The news that Against Me! lead singer Tom Gabel is making the transition from being a man to becoming a woman coincidentally coincides with week chock-filled with news on gay marriage.
Gabel, who is transgendered, wishes to go by the name Laura Jane Grace. She is not attracted to men, and will remain married to her wife, with whom she's had a daughter. She's made seven albums with Against Me!, all of them as a man as far as the public knew.
I bring up gay marriage to highlight a cultural touchstone, that our country still strongly delineates the rights of people with differing sexual orientation. There are a minority of people who believe that people aren't "born" gay, and there certainly are opponents to the idea that gender dysphoria even exists.
Today, I thought about what this means for music. As many have rightfully pointed out, this is not the first transgender musician on the planet. Electronic Walter Carlos became Wendy Carlos in the '70s. Throbbing Gristle fronter and performance artist Genesis P-Orridge became "pandrogynous" with his former wife, his other half and artistic partner Lady Jaye, an opera of a life captured in 2011 documentary in "The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye." Life of Agony singer Keith Caputo became Mina Caputo last year.
Of any, though, Gabel's band is easily the most recognized groups of those who are known to yield a transgendered frontman/frontwoman. Against Me! has put a record in the top 50, and a song on the radio -- notably "I Was a Teenage Anarchist," a tune that nods at the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K." title and perhaps some of its spirit. The helped helm Warped Tour in years past.
In movies, actors generally act out a role, and then they finish it and become "who they are" again. In music, fans' expectations are that artists are who they say they are, that their songs and art reflect in some way a life depiction more accurate than mere liner notes. That's why the argument for "authenticity" is still intact, no matter how exaggerated the personality.
Those who were fans or secular listeners of Against Me! were in shock today at the announcement, as evidenced by Twitter, message boards and other media. But none can argue Gabel's authenticity, the truth of oneself.
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 it, like hip-hop, 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.
Gabel's public announcement is very much be an affront to "authentic living" for some music fans, no matter the amount of fear the public figure had to overcome in the pursuit. This is why, for instance, I think it is and will be difficult for any well-known or mainstream male rappers to come out as gay: some audiences are so used to gender and sexual norms, and things outside of that will challenge their own lifestyles and beliefs. "Gay"-as-diss is still prominent. Women are frequently sequestered as sex objects. It's OK if girls want to kiss other girls, but men-on-men is taboo. "Trannies" are a punchlines.
I hope this news opens a door in the larger music sphere, because pop music should be bigger than such narrow notions, cultural arrested development, or sex-based limitations.
That's why I have a few music-based questions for Gabel, which may well be answered in Rolling Stones' complete interview with the singer on Friday. I -- like, undoubtedly, hundreds of other journalists today -- got in touch with AM!'s handlers for the possibility of an interview. It's given me much food for thought:
1) You first announced your intentions to close friends and family, and now, the public at large. The entertainment industry is so nosy as is. What were your thoughts about maintaining privacy about the process and letting music fans know all at once?
2) What do your treatments and transition mean for the future of the band and your own creative output?
3) The change in hormones or surgeries could affect your singing voice, or you may want to start speaking and singing more like a woman. What are your expectations of how it will effect the way you make music?
4) You've dealt with your shame about dressing in women's clothes and your secrets in your lyrics before. Have you already started journaling ideas, lyrically, of this transition?
5) The rock space is not used to transgendered artists. Who in the community do you look to for inspiration and support, either directly or indirectly, for any intolerance you may endure?