Against Me! playing last year. Photo by Edwina Hay
We can control the medium. We can control the context of presentation.
Moments after the state of North Carolina voted in support of a “constitutional” same-sex marriage ban, Against Me! singer Tom Gabel announced that after years of suffering privately from transgender dysphoria, she will soon begin the transition from male to female by undergoing electrolysis treatment and taking hormones.
Rolling Stone revealed the news in an intimate interview with Gabel, known for her sobering honesty, who announced she will take the name Laura Jane Grace and remain married to her wife, Heather, with whom she as a toddler, named Evelyn.
“For me, the most terrifying thing about this was how she would accept the news, but she’s been super-amazing and understanding,” Gabel told RS. “I'm going to have embarrassing moments, and that won't be fun. But that's part of what talking to you is about – is hoping people will understand, and hoping they'll be fairly kind.”
The article also mentions that Gabel is the “first major rock star” to come out as transgender, and that the full story will be available in the physical copy of Rolling Stone in a few days.
At the time this writer had a moment to sit down and look at Tom Gabel’s Wikipedia page (11:45 EST), all the pronouns describing Tom Gabel had been changed from “he” to “she.”
And while I write this, Against Me! As the Eternal Cowboy spins on my turntable. I don’t remember purchasing the record, and I can’t remember if it was given to me as a gift. It doesn’t really matter, because either way, it is. At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, the moment of the announcement (and the following instances of fan discovery) felt like the most genuine example of true community I have ever experienced.
I first met Tom Gabel a little later that the rest of my fellow punk rock cohorts. It was the summer of 2006, I was all but a Warped Tour veteran but I sure liked to pretend. It was the band’s first go at “Punk Rock Summer Camp”– but they picked up on it quickly. You wake up early, figure out what time your band is going to play, eat lots of greasy food, play, drink too much, go to sleep too late, pack up the van, do it all over tomorrow.
I snuck on the tour as I had done the summer before. Now comfortably teen-aged, I hopped around, selling merchandise, volunteering with PETA, lying to perform basic bass tech duties. (I purchased my first bass a few months before the tour, I was obviously qualified.) At the time I didn’t know it, but not only was it my last Warped Tour, it was the most important.
That year Warped kicked off in Columbia, Maryland at Merriweather Post Pavilion. I was extremely underage and extremely drunk when I approached Tom Gabel. I have no idea how much of this is hazy adolescent conjecture, but I remember him saying something along the lines of it was okay to be nervous, because he was nervous. He gave me a hug and that was that.
I wussed out and didn’t last the entirety of the tour, but did return for a bit of the last East Coast leg. At this point I somehow talked my way into the non-profit rig. My job was to hand out a D.I.Y. doc a crust punk made a few months prior on homelessness and Warped Tour. To get kids interested in what I had to say – and to talk them into buying the damn thing – I was told to walk around beg the question, “Do you know who Tom Gabel is?” Gabel, at that point, was (and remains) a primary example of a "good person" in punk rock; one who cared about social issues and lived a life specifically designed to broadcast these views to impressionable young people in the hopes that they would learn to be active.
In the coming days, many will question how we missed Gabel’s suffering. The lyrics of “The Ocean,” which many, myself included, thought to be a metaphor without knowing what the metaphor represented: “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,” or in “Searching for a Former Clarity,” where the literary posturing of placing you, all of us, in Gabel’s shoes, “And in the journal you kept by the side of your bed / You wrote nightly an aspiration of developing as an author / Confessing childhood secrets of dressing up in women's clothes / Compulsions you never knew the reasons to” seem now to be so broodingly clear. We never saw what was right in front of us.
It is only so often that we come upon a band that is more than just a rock act, but a force to be reckoned with. Against Me!, who’s depth is characterized by the ability to be politically knotty while simultaneously exuding crystalline clarity, stings of crippling honesty and connectedness. I have never written about Against Me! before, and I do so from within Gabel’s ribcage.
Bands that constantly have fans cite them as “life-changing” often do. To discuss the band is to force vulnerability and understanding onto yourself and everyone around you. Do you know who Tom Gabel is?
I had a conversation with a friend recently, arguing about local NY punk scenes. He claimed that though the typical underground music fan’s knowledge was diverse, he knew more because, “They don’t know shit about Against Me!”
He couldn’t have been more correct.
Congratulations, Laura Jane Grace Gabel.