it’s hard to ignore the broader world in which Gabel has made this announcement.

The culture of celebrity, colliding with the realities of homophobia and transphobia, means that any well-known figure’s decision to come out instantly takes on social overtones. Comments in the blogosphere have ranged from the clueless (“How will he pass as a woman with arms like that?”) to the callous (“Wow, what an attention ploy”) to those that read as if they came straight out of the Westboro Baptist Church:

The TRUTH is that GOD H-A-T-E-S GAY, TRANNIES, and all other such sickos. Says so right in the HOLY BIBLE, all you got to do is pick it up and read it for yourself. Do not take the word of these perverts, READ IT FOR YOURSELF. It very clearly states that they will ALL go to HELL. Especially the transsexuals, who are worse than gays. Transsexuals want to take the whole gay acceptance crap issue even further and make you believe that mutilating and hacking up a body to make it look like it is the opposite sex is fine and perfect and in line with God’s plan. That is EVIL. It is SATAN who is making them do that.

This was one of the first comments that appeared on Rolling Stone’s website after they broke the story.

Even some pieces in the “neutral” music press have been clumsy, their tone treating gender dysphoria almost as some kind of disease. Nowhere is it mentioned that even the concept of gender identity being a “disorder” remains controversial in the trans community.

Suffice to say that overall the music press is, at best, learning how to “handle” such announcements as they go–and often not even bothering with that. Says HitFix’s Katie Hasty:

A man who sings in a hard rock band becoming a woman is a jolt to the system, in part, because it’s a hard rock band. Speaking purely in generalizations, it’s a genre and an entertainment space dominated by men, perceivably for men… [and] has some codes of machismo. While certain spaces generally embrace icons of androgyny or ambiguities of sexual preference (just read any sufficient history of punk), rock ‘n’ roll as originally a counter-culture has been lab-manufactured in years past into a norm, with ‘normal’ expectations. When a singer is gay, or cross-dresses, there’s still that initial shock. When a singer of a well-known band becomes a different gender altogether… it’s an exclamation.

And there’s the rub. The fact is that in the 21st century there still persists set-in-stone ideas of what men and women “should” be — how they should dress, who they should sleep with, what kind of jobs they can have, and even what kind of music they can play. For a society that calls itself enlightened, such norms border on the neolithic.

On the same day as Gabel’s announcement, voters in North Carolina passed Amendment One, essentially banning same-sex marriage and civil unions. If Gabel were to drop her career with Against Me! and search for a job elsewhere, it would be perfectly legal to fire her solely on the grounds of her gender identity in 34 states — including in her home state of Florida. If Gabel’s life were in danger, would authorities care? The recent cases of CeCe McDonald and Lorena Escalera say no.

In the midst of all this, it can’t be such a surprise when bigots feel free to openly spew their filth at anyone who doesn’t fall within their boundaries. All the assumptions about male and female musicians fit into this twisted puzzle. Music is, quite often, merely a reflection of this.

Then there’s the other side of the coin. Namely, how utterly false these expectations end up being in the real world –especially in the realm of the arts, where, at least ostensibly, honesty and willingness to break the mold are valued. Gabel may be the most high-profile musician to come out as trans, but she’s hardly the first. In the 1970s, electronic artist Walter Carlos, one of the earliest to feature the Moog synthesizer in his work, became Wendy Carlos. She later went on to contribute to the score for both The Shining and A Clockwork Orange.

Punk rock in particular has had a notable flurry of trans artists. Wayne County, a participant in the 1969 Stonewall rebellion, formed Wayne County & the Electric Chairs and provided important influence to punk’s first wave before taking the name Jayne County. Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV — two crucial links between post-punk and the formation of industrial music –has been living as pandrogynous for years.

Sure enough, the contradiction of punk has been its visceral nature — a stance that can just as often reproduce society’s worst diseases as reject them. For every sexist Stranglers song there was X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene shouting “oh bondage! Up yours!” For every macho dumbfuck threatening to kick your ass, there was a young kid provocatively smearing himself with makeup. In the ‘80s, while Boston’s SS Decontrol were complaining about the “new wave faggots,” Millions of Dead Cops’ Dave Dictor was declaring “I’m a big queer and that makes me more punk than all of you!”

Gabel recalls that it was her experiences meeting January Hunt — a transgender Against Me! Fan — that finally inspired her to make the transition. Support from fans on Twitter has been easy to find, as has the same from within the music world. Indie duo Tegan and Sara’s statement of support was straightforward and simple: “So incredibly brave” (Tegan sang backing vocals on New Wave’s “Borne On the FM Waves of the Heart”).

The Gaslight Anthem, a band who has similarly cultivated a friendship with Against Me! over the years, have also been not only publicly supportive, but pointedly rebutted against the anti-trans hatred:

So Tom’s gonna be Laura now… and in 2012 I still find people on the internet commenting on another persons [sic] life how they insult and condemn a person for his choices…  How about you let another human being make a decision about their lives without your snide prejudices and bigotry?

Yeah, how about that? How about we stop letting artists’ “fans” pick and choose what parts of their humanity are worthy and which ones aren’t? How about we stop acting like their work can be called into question dependent on their gender? How about we understand that the best artists don’t create just to meet others’ expectations, but to make themselves whole?

Most of all, how about we embrace that — with any luck — this is what Gabel is finally on her way to becoming? A whole person. That’s not a privilege, it’s a right. And we should all be so lucky to have it.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to SocialistWorker.org, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in TheNation.com, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com Read other articles by Alexander.