Against Me!'s Laura Jane Grace: How "Rolling Stone" Got Her Story (Almost) Right
Laura Jane Grace playing with her band Against ME! in 2011.
Photo Credit: elawgrrl at Flickr Creative Commons.
I hesitated before opening this week's Rolling Stone. The much-publicized cover promised “The Secret Life of the Rock Star Who Became a Woman”—writer Josh Eells's profile of Against ME!'s Laura Jane Grace, who recently came out as a trans woman. Being trans myself, I've read more media profiles of trans people than I'm willing to admit to.
This is where things get weird. I didn't fill my BINGO card (the modified version of the game involves filling a square for every cliché one hears, in this case about trans women). If you don't have a card don't worry. There are plenty of places on the Internet where you can download the afterhours equivalent. Google “trans documentary drinking game.” Go ahead, I'll wait.
For those of you with shit to do, here's a (much) abbreviated version of the narrative of transsexual women that spawned these particular hobbies: "I had a beard and no makeup and now I take girls pills and wear makeup andhatefootballandkissboys. Also: vagiiiiinnnnaaaaaaasssssss."
Back to the game: I was able to fill in a few squares of my card. There 's the business on the cover (and in the article) about “becoming” a woman (as opposed to say, being one). The editors managed to highlight a section about genitals, the word “PENIS” staring readers down from the center of the page. Yet, for the first time in a long time, I didn't win. Before I got my caps lock on, I even spotted a mention of trans feminism (Whipping Girl, the seminal work on the subject by Julia Serano).
What happened? Yes, pieces of Eells' profile deserve criticism. Sure, it would be possible to spend time dissecting and debating Grace's life (unfortunately, there's the rest of the Internet for that). At the end of the article, though, I was left with a touchingly human picture of a trans woman and her wife. While casual observers may find this unremarkable, I admit being thrown for a huge loop.
In past decades, public portrayals of trans people have been few and far between. Transsexuality (in women) made its first major appearance in the modern American media via Christine Jorgensen. Jorgensen was a young American (a veteran of World War II, no less), who scandalized much of the world when she returned to the US in 1953, having “changed sex” with the aid of a Danish physician. While Jorgensen was famous merely for being trans, during the late 1970s, Renée Richards garnered fame for playing women's tennis while trans.
None of this implies that gender non-conformity is a modern invention, nor that Jorgensen and Richards were the sole exceptions to Western society's contemporary notion of properly sexed and gendered bodies. Countless humans have lived in ways that contradicted the most popular current conception of men, women, the universe, and everything. We're everywhere. We always have been.
Despite this, trans and otherwise gender non-conforming people have ever suffered from an abundance of highly visible role models. In the Stone piece, Grace recalls the two versions of trans women she grew up seeing on television, “the sad tranny, and the fucking scary tranny.” (As a trans woman who grew up in the same era, I can vouch for her: as a teen I realized I couldn't possibly be trans, simply because I wasn't especially pathetic or predatory.)
These days, the Internet touches almost everyone. For trans people seeking information and support, today are many more avenues available than there were for Grace and her predecessors. However, that only counts for so much when society barely acknowledges our existence outside of the occasional episode of SVU and hesitates to discuss actual crimes committed against us.
The lack of well-known trans people also serves a misconception that Eells's piece furthers. Eells quotes Brandon Hill of Indiana University's Kinsey Institute as saying that 1 in 30,000 “men” is trans. (By now, you may have noticed the scant attention that science and society pay to trans men, a subject that deserves its own piece). I suspect that 1 in 30,000 statistic likely has its root in any number of small scale European studies of the number of trans women to contact local physicians over a given period. Work by Femke Olyslager and Lynn Conway (as well as personal experience) suggests that trans women are at least an order of magnitude more common than Hill and the Stone piece suggest, if not more.
Even though I'd hazard that most cis people know at least one trans person, many seem to think otherwise. Once more for emphasis: we're everywhere. This naivety on the part of the general populace has special significance for celebrity transitioners. As unfair as it is, Grace will likely spend her time educating the public on who trans people are. As far as her fans are concerned, she likely will be the first trans person they know of. The same is true for relatives of trans people just coming out, who will look to her for an unspoken explanation of who trans people are.
It's not fair. It's not fair to the trans people who don't see themselves mirrored in the newest trans people to make the rounds on daytime TV. What's more, transition is, according to virtually all trans people I've had the pleasure of knowing, incredibly difficult. I can only imagine how much harder it is to do so while serving as a role model and spokesperson for countless others.
If there's one thing the public likes, it's sex. Barring that, a discussion of genitals posing as a medical dialogue will do. It's hardly surprising that popular narratives of gender transition reflect changing clothes, changing chests, and changing crotches. We all have our own priorities. In the Stone piece, Eells mentions the medical aspects of transition that some trans women undergo- taking hormones, potentially having surgery on her genitals.
The clothes-tits-cunt narrative about trans women (and alas, all women) is an old one. Hormones and surgery(ies) have varying significance to different trans people. Easily lost in this shopping list version of transition is the fact that celebrities have fan clubs. Most trans people are relatively anonymous, and any loss of anonymity post-transition can have negative financial consequences (loss of job, loss of income, loss of home, let alone loss of life).
The danger is that in focusing on this shopping list narrative, the public will get an inaccurate picture of trans people 's lives. Not only is there variation in who trans people are and what we want (in the Stone piece, for example, Grace is non-committal about genital surgery), but we also vary in what we can afford. Facial hair removal typically runs thousands of dollars, hormones are not cheap, and genital surgery costs tens of thousands of dollars (even more for trans men, in which case the results are also less realistic). Very few trans people have insurance that covers these expenses.
I expect fans will follow Laura Jane Grace on her journey. I expect they'll mark her medical and emotional milestones (many of us congratulated her as she Tweeted pictures of her first hormone pills *squee*). Why not? It's just unfortunate when we forget the complexity of gender transitions and trans people's lives.
Media coverage of transsexuality that focuses on celebrities and then turns trans lives into a series of medical procedures fails twice over. They give the impression that transition is nothing more than a series of easily accomplished trips to the doctor, while simultaneously overlooking the diversity of our lives.
Years of being out have reinforced my cynical impulses, but Eells's profile of Laura Jane Grace makes me hopeful about where we are headed. Sure there are cliches in the piece, but a part of me wants to think that increasing numbers of cis people are starting to get it. We're people. Grace lives a rich and varied life, a life that touches countless others. Eells's story reflects this. It's about damn time.
It's unfair to judge a trans person's transition in terms of other people's lives. In my experience, we do what we need to do, and hope to do well by those who matter to us. I don't know that Grace is thinking about what her coming out will mean for “the community," nor do I think she should. I wish her, her loved ones, trans people and their allies everywhere happiness and progress.