2014: Transgender Dysphoria Blues and the Awakening of the Heart.
In writing about the year in music for 2013, I made the off-hand remark that 2014 could be the “Year of the Transgender” – because someone [ahem] had tagged 2013 as the “Year of the Woman” in music. It’s absurd, to label an entire (and entirely arbitrary) 12 months as the “Year of Something;” hence my flippancy about this year being the “Year of the Transgender.” But here I am, for the second straight year, affixing a label to a span of time that should be beyond labels. Because I am going to say that, for me, 2014 in music was the “Year of the Transgender.”
Since about the age of two, my son has identified more with things that our society would call girl-ish. He wears leggings instead of jeans, chooses tutus over jerseys, skirts over athletic shorts. He has insisted on growing his hair long, and for a few weeks last winter wrote “Jane” on his school work instead of his given name. Over the course of the past three years or so, he has grown less and less comfortable with the trappings and norms that might be associated with boys. He now uses the girls’ restroom at school. This past summer he began insisting on wearing a one-piece girl’s bathing suit (previous years he had been okay wearing boy’s swim trunks). His newfound love is dance, and he has the pink leotard and tights to show for it.
All this, of course, from a distance, might seem like the normal phases of growing up, particularly since he has an older sister whom he adores. And for years this was the stance I took with him: he is constantly surrounded by girls – maybe if he played with more boys he’d be into cars and sports and superheroes. If he’ll just wear normal boy clothes to school, he’ll eventually get used to them and see that they’re not so bad. This was selfish of me, the thoughts of a father determined to have a boy to play with. Even if I robed myself in some noble justification – since he was born a male, he should fit into western male stereotypes so he won’t be bullied – it wasn’t about my son and his identity; it was about my identity and my stubborn desire not to lose the son I thought I had at birth. There was always – despite the growing evidence that he related more to girls and even often self-identified as one – the hope that the masculine would trump the feminine in him, and I would have someone to throw the baseball with, to go to basketball games with, to work on the car together with and to chop wood together with.
These are western clichés, I admit. What one boy loves another disdains, and I was casting upon him the unfair shadow of those things that I, as a male, love. But my son will be my son whether he gravitates to trucks and guns or stuffed animals and ballerinas – until that time when he tells me he is no longer my son but instead has always been my daughter. But I fear that day. I fear what that means for me and the idyllic, clichéd world I have tried to create within my family. I fear being cast adrift in a world with which I am unfamiliar – because isn’t that what the unknown is for us all, a place where we are untethered, vulnerable, exposed?
One album this year demonstrated just how myopic that holding on to an idyll is. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is the punk band Against Me!’s first record since its lead singer came out as a woman. And throughout the record’s brisk 30 minutes, lead singer Laura Jane Grace (formerly Tom Gabel) pulls not a single punch in expressing her rage, her angst, her confusion, her loss and grief at the life she led trapped in a masculine body. The opening lines demonstrate her dysphoria growing up as a male: “Your tells are so obvious/shoulders too broad for a girl,” and, later in the song, “you’ve got no cunt in your strut/no hips to shake/and you know it’s obvious/that we can’t choose how we’re made.” And the way the rest of the world looks at her: “You want them to see you like they see every other girl/They just see a faggot/They hold their breath not to catch the sick.” Are there any words in modern rock more bracingly honest and absolutely shattering as those?
It would be one thing, though, if the album was only angst and rage, but for me Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a grand, gorgeous album because ultimately it is also filled with grace and love. In a song like “Two Coffins,” in which Grace sings, “How lucky I ever was to see/The way that you smiled at me/Your little moon face shining bright at me,” I hear her saying goodbye to the boy she once was. There are many farewells on the album, be it to her friend (and, by reading another double entendre, her former self) that she lays in the cold ground in “Dead Friend” or the nameless youth stuck in their own dysphoria and suicidal thoughts, as in the raging final track “Black me Out.” Ultimately, I feel that the album is a love note – a brutally honest one – to all those who have experienced any type of dysphoria, have struggled in any way with their identity.
So it has registered with me in my relationship to my son. It has been unfair of me to expect him to fit into some mold that I might think (whether nobly or misguidedly) would protect him best. Should he could continue to be gender fluid into his adolescence and teenage years (and there’s no reason to think that he won’t), he will face confusion and ridicule enough from the greater world. He doesn’t need me pathologizing him or questioning the person he is. There will be things about him to which I won’t be able to relate, but I hope to support him when he needs me; there will be times he is searching for an empathetic voice, and one person won’t be able to give it all to him – but Laura Jane Grace and Transgender Dysphoria Blues will join the chorus of voices supporting him.
I can confidently say that no punk album has ever brought me to tears – until this one. To think of the thousands of children and teenagers struggling with gender identity, feeling isolated in a society that sees gender as something very black white; to think of the higher suicide rates among people with gender dysphoria; to think of the confusion of feeling one way while your body looks a different way – and to think that my son might one day (and perhaps does now) feel what Laura Jane Grace felt as a man – it fills me with tenderness toward him, this little miracle of creation, who deserves none of the grief and suffering about which she sings. A chill runs through me when I hear her, in “Paralytic States,” perhaps the boldest and most fulfilled song on the album, sing, “Standing naked in front of the hotel bathroom mirror/In her dysphoria’s affection she still saw her mother’s son.”
That phrase – “dysphoria’s affection” – is a summation of the record as a whole, a contradiction of the black and white album cover and Western society’s black-and-white view of sexuality and gender. The whole world is gray and muddled, and this recognition that we all live in some sort of dysphoria is what makes the album full of universal truths. Punk though it may be, it is not far removed from other albums full of muddled heart that were released this year: Sharon van Etten’s Are We There, Hiss Golden Messenger’s The Lateness of Dancers, and The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream come most prominently to mind. When Grace sings on my favorite song from the record (“fuckmylife666”) that “I don’t have the heart to match the one pricked into your finger,” (a line that would be right at home in a Franz Wright poem), she is adding her voice to the many who sing about brave love, the lessons of life and loss, and the awareness of the heart and its strengths and shortcomings, sentiments you can hear in the songs of The War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel, MC Taylor (aka Hiss Golden Messenger), and van Etten.
So I’ll amend my way-overgeneralized label and not call 2014 the “Year of the Transgender” but will instead call it the “Year of the Heart.” Because this year numerous artists released wonderful records full to bursting with grace and melancholy and poignant moments that speak directly to the human condition, to our attempt to know ourselves as best we can on this journey of life. None of those records, however, changed me the way Against Me!’s did. And perhaps I have never been changed by an album in the way Transgender Dysphoria Blues changed me – recalibrating the manner in which I need to parent my son, altering the way I view him and the person he is likely to become; exposing me to the grief and rage he likely will feel as he matures; and offering me visions, dark and terrible, of what might face him if he does not feel unconditionally supported in growing into his true self. Transgender Dysphoria Blues wasn’t necessarily my favorite record of 2014, but it was the most important that fell into my hands this year – and may end up being the most important ever to come into my family. As I write this, and Grace growls in the background, “does God bless your transsexual heart?” my son is asleep in his bed, organs pumping, cells dividing and growing like almost every other six-year-old on earth. His brain is getting the rest it needs in order to, in its waking hours, receive the world and all its signals – like most every other child alive. So why should his gender fluidity make him any different from those other hundreds of millions of children? There is nothing to pathologize. And yet, as he moves through childhood and adolescence, there will be many questioning who he is. Hell, he will probably do the same. But thanks to Laura Jane Grace’s rage, honesty and, yes, grace, I won’t be one of those to raise the questions, and my son will be blessed to have one more authentic voice from which to seek the answers.