Changing perceptions, and reflecting on Against Me!’s punk history, with Laura Jane Grace at Brighton Music Hall

[dropcap]A[/dropcap] while back I had a disheartening social media interaction with someone I knew in high school, around the same time as the digital release of Against Me!’s True Trans EP. This person, who I won’t bother naming, Facebook walled something along the lines of “Stop making all your songs about being transgender, Against Me! Just go back to writing great songs!” I commented something like, “I’ve heard two new songs, and only one of those makes any overt reference to transgender dysphoria. Do you know something I don’t?” — because I didn’t understand what was happening. Then a gaggle of repliers acquiesced with shit like “Yeah! Against Me! will never be the same!” “Against Me! is Dead!” And so forth. Then I said to myself, “Ah ha, I see.”

Of course, some of the people who buy Laura Jane Grace’s records have yelped “Stop doing (blank) and go back to doing (blank)” since the start of AM!’s major label stint in 2007. Those who considered Fat Wreck Chords too corporate said the same thing long before that. But not unlike the main character in “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong,” off Reinventing Axl Rose, those who cried “sell out!” were mostly just bad at letting go. Evelyn’s husband James won’t ever come home from the bar and AM! won’t ever come back to the VFW Hall. But nostalgia and dubious anti-capitalist pretenses are both punk as fuck, so Evelyn and the people who wish it was still 2002 are all okay in my book.

For the most part, AM! listeners extended mucho positive vibes and support for Grace when she came out as transgender last year, so almost everybody’s okay in each other’s books.

But then there’s the possible exception of the kids from the first paragraph, who made themselves look like transphobic jerks on the internet. That Facebook thread unnerved me, and not simply due to my fanboyish devotion to AM!, the best band of the millennium’s first five years.

Truth is, I don’t like being presented with hard evidence that the punk scene of a decade ago — er, maybe that should read “my” punk scene; there were a lot of those, and I was really only a part of one — may not have brimmed with socially enlightened thinkers the way I’d prefer to remember. And if “we are the company we keep” as the song goes, that makes me dumber by association.

People who got excited about AM! in 2002 were supposed to get pissy when they thought a band they liked was “selling out.” If they didn’t all have naive, terribly impractical “us vs. them” mentalities, they wouldn’t have listened to punk in the first place. But hearing a few of those same people complain when a singer they’re fond of announces her plan to undergo gender reassignment surgery reminds me of all the passive gay bashing I overheard at basement shows. And the casual objectification of women that went on in the same community all the time. And all the chest-beating, macho bullshit a lot of hardcore bands brought to the table.

Looking back now, I second-guess whether we were ever all that much different from the frat boys we thoroughly enjoyed feeling superior to.

Grace’s coming out was a good thing for a lot reasons. Most importantly among those, famous transpeople can make life easier for not-as-famous transpeople via educating the masses and example setting and whatnot.

Second most importantly: If the new material she played last night at Brighton Music Hall is any indicator, the experience may have revitalized Grace’s songwriting despite the shaky condition of her band. (Although, early in the set she announced that “my band” had finished a record, not “I have finished a record,” so there’s that.)

“FuckMyLife666,” off July’s TrueTrans EP, sits alongside “We Did It All for the Don” and “Walking is Still Honest” in the bucket of AM! songs that deftly walk the wire between wistfulness and fury. “Osama Bin Laden is the Crucified Christ” is just as anxious and sinister as its title implies, and Grace played a tune about her dead friend Pope that kinda ruled. Am I stoked for the release of Against Me!’s upcoming record Transgender Dysphoria Blues? You betcha boy howdy.

Oooh, also the show was wall-to-wall sold-out — and fuckin’ awesome. New material complemented a healthy portion of hits and yes, we all very much need to hear “Sink, Florida, Sink” again, because the early ‘oughts had its moments.

Openers included sometimes AM! member Franz Nicolay, and fellow trans musician Mina Caputo. If someone had told me the songstress of gentle, pensive folk onstage used to helm the butt rock organization Life of Agony, I would have called that person a liar, then I would’ve felt stupid after I went home and Googled Caputo only to discover that, yes, astoundingly, she used to sing for Life of Agony.

Finally, should punk become trendy again in future decades, Grace’s legacy could help future generations not merely scream “Kill Whitey!” at the top of their lungs, but understand who Whitey is and why he should die. If he doesn’t want Laura Jane Grace to use whichever public bathroom she wants, he would control where we all piss if he could.