The men and women in this series will change how you think about business, music, porn, comedy, gaming and more. They’ve risked it all—even their lives—to do what they love, showing us what can be accomplished if we break the rules. Meet the Renegades of 2016.
Laura Jane Grace has been minutely scrutinized since she started the band Against Me! as an anarchist-inspired solo project in 1997. Punk purists frothed as the Gainesville, Florida group’s sound evolved from lo-fi folk to full-on anthemic pop punk, leading to a major-label record deal in 2007. (These days, the band releases music on its own Total Treble imprint.) Fans and critics stopped and stared when Grace came out as transgender in 2012—an event with few precedents in the testosterone-drenched world of punk rock. This November, two months after the release of the seventh Against Me! album, Shape Shift With Me, Grace will cap off her odyssey so far with a memoir titled Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout.
Back in May, Grace made headlines for burning her birth certificate onstage in North Carolina to protest the state’s anti-trans bathroom law. But her music and writing signal a more intimate strain of activism: Listening to Against Me! songs such as “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” and “True Trans Soul Rebel,” it becomes clear that Grace has always lived where the personal and the political collide. Her painfully honest, deeply human way of articulating that friction is the definition of Grace. And she still believes in the scene that has sustained her, even as it has threatened to drown her in expectations. “The influence that punk rock has had on my life is astounding,” she says. “I just think music is infinitely important.”
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career?
That’s a good soft one to start out with. [Laughs] Well, I don’t know if it’s clichéd or whatever, but the challenge is longevity. It’s your biggest hurdle to keep it all together, whether that’s keeping a band together or even keeping your emotional state together, to continually remember that the reason you do what you do is because you love playing music and not become bitter or jaded. That’s not an easy thing to do, you know? It’s not an easy thing to be a band for 20 years by any means.
How do you think you’ve managed to keep it together for so long?
You just have to work for it; it has to be worth it for you fight for. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering, going through my second divorce, if I’m able to be in a committed relationship, and when I asked myself that question I’m always like, I’ve been committed to James [Bowman, guitarist in Against Me!] and committed to doing this band, so I know I have that ability. But just like a marriage, you have to really be willing to sacrifice.
How do you deal with backlash, which you’ve dealt with since day one with this band?
Right, and I think there’s been times where I’ve dealt with it poorly and times where I’ve been able to manage it. I’m thankful for those experiences because I think it has given me good perspective—not just on backlash, but on praise, too. You just have to take it all with a grain of salt. It’s nice when people say good things about you, but it means just as much as when people say bad things about you, and that shouldn’t determine why you do something or what you get out of something or whether or not it’s successful to you.
Make your own decisions. Sometimes people won’t get it, but in order to survive you have to be confident in yourself.
Especially in punk. People can get worked up about a band signing to a label or something like that and then you get a little older and wonder what you were so mad about.
[Laughs] But it all seemed so important at the time.
I’ve been that way with bands. I know that some of the time that’s just being young, and some of the time that’s something just meaning so much to you at a time in your life and fearing change. But change is inevitable.
For so long you were under the microscope as far as signing to a big indie and then a major, and it seems like once you came out, that other stuff became way less of a big deal.
I like to hope that when I came out it gave people some sense that the decisions I made were decisions I made because that’s the way I thought and felt about what I had to do to survive. Those weren’t always things that I felt like I could or even wanted to explain to other people, and that just comes back to being certain why you’re doing something—thinking for yourself and making your own decisions, not being influenced by what others expect from you. And being prepared that sometimes you’ll disappoint people or sometimes people are not going to get it, but in order to survive you have to be confident in yourself.
Burning your birth certificate onstage was a very tangible example of someone really standing behind her beliefs.
You have to walk the talk, you know? For me, I don’t have a separation in my life in what I do with the band and a home life. I mean, it’s not like I change into a different person or suddenly start thinking about things differently when I’m in show mode versus when I’m at home mode. It all has to be an extension of your life, and the way you approach making music should be the way you approach living your life, you know?
How would you say your new book figures into everything you’ve said here? Is it scary or exciting waiting for it to come out?
It’s both a relief and totally fucking terrifying, you know? I try to be really polite when people come up to me and say they’re excited to read my book. I’m like, “Thank you, thank you, awesome, yeah,” but inside I’m thinking Oh god, I’m so scared of people reading my book.
I’m sure you’ve changed so many people’s perspectives by putting this stuff out there, even if they don’t tell you about it personally.
Sure. But the moments when people do personally tell you—that really does mean a lot.
Meet the rest of the Renegades here.