Book review: “Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout” by Laura Jane Grace

by Heather McNamara

Heather McNamaraOverall book review: 3/5

Transgender narrative: 5/5

I began reading Tranny with very little knowledge of Laura Jane Grace or Against Me! I knew Lauren had been to one of her concerts. She’s got a picture of herself smiling with Laura Jane Grace somewhere in her twitter history. I remember the Cosmo article about Laura’s transition with the photos of her together with her wife and daughter. I liked Laura’s smile. There’s something inviting about it, like she’s up for whatever you’ve got in mind as long as it involves some degree of trouble.

I admit I also never knew much about the 90s punk, grunge, or riot grrl scenes before a unit studying zines in a third wave feminism course I took a couple of years ago. I missed out on quite a time. Where had I been? Laura Jane Grace and I are almost exactly the same age. I had plenty of friends who were into those crowds when I was young. I guess I was just too much of a goody two-shoes. So, I looked forward to reading this book. I thought reading a memoir of somebody who wasn’t so afraid of getting into a little bit of trouble and screaming their head off at the “system” would give me an idea of what I missed.

My first takeaway was that I was glad as hell I didn’t get into that crowd after all. The beginning of LJG’s memoir details her childhood, her first experiences with dysphoria, and the way she got into the punk scene. There was a lot more self-piercing (in her dick! Ow!) and dumpster diving than I expected and a lot less showering. There was more booze, cocaine, and MDMA than I thought it was possible to survive. There was a chapter wherein she suffers from a skin disease as a consequence of her lack of hygiene. I had to take several showers to wash that one off. As LJG details her experiences with the police, dropping out of school, and drug experimentation, I admit I identified most with her mother as she melted into a puddle of anxiety over the whole thing.

My next takeaway was a far more valuable one. I learned that LJG not only writes all of her songs herself, but writes them from the heart. As she went through different anecdotes in her life – experimenting with punk, for example – I looked up Against Me! Songs from those periods and followed along. If you intend to read this book, I highly recommend doing so in this manner. Many of her anecdotes detail how she came to the mindsets that inspired songs and albums. A large portion of the book is excerpts from her journals so the reader gets a close up look at what was on the actual pages of the very books in which her songs were written and what was actually in her mind at the time.

As the title of the book is Tranny and the bit about being a “sellout” was in the subtitle, I had assumed LJG’s dysphoria would be the primary antagonist in the book, but it is not. The first chapter opens with her as a child, fantasizing about becoming Madonna. But it’s not solely a girl fantasy. It’s also a style and music fantasy. The style and music became her first obsessions and her primary pursuits. Her evolution from garage band member to front(wo)man of a signed band is not a secondary element of her identity. The first 75% of the book (according to my kindle) is about her musical evolution with only bits and pieces of her experiences with dysphoria thrown in.

Laura went head-on into the punk scene where she learned slowly and painfully that, like every scene, punk has a lot of hypocrisy and a lot of rules. She likes the anarchy and the social change, but quickly realizes that for all of the punk talk about being against oppressive systems of gender, punks still preferred their idols cisgender and heterosexual. More importantly, however, they preferred their idols poor. Money and fame are not just frowned upon but worthy of scorn to the point that she encounters protestors at her shows and pushback that lasts for nearly a decade. For fans of her music or of the music business in general, it might be a lot of fun to read about tour after tour, angry fan after angry fan, bottle of Jameson after bottle of… well, you get the point. Unfortunately, I did find it a bit tedious and repetitive.

Initially, I felt that Laura was holding back on the trans narrative. I was a bit annoyed that she would title the book Tranny and then make it only tangentially about her dysphoria and eventual transition. But finally, when I got to the last 20% of the book and Laura finally came back to the dysphoria and gave in to it all, I could feel the triumph of the moment right along with her. To Laura, transitioning wasn’t as simple as a natural progression of dysphoria as it is depicted in some narratives. It was there for the taking, but she had to summon the courage to grab it. After reading about a hundred pages of her grieving the loss of her original fanbase when she became a sellout, the reader can imagine it was difficult for her to confront the possible loss of her new fanbase with this change. It took her time and introspection and a good deal of bargaining with herself, but once I reached the point in the book when she grabbed it, I cheered the victory right along with her.

Tranny has a lot of elements in common with most celebrity memoirs. Its appeal is based on a combination of the things that make her famous and the things that make her controversial, namely her music and her transition respectively. There is a lot of discussion about the business and the obligatory fanservice wherein she discusses band drama, the making of videos, what happened backstage at the tours, and the inspirations for her hit songs. As a band memoir it is ordinary; as a transgender memoir, however, it is exceptional. There are very few people who are famous before they come out as transgender and go through transitioning and among those there are few choices who aren’t absolute garbage *cough* Caitlin Jenner *cough*. LJG, however, comes out with bravado and bares her soul in the form of her songs. She shares it with her fans and inspires closeted trans listeners to experience it and feel the anger and longing with her as desperation and frustration turn into victory. 

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender healthcare, public health, psychiatry, and history of medicine, integrating these many perspectives and guided by the lived experiences of trans people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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2 Responses to Book review: “Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout” by Laura Jane Grace

  1. Jeanie Wallenstein says:

    Thanks! I haven’t read her book, but LJ’s music has filled many dark moments with a warm light. Very straight honest review!
    Jeanie

  2. Marah says:

    Yes, a neat summary and review!

    I just read it recently and a trans woman myself I could feel all of it, especially the victory. But I am also a goth who likes some punk with punk gf who is also trans, and adores her so much she choose Grace as a name. So i can relay more to the punk scene stuff and all the motifs behind it. As a band fan and of her it was interesting as well. Although some part could be shortened as they were at the big label.

    Anyways it was a joy to see to found such review as well. Thanks for that! I don’t know if you like the music, but I would like to hear your review of Transgender Dysphoria Blues as well. :)

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