fiber rocks with you! // Laura Jane Grace on sexism in “the” punk scene, her activist past and present and transitioning publicly. An interview.

Um euch die Wartezeit auf unser fiber-Buch zu versüßen, und mit nicht geringerer Vorfreude auf das anstehende Konzert von Against Me! kommenden Freitag im Linzer Posthof, gibt es hier ein in seiner Veröffentlichung längst überfälliges Interview mit Laura Jane Grace zu lesen. Wir hatten die Ehre und durften vergangenen Sommer im Vorfeld zu ihrem Konzert in der Arena Wien backstage mit ihr plaudern.

Fotos: Irene Jahn

f: In your song Drinking With The Jocks you describe a stereotypical pub talk situation, where sexism, homophobia, misogyny is quite common. What about the punk scene - is it a mere cliché that it is sexist?

LJG: Well, I’d definitely be ashamed to generalize the whole thing. But there are definitely people in the punk scene who are sexist and homophobic, very racist. Even if they say “I’m not racist” and then they’ll tell you a racist joke. You know, like “I’m not homophobic” and then say something totally homophobic. That kind of behavior unfortunately I have stumbled across a lot. Those are definitely not the aspects of punk rock that drew me to it. To me, when I first got into punk rock it was supposedly a place that was about smashing gender roles, fighting racism, like existing outside the norms of sexist society and rebelling against all of that. But unfortunately, often times there is microcosms of society we’ve created in it.

f: What are your personal experiences in this? Did you face discrimination yourself?

LJG: Well, definitely. Our band has had a weird history. In that, we started off as every other band, as very small and you’re very much like just within the DIY-punk scene. And then as we started getting bigger and as a band started playing in bigger venues and on festivals that were more of the rock’n’roll scene as opposed to just the DIY-punk scene. You’re put into this whole other world, and that’s where I think that a lot of the times those stereotypes come into play. And especially when you’re in the major-label world they very much push you like you are supposed to be the male* front singer or the male* guitarist, it’s something like that and they push you into these roles. Whether it’s doing photoshoots for magazines, doing videoshoots or even at live concerts - you are definitely subtly pushed to conform in those ways.

f: In the way you sensed it then - how was discrimination expressed? Was there any piercing moment that stuck in your mind?

LJG: I don’t know if there’s only one, but I definitely have reached a point or hit a wall where I’d be on stage and I didn’t know who I was anymore. Looking out in the audience which was predominantly white male* and I didn’t know if those people would accept me if they actually knew who I really was and how I really felt. Then it was totally disconnect when I didn’t know what I was doing, what I was doing anymore. So for me coming-out and after that was breaking down that wall where now I assume when someone’s at a show they are in line with who I am.

f: Has your audience changed? Are there more queer people?

LJG: Definitely there are more queer people who come out and feel comfortable at the show, too. But it’s interesting, because I met a lot of people who would say like “I used to listen to you when you were younger” and then like “fell out for whatever reason and transitioned on my own and then I heard about your transition and now I feel comfortable at your shows again”. Which is awesome to hear.

f: Do your think your socialization in the punk scene hindered your transition in any ways?

LJG: It was both, you know. There’s the punk scene and then there’s the band scene around the punk scene, and often times when you’re in a band and hanging out backstage at venues and festivals it’s like you’re hanging out in a locker room, you know. And that’s what you do when you’re supposed to be hanging out with the crowd. But in general I’m very thankful having grown up punk or whatever. In a lot of ways it prepares you for any negative reaction you’ll get. Like being 14 years old and knowing the feeling of walking through a public space with a foot-tall mohawk and spikes all over you, and the way people look at you then is not unsimilar to the way people look at you in public spaces as a trans*person. At a young age you have learned how to put up the armor in a way.

f: Are there any sensible points of contact between the punk scene and the queer_fem scene?

LJG: Sure. In general, in the early 90ies when I was getting into punk rock with girls of the riot grrrl movement, Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear, Sleater-Kinney, stuff like that…

f: Were you into that stuff, too?

LJG: Oh, totally, yeah. And even going back further with someone like Jayne County from The Electric Chairs, who to me was like the real originator of the first trans*woman* in a punk band or whatever. It has always kind of been there, it’s just unfortunately often times it’s a straight male* dominated scene.

f: What communities influenced you in your youth?

LJG: The late 70ies/early 80ies UK peace punk scene. And that really goes back to examples like really strong feminist bands, bands like Poison Girls and Crass with an album like Penis Envy - for me all the Crass albums completely informed my political ideology and I still draw from these albums to this day. Those bands turned me on to anarchist writers like Emma Goldman for example. With the bands of the 90ies it seemed like they were building a strong protest movement all over the world and unfortunately in a lot of ways 9/11 in the US wiped that out and things got really weird for a while. It’s people got afraid with laws that got changed to be categorized as a terrorist if you were protesting.

f: As to the making of Teenage Anarchist - what authors or theories inspired you?

LJG: It’s reflecting and it’s critical. In a way it’s like a band like Crass or Chumbawamba, it’s the way they would criticize the punk scene with a song like Give The Anarchist a Cigarette, or they criticize the anarchist. To me it’s like initially I got involved in the punk scene, I got involved in activism and then there was this weird split in the path where, as my band got more popular, the activist was becoming more critical of that. And there was a lot of hypocrisy I saw in the punk scene and the activist scene which in my mind was wind against the tenants of anarchist theory of like judging someone else’s life, judging someone else’s motivations and not letting them think for themselves based on their own life experience. And there were many moments where I kind of saw the anarchist scene or the punk scene as really just like a social scene that was more about a lifestyle as opposed to theory or anything like that, which was really off-putting in a lot of ways. So with that song it’s really like I still identify as an anarchist but unfortunately I’m no longer a teenager. You know, as you grow up you have to reconcile or examine how theories fit your life now, you know. And with anarchism in particular you should be able to say, “fuck anarchy”, if you’re an anarchist. And as an anarchist you should not be offended by that.

f: Did you grow up in a politically active environment?

