Note:This is an emotional, incredibly biased review of Transgender Dysphoria Blues, done by a genderqueer person who happens to also really love Against Me!. If that bothers you or makes you uncomfortable, don’t read it.
When I was 14, I discovered David Bowie. With his make-up, costumes and guitar he gave me “Life on Mars?”, “Changes”, all of Ziggy Stardust and “Rebel Rebel”. For me, Bowie was something to believe in – strange and wonderful, and seemingly describing someone like me in the lines of his songs. At 15, I connected to The Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry”, and The World/ Inferno Friendship Society’s “Jerusalem Boys” in a way I couldn’t put my finger on.
When I was 16 I went to a picnic to celebrate the beginning of summer and it was there that I met some people who would eventually become my best friends. In retrospect it now seems fitting that when I met them they were playing a song by what was eventually to become my favorite band. That song, of course, was “Baby, I’m an Anarchist” (isn’t that how everyone starts liking Against Me!?). Like hearing Bowie for the first time, I felt a sense of belonging between those notes and melodies, and as we swam and played in the dirty river that runs through my town I found myself singing along with the others,”….you left me all alone, all alone”.
Two years later, the singer of Against Me, Laura Jane Grace, announced that she had come to the same realization that had been slowly growing inside of me for years. She said that she’d write an album about it. Imagine that, the lead singer of a little closet-case trans kid’s favorite band turns out to have been a closet trans person herself all along? So, since then, I’ve waited patiently for the songs I was sure I would want to hold onto as I hurdled myself out of the closet. By the time “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” was released, I had already been open about my identity for a year and on hormones for months.
As I’m sure you’ve surmised, I have a special attachment to this particular album and artist in no small part due to my own gender identity issues. A good friend of mine refers to me as “the world’s anomaly”- I’m a transmasculine genderqueer person. I’m sort of a guy, sort of a girl, and sort of neither. Even as the testosterone I put into my body deepens my voice and changes my shape, I drape myself with an excess of jewelry and make up. A misfit among misfits, I’ve always been drawn to the glam, punk and goth scenes, but even there, I’ve scarcely found myself reflected.
The album’s (almost) title track “Talking Transgender Dysphoria Blues”, kicks things off with considerable energy for a song about the feelings of inadequacy and otherness that come with gender dysphoria. As Laura sings “..and you know it’s obvious, but we can’t choose how we’re made”, I feel a twinge in my own bound chest, knowing that I’ll never really pass for a boy or a girl; my mix of features makes it hard for people to put me into a specific gender category and they often choose the wrong one. No one will ever know what to make of me unless I tell them. But, the acknowledgement of unhappiness is empowering – so often people pretend that their circumstances are of no consequence. Hardly bluesy, the first track is an exhilarating declaration. It’s the first time you went out dressed as yourself, the first time you were “sir”-ed instead of “ma’am”-ed, or vice versa. The feeling of excitement at being seen by others as you see yourself is echoed in the mosh-ready riffs of this song.
I’ve known enough “True Trans Soul Rebel”s (the title of the album’s second track) for the lyrics about walking in the dark, and the feelings of being betrayed by fate to ring familiar. The song brings me back to summer nights spent with one of my oldest and best friends, discussing life and how we navigated it as not-quite-boys. Just as coincidental as my favorite band being led by a trans person, one of my oldest friends came out as genderqueer around the same time I did. The kid who started out as our younger tag-along in high school, and turned out to be one of the best people I’ve ever known, recently followed suit. All three of us have spent innumerable nights, both together and apart, wading through our dysphoria and depression with no destination in site or in mind. Even though the song itself is rather fast and pop-y, a sense of sadness pervades it. The minor chords accentuate the contemplative lyrics about uncertain futures, and the life that could have been. The only problem I’ve found with this track is that it’s previous incarnation, the acoustic version on the True Trans EP, set the bar so high. The sentiments of the song are more at home in the slow and sorrowful chords of the original version than the quick electric ones of the album.
My favorite track on the album, the third, is more universal than many on the record, but it touches a special part of my queer heart. “Unconditional Love” is a rolling, steady march through feelings of desperation. Enticing and as strong as the self destruction the lyrics allude to, the beat of the drums make this song the catchiest. The main chorus “Even if your love was unconditional, it still wouldn’t be enough to save me” can be read as either pure self-deprecation, or a rejection of the idea of needing salvation. Personally, the second interpretation seems more appealing. The world that I live in is convinced of my need to be “fixed” or “saved” from myself. They can’t wrap their heads around the fact that my actions are my salvation. I’ve been told that “I just need therapy”, that I’m mistaking my gender identity for “another issue”, and that I could be a “normal person” with a little assistance. The truth is no amount of “unconditional love” would change a thing about me or what I do. The main theme of the song, that “a person can’t be changed by someone else”, is both a lamentation of that fact and a celebration of the freedom that comes with it. If the first song on this album is the coming out, this track is the recognition of the everyday challenges and realities of being a trans person.
“Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ” reminds me what this album is really about; more than simply being a concept album about being transgender, it’s more specifically a story about a trans woman who survives by doing sex work. From the ferocity of the opening guitar riffs to the harshness of the vocals, “Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ” is unmistakably a song of anger and desperation. The lines “What’s the best that you could hope for? Pity fucks and table scraps… a bullet in the head and a bullet in the chest”, speak to the poverty and violence that too much of the trans community experiences – we have unemployment and murder rates disproportionately high for our population. From start to finish, when I listen to this track I can’t help wanting to fall to my knees in a scream of anger and revolt.
“FUCKMYLIFE666” with its power-rock melody seems to pour vinegar on the wounds of my past relationships and reminds me of the envy I feel when I see the ease and confidence of my cisgender male friends. But with lyrics like “I don’t have the heart to match the one pricked into your finger”, it also recalls the comfort of those friendships – my best friend really does have a heart on his finger in the form of a faded tattoo. Looking at him, and all the other boys I once painted and patched jackets with, inspires hope for what could be, and a bit of remorse for what never will. Their friendship may never bring me the flat, unmarred chest that I long for, but I wouldn’t be here to daydream about it if it wasn’t for them. The lyrics allude to another person to whom the album’s protagonist compares themselves and forms a bond with. The song as a whole deals with the ideas of permanence, strength (or lack there of), and identity. Grace questions whether a person can be the same when their exterior seems to change completely, and whether the struggle to change is worth suffering in an existence that is “made to be destroyed”.
The middle of this record is all love and sadness until it arrives at “Black Me Out”. I first heard the song in the Nervous Energies video and was immediately floored by Grace’s passion while playing it. I was intrigued by the mischievous, knowing look she gave the camera in the last seconds of the clip. Although the studio version is lacking some of the raw quality of the acoustic, it finishes the album off quite nicely. “Black Me Out” is a rejection of the things we’ve been given, the statements we were always told were true, and a reclamation of autonomy. The strong musical build up, in combination with the vulnerability of lyrics like “I don’t want to see the world that way anymore, I don’t want to feel that weak and insecure” make this a tune of pure but conflicting emotions of loss and freedom. As I hear those words I think of all the “firsts” I’ve had – the first time I came out to someone, the first time I called the hormone clinic, the first time I went out in boyish attire. This song reminds me of the feeling of finally claiming my own autonomy and finding strength. Standing alone, the song is about forsaking typical mentalities, and throwing off those who seek to control you. Within the context of the album it retains those qualities, but takes on another meaning. “As if there was an obligation, As if I owed you something” becomes a statement of freedom from the expectations of what one should do based on what others see on the outside. The very last verse, “Full body high, I’m never coming down…”, immerses me in the feelings of anticipation that come right before diving into something unknown, something frightening, but with the possibility of being wonderful. “Black Me Out” is a song of internal revolution, a resolve to never let the world define you, even if it means leaving behind all the things and ideas you had held onto in the past.
In this album I hear songs about myself and songs about my friends. In my “dysphoria’s reflection” I still sometimes see the girl I never wanted to be. I’ve been so stuck on the soft features of my face that I was struck with utter disbelief the first time someone told me that I “looked like a boy just then”. Although not every detail lines up, my ability to relate to Grace’s sentiments are undeniable. For each line about depression, there’s one of connection. It’s the connections, to music, words, and those around us that gives a person the courage to keep going.
We love the music that we do because it is a part of ourselves. When we connect with a song it becomes an extension of who we are, defining us and helping to articulate the feelings inside us that make us who we are. It provides acceptance in a way we can’t quite explain. For me, this album is a case of being at the right place in my life at the right time, allowing me to connect directly if not literally with the words Laura belts out at me from my speakers. However, this album does not belong only to those of us with non-traditional hormone balances; these are songs for anyone who wants to live their life in a way they know to be right, despite what others might think.
At 20 years old, I still cling to my Bowie, the songs of sorrowful boys in revolt that peppered my earlier years, but now I have some additions. I have Defiance, Ohio’s “Anxious and Worrying”, I have Amanda Palmer, Ghost Mice, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and finally, I have Transgender Dysphoria Blues. I’ll play “Black Me Out” after “All the Young Dudes”, and “Dead Friend” after All We Got Is Each Other, and I’ll think about how music is more than sound waves, more than the money you may or may not have paid for it – music is what it means to the ears it falls upon. Music is an act of defiance. It’s a search for meaning and its a cry of desperation. Music is a statement of love, a rebel yell, and the companionship of a friend. Music is a declaration of who we are and sometimes, it gives us the strength to become the person we’re meant to be.