Being a transgender rock star can be utterly confessional work. The public eye scrutinizes, while the urge to make impactful art pushes one to self-examine relentlessly. Both gender transition and songwriting are deeply private and idiosyncratic, even while simultaneously calling an artist to share their evolution with the world, baring their inner life in the hopes that the self and others will feel reflected, unburdened, or enlightened.
This push-and-pull is undoubtedly familiar to many trans performing artists, but this year has been rendered achingly real by Against Me! front woman Laura Jane Grace's ongoing public journey and new album Transgender Dysphoria Blues.
Remaining open to discussing her own trans identity and penning an album The Advocate described as "brutally honest" in "directly addressing trans themes" in a way that's still mostly unheard of in rock music, Grace has become one of the most recognizable trans women in American pop culture.
It's a powerful, vulnerable place to be, and it begs the question, What's next?
For Grace, the answer comes as both a call-to-action and a relief: It's time to share her platform.
When AOL Originals approached her earlier this year with the opportunity to do a television show, she says that the idea for her documentary series True Trans With Laura Jane Grace came readily. While the fact Grace would be touring with her band meant the camera crew would have to follow them on the road, the show would be anything but a typical rock band travel diary.
"Really, the thing that was appealing … was that the pressure was off of me to do the talking and I got to do more of asking questions," Grace explains. "My story [will] be shown in equal part with everyone else's; my band is really just the backdrop."
"So I basically put together a really big list of people who I had either met through various social media networks like Facebook or Twitter, or who I had admired — for instance, author Julia Serano, who wrote Whipping Girl. I sent AOL that list and said, 'I'd like to have a conversation about gender with all of these people.'"
AOL gave her the green light right away. Her documentary series debuts today on AOL Originals.
True Trans began production in April under the original title So Much More With Laura Jane Grace. The next three weeks of filming were, for Grace, an eye-opening, emotional experience of playing Against Me! shows and meeting with several trans people each day for documentary interviews back-to-back.
Now her show's finally done with filming and editing, and Grace is ready to reveal her months of hard, soul-searching work to audiences. But despite being so close to this pinnacle, Grace tells The Advocate that she has not been able watch any of the show's 16 episodes herself. The results of the journey have been so deeply affecting and unexpectedly influential on her thoughts concerning transition that she has yet to sit down and process them fully.
Hearing Grace relive some of her trans, nonbinary, and gender-variant subjects' stories — including conversations with activists like Serano, Jen Richards, and Fallon Fox, performers like Our Lady J and Buck Angel, and many other artists and community members — it's easy to tell why.
"A lot of the interviews were intense to live through; hearing the people's stories, you know?" she recalls. "Like talking to Blue Montana, who was a marine for 13 years, did incredible services for the country and the military, then was outed from the military because of 'don't ask, don't tell,' and is now $100,000 in debt to the government. Telling my story [was that intense] too. My mother participated; my daughter is a part of it. It hits as close to home as anything can get."
True Trans, at its core, is about this kind of storytelling: deeply personal and humanizing, while simultaneously highlighting the unique challenges and accomplishments of living a contemporary trans life. "I really tried to select people who represent a wide spectrum of experience," Grace emphasizes, explaining that she wants to provide a "showcase [of the] many gender-variant trans people out there doing really cool things, living really productive lives."
"There's people who have transitioned a long time ago — for example, Buck Angel, who transitioned in the '80s," she continues. "There's people who are transitioning now, and younger people. This approach was really just to demonstrate the differences: differences in age, difference in terms of experiences that you've had based on when you were transitioning or the temperature or culture around you."
In addition to sit-down interviews, Grace says True Trans features "man on the street-type" interviews with Against Me! concertgoers weighing in on themes explored in the series. Each episode focuses on a topic such as "Coming Out," "Growing Up," Transitioning," or "Family." Each participant, Grace says, "chimes in on those topics in a way that their story relates to it. Then, depending on who the individuals are, the episode might go off on how the theme relates to their own personal story," with Grace herself weighing in.
Overall, she contends, the series is as much about highlighting individuals' work and lives as it is about "changing people's views" about what it means to be trans in a rapidly changing, media-infused world.
"Seeing Laverne Cox on the cover of Time? Monumental," she says. "There's more representation of trans people [happening in media], but there's still really not a lot of representation. It's getting better and people are getting more educated. What I think is happening right now is just a part of society's changing notions of what gender-variant people are, what it means to be trans — challenging that."
True Trans, then, is yet another compelling round of voices to add to the growing chorus of trans folks in American culture. Grace's work will open hearts and minds — it already has, for that matter — and her upcoming TV show is a fascinating, artistic rendering of stories that need to keep being given platforms to be told.
Equally important, though, is how the show has influenced Grace as she continues to move forward with expressing herself through her music and public persona. As she's one of a growing group of trans women in the media, her continued willingness to self-reflect and share both her growth and fallibility as well as the truth that her experience of being trans is not a stand-in for every trans person's is invaluable.
"The most reassuring thing for me personally, based on where I was in my life going into [filming] — something I didn't know I needed to get out of it, but did get out of it — was hearing an older generation of people say that they don't really have it all figured out yet," she concludes.
"I had reached this point in transition where I was kind of unsure of the direction I should be heading in, whether I was far enough along or where I should be. I had insecurities about that. So then [I interview] someone who transitioned years ago who I assumed had everything figured out, and to hear them say 'I'm still taking it one day at a time' was really, really reassuring."
While the culture that surrounds trans people often demands unerring confidence and assuredness when going through a gender transition, Grace and the cast of True Trans show slices of real life in all their confounding, complex, illimunating glory.
Watch an exclusive peek at the show below, and tune into AOL Originals starting today.