LJG: I grew up in a military family and I’ve done army bases all across the world when I was younger, which was a really interesting experience as a child to be a part of. When I was 12 years old I moved to Naples, Florida which is in south Florida and it is really upper-class, rich, white and elderly.

f: And it’s Florida…

LJG: Yes, very right-wing where the youth is better off not being seen or heard. There’s just nothing to do for you as a kid there. And I got into punk rock and I got beat up at school and a lot of that. And there were bands like the Sex Pistols and stuff like that which was really about the nihilism and just the rebellion. When I was 14 years old I got beat up and arrested by the cops and charged with two fellonies and trialled as an adult. And I went through this whole court process and I was in that jail and it was really shitty, you know. And I was a 14 year old kid. So that was a real eye-opening experience to me. Like being caught up in the system in that way and being in a position in which I was under house arrest, I couldn’t go anywhere. It turned me on to a different side of punk rock and led me down the path of finding bands like Crass and kind of more of the political aspect of it. And around the same time me and some of my friends started doing things like Food Not Bombs in Florida. And there’s really like a radical activist network in Florida called FRAN which stood for “Florida Radical Activist Network”. So we would meet up once a month or so to discuss protest techniques, what was happening around the country, and it was really like political organizing. And that was kind of my lead to it all.

f: Does the network still exist?

LJG: Unfortunately not. A lot of people moved away from Florida. A lot of it was centred around that place in Gainesville, Florida where a lot of people moved to. It was called the Civic Media Centre which is still there and it’s a none-corporate, volunteer-run library essentially after this organizing space. So I moved to Gainesville because I wanted to be a part of what was happening there and volunteered at the CMC. I mean, that still exists and there’s still a strong activist scene in Gainesville for sure.

f: What comes to your mind when you hear this statement which one of our politically active friends once uttered: “There are certain things in life I’m glad I don’t have to deal with anymore”?

LJG: (chuckles)

f: Do you identify with it?

LJG: I can identify with it with every aspect of life, you know. For me falling out of the activist scene and not being part of it as strictly as it has to do with the fact that I tour, like I’m on the road 200 plus days in a year so it’s not that I could be part of any regular group and be there. So my friends at this point are very much spread across the world, living in different cities.

f: To you - what’s the essence of punk?

LJG: I’d say it’s thinking for yourself. Like developing your politics around what you see in front of you and being true to yourself, working with what you have and just doing it yourself. And not relying on other people to do it for you.

f: Why is it that you are the first girl in the band?

LJG: (chuckles) I don’t know. It’s just the way it happens.

f: In terms of transitioning, has it ever appeared to you to give up your former identity as Tom Gable?

LJG: I don’t feel like I have that option. Like it doesn’t feel like that option for me existed. So I didn’t see any point in saying, “I have to disappear”, like go and hide away for a couple of years and then I could come back as someone new. I didn’t want to do that. And for me it’s not like my perspective has ever changed. I have always been coming from the same perspective. It’s other people’s perception of my perspective which has now been changed. And there are many songs from the past that are coming from a perspective that I’m coming from now, where I just felt that people were misinterpreting them and did not correctly understand where they are coming from.

f: Since coming-out is always a public thing even for a private person, as a public figure - how do you deal with privacy? We wondered how you keep the balance.

LJG: You know, it’s kind of tricky. On the one hand, being in my position, there are always pluses and negatives, like being able coming out in a magazine like Rolling Stone and not being supposed to sit down with everyone I know on a one-on-one basis and explain to them. And just being able like, “here, read this. This will go for any questions you might have.” That’s an advantage in a lot of ways. But at the same time I did that, and at the same time I did it when I did it which was really early on in my transition where it would have been nice to have time to easing the transitioning. But I felt like if I didn’t explain upfront that had I started to display signs of transition then there would have been a negative reaction. As opposed to if I just told people and then they knew what they saw what was happening happening or whatever. Then the reaction would have been more positive. Even if it was something as simple as wearing eyeliner or something like that. Transitioning when you’re in a touring band, it really slows the process down. And then you have to take things one day at a time and there was a certain pressure like, after you have given this interview and now people are looking at you expecting to see this immediate transformation which is just completely unrealistic to expect. But being out there, doing interviews and things like that, to me this is way more real than stuff I used to talk about, like, “oh, you’re in a punk band and your’re on a major label”, and all this blablabla, like this shit I didn’t care about. You know, most of the time interviewers of journals don’t want to talk about the things that you as a musician would like to talk about like, “you used this kind of guitar, this kind of amplifier on this record”. No one ever wants to hear about that stuff so there’s always another story that goes along with it. So this is like if you could educate people and if I can try and answer questions people have, like what being trans*gender means, then I’m happy to do that. Because then I know it’s real and I know that the trans*gender community is really underrepresented in the media. So I’m happy then.

f: But do you think that sometimes people go too far, invading your privacy?

LJG: Sure. You know, the best piece of advice I have ever been giving there when it comes to doing interviews is: don’t answer the questions you’re asked. Answer the questions you wish you’ve been asked. So if anyone asks a question you don’t openly answer, you just kind of divert it. (chuckles)

f: Citing one album title by the band Refused - What do you think is the shape of punk to come?

LJG: I don’t think it’s really about the musical shape, I think it’s more about the ideological shape and I hope that punk rock continues to expand its collective brain and become more open minded.

(Laura Jane Grace was interviewed by Stefanie Süßenbacher & Irene Jahn for fiber/Werkstoff für Feminismus und Popkultur @ Arena Wien, June 10 2014)

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