This Band Helped Me Embrace My True Trans Self

A week after I came out publicly as a woman, my wife sat me down and told meshe needed time. She was overwhelmed, she said, and felt very suddenly as if her life was out of control. She needed to pull back for a few days, and consider, really consider, if she was prepared for the changes that would be coming. She said she owed that to eachof us.

I cant blame her for being frightened. One thing thats changed since realizing I was transgender is that its suddenly much harder to make promises. I dont know what the future is going to look like; I dont know what Im going to look like. Ive begun a journey to become who I am, and I only have a vague idea of where its going to lead me.

These are the first words Ive written publicly about being trans, and Im writing them because of Laura Jane Grace. On Shape Shift With Me, the new album from her band Against Me!, she sings: I dont want to hang around the graveyard/waiting for something dead to come back. This is the band’s second album since Grace cameout as a trans woman in 2012. The first, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, was an impressionistic, vibrant exploration of struggling with gender dysphoria and a budding identity. It was about the messy realities of rebirth, about clawing out your own resurrection with teeth bared. Shape Shift With Me is about love afterward, and about the struggle of trying to live a new life while still carrying so much of the old one behind you.

Letting Down the Barriers

I discovered Against Me! in college, years before Grace or I would reveal ourselves to be women. At the time, she was known as Tom Gabel, the fierylead singer of an embattled anarchist punk band from Gainesville, Florida. Something about the music immediately clicked. It was largely political, screeds against power and sketches of life compromised by the grip of a political system you dont trust or want. Baby, Im an anarchist, Gabelsangon the bands first album, Reinventing Axl Rose. And youre a spineless liberal. The fury came with an acute eye for intimate details and wordplay. This was music you embracedbecause of the rebellion andstuck with because of its deeper, humanistic elements, the sense that it understoodsomething about people in pain. My best friend would tell me stories about singing himself hoarse driving around his home town of Birmingham, Alabama, nearly ruining his voice trying to imitate Gabel’splaintive snarl.

When Grace came out, it was the closest I had knowingly come to the lived experience of being trans. I read intently, following her career and life even more closely than before, and even then, four years before I would come to see my own experiences with gender as part of a trans experience, her words resonated with me. In 2014, when Transgender Dysphoria Blues dropped, I was unspeakably moved by it. It was a chronicle of never being safe in your own skin, of not even sensing that you can tell what your skin looks like to the world around you. Its sense of displacement, of loss and hope amidst that loss, felt like an articulation of my own identity running out of sync. It hit wounds I didnt know I had.

For the first time, I let myself ask the question that had been slowly building at the base of my neck for years.

Over the next two years, I would find my gender increasingly difficultto talk about. I would befriend more people from the trans community, and I would feel something approachingenvytoward them. Throughoutmy life Id imaginedwhat it might be like to live in a biologically female body;increasingly, I foundmyself picturing life in the bodies of my friendsas well, seeing a trans face looking back at me in the mirror.

My barriers fellslowly, then all at once. I was at my desk this summer, reading stories I found throughTwitter, when I came across an essay about a trans woman living in the closet as a man. It wasn’t a particularly good essay, but the writer’sexperienceher alienation from her own sense of selfresonated. For the first time, I let myself ask aquestion that had been slowly building at the base of my neck for years. I put on Against Me! and cried.

Living With Necessity

Shape Shift With Me is a collection of songs about living, and loving, with improvisational necessity. In a restless 38minutes, Grace sings about drawing people close and pushing them away, writing about love and loss with the same urgency and inevitability she brought toher political jeremiads. “Now Im swinging broad and wild and random,” she sings on “12:03.”“Whatever direction takes me away from you, thats the direction Im going to head in.” Theres a sense of something close to but not quiteself-destruction, a feral need to break anything that impedes the discovery ofwho you truly are. Grace wants to build connection, and she builds them throughoutShape Shift With Mewith ruthless honesty. “I have nothing to offer but myself and the shitshow Ive left behind me. I dont know where Im going except forward.”

The more powerfully your heart beats, the bloodier its going to be.

A few days after coming out, I told a friend, a trans woman whom I had reached out to whilewonderingif I wastrans, that I was tired of attending my own funeral. Coming out, Ive quickly learned, often has that tenor to it, people singing the death knell of the man they thought I used to be. Shape Shift With Me is the rare mainstream trans narrative written by a trans woman and wrestling with life beyond coming out, living beyond your own mistaken wake. Its as bitter as it is utopian: low dirges alongside driving ballads of fleeting love, drizzled with images of death and the occult. On Delicate, Petite, & Other Things Ill Never Be, she sings:

I am still waiting for the visions
Possession has yet to take hold of me
We all want to burn on a pyre
Tell me: what kind of witch are you?

As I sit here, wrestling with the repercussions of my self-realization, that sentiment resonates. Rebirth is a clumsy metaphor for my experience; its less being reborn than it is learning how to be something you always already were. In some renderings of the Christian Gospel, Lazarus was still rotting after Jesus resurrected him. Shape Shift With Me, alongside my own experience, reminds me of that. Youve come back to life, but now you have to figure out how to live inside your own corpse. The more powerfully your heart beats, the bloodier its going to be.


I dont mean to romanticize my struggle, or to suggest that my experience is universal. I dont think Grace intends to, either. Were both simplytrying to make sense of it. Theres still so much I dont know. My transition has barely started. I dont know about hormones, or hair removal, or when (or if) Im going to take on a new, more obviously feminine name. I find myself deeply connecting to Shape Shift With Me for that reason. By Graces own admission, shared in press releases and interviews, the goal was to write a personal album about relationships from her distinct perspective, a response to Exile on Main Street or Liz Phairs Exile in Guyville. In doing so, shes written an album for the not-knowing. It feels like a signpost, marking a path on her new roadand on mine, too.

A few days after my wife told me she needed time, she brought home a cake from Whole Foods. It was chocolate, its dark icing emblazoned with a single word in her favorite purple. It said, Yes. She had taken her time, and she realized that while some things may change, the important things havent, at least for the foreseeable future. Ive gotten bad at making promises lately, but that doesnt mean other people cant make them to me.

In the most unambiguously hopeful song on the new album, “333,” Grace sings about her desire to find love despite “cycles of death and regeneration, sensations of absence and loss.” Its an invitation:

All the devils that you dont know
can all come along for the ride
I just want to be as close as I can get to you.

It may not always be true. But it is now. So I sing it with her.

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