Looking Forward, Looking Back
I went to a concert last night and thought about how different 2023 is for trans people than 2012. Also, there are a few videos at the bottom of the page.
Hello, dear readers,
It’s been a hot second since I’ve gotten personal here on the ol’ newsletter, so I hope you’ll indulge me. I’ll get back to my media, culture, politics, and whatever stuff next week (though this post will likely touch on all of those things, as well).
Last night, I went to a concert at the Metro, one of my favorite venues here in Chicago. The band Murder By Death was celebrating the 20th anniversary of its 2003 album Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them?, with Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace playing a 45-minute acoustic set as their opener.
It was a great show. I’ve loved MBD since being introduced to their music when they opened for Thursday (another one of my favorite bands) in September 2003,1 and WWSaWWBLoT is one of my favorite records of all time. They’ve still got it, and if they’re coming to a city near you, you should check them out.
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But I want to talk a bit about Laura’s set.
Like me, Laura is transgender. She came out in a May 9, 2012, Rolling Stone profile. Around that time, I was in an extremely dark place. I wasn’t yet out to anyone and had been trying for 15 years to keep that bottled up inside me, convinced that I would just try to ride life out as long as I could. Maybe it’d be a year, maybe a decade, and maybe I’d somehow stumble into old age as an empty husk of a person. I’m not sure I would have called that “living,” though.
I felt increasingly detached from the world and more ambivalent about the idea of living. I numbed myself with alcohol, I chain-smoked, and I would go to bed each night thinking about how okay I’d be with just not waking up in the morning. I wasn’t “close to giving up,” I had given up. For years at that point.
But then I read the Rolling Stone profile. And I saw that people seemed to be, generally speaking, pretty supportive. Friends of mine shared the article on Facebook, and I was just genuinely surprised by how… normal people were being. One of the things that had been holding me back from actually coming out to friends and family as trans and actually taking steps to transition was the fear of being shunned, abandoned, and somehow worse off than before.
Long story short: the public response to Laura’s coming out was one of the things I needed to take action to live my own life. And I did. I began seeing therapists, opening up to people close to me, and before the end of 2012, I’d started on hormone replacement therapy. This isn’t to say that everything was happy and perfect. Far from it. But for the first time in my adult life, it felt like things were headed in a positive direction.
As Laura played last night — a set of her Against Me! tracks (“Walking is Still Honest,” “White Crosses,” “333”) with a sprinkling of her solo work (“The Mountain Song” and a few others I wasn’t immediately familiar with) — I wondered to myself how different things might have been had we lived in the world of 2023 back in 2012. In a lot of ways, things are significantly worse for trans people today than they were a decade ago. No longer curiosities that mostly flew under the radar, we’ve become a group that politicians and the press have decided to target with unrelenting hate campaigns, restrictive new laws, and other eliminationist bullshit wrapped up in faux concerns about “fairness in sports” and “the children.”2
We are constantly being talked about, often as some sort of problem to be “solved,” but very rarely do we actually get to do the talking. Niko Stratis, a trans woman and writer, covered this in her brilliant recent piece for Paste called “Always The Topic, Rarely The Voice.”
So often in these stories, trans people are the idea of something potentially real, often potentially harmful. We are trickster gods, barbed and poisonous, waiting to rip the seams of the tender fabric of this gentle world. But we are never the interviewer, never the storyteller, rarely the writer and seldom real.
We are always the topic, rarely the voice.
Evan Urquhart, a trans man, has been trying to track the growing anti-trans attacks and sentiment over at his Assigned Media blog. The same goes forat her newsletter. Seriously, click over to AM or Erin’s Erin in the Morning, and look through some of the recent articles. There’s an extreme obsession with trans people, and it’s getting scary.
Ari Drennen is a trans woman and the LGBTQ program director at Media Matters. She recently wrote a really powerful piece about the constant stream of anti-trans hate that flows freely through the press (especially in conservative outlets), and how that hate is being weaponized against LGBTQ people and allies, with most of that hate being directed at trans people. You should read it.
Just yesterday, Soleil Ho at the San Francisco Chronicle published an inside look at the New York Times’ anti-trans obsession. It includes quotes from current and former Times employees like, “There’s a culture at the New York Times of not saying exactly what you’re thinking, and sometimes I wonder if people at the top fully believe in the humanity of trans people,” and, “There is a problem in the newsroom of being too excited to question whether or not it’s OK to be trans.” Ho quotes Imara Jones, and I want to take a moment to also recommend checking out Jones’s podcast, The Anti-Trans. Hate Machine.isn’t trans, but he’s certainly an ally, and he’s tried to combat some of the mainstream narratives about the kind of attacks trans people are facing. In a recent post, he corrected writer Matthew Yglesias’s argument that trans people need to be more willing to compromise, just like the civil rights movement did. Geidner wrote [bolded emphasis mine]:
This is setting up a false analogy. The proper analysis here is not the Civil Rights Era. This isn’t a matter of righteous questions about a too-slow forward movement. This is an issue of rapid backwards movement. Similar with his discussion of Howard Dean and civil unions in 2000 before Massachusetts became the first state with marriage equality in 2004. 1996’s Defense of Marriage Act, arguably, was a backward step, but it was putting in place limits against something — same-sex couples’ marriage rights — that were not legal in any state at the time.
Things are bad and getting worse. All of this was on my mind last night at the concert.
I’ve found that I struggle to write about what’s happening to trans people in the U.S. and beyond. It makes me feel sick to my stomach. It makes me tired, angry, and frustrated. That’s part of why I made a point of emphasizing the above voices, who are doing a great job doing what I really can’t anymore.
It’s been years since I’ve listened to some of the songs Laura played, and there were a couple of moments that hit me in unexpected ways relevant to today’s newsletter. The first came during her performance of “True Trans Soul Rebel” (video from last night’s concert above), off Against Me!’s 2014 album Transgender Dysphoria Blues. When I heard that song for the first time in a live recording someone uploaded to the internet, it felt like a rallying cry, like… you may feel scared and alone right now, but it won’t always be that way. It was the type of reassurance I needed to get through some extremely self-conscious days of early transition.
“This is a song about celebrating gender variation as a thing of beauty,” Laura said during the song’s intro on Against Me!’s 2015 live album.
Last night, though, it felt like a gut punch in the kind of way that only a really great piece of art can hit you. The chorus, “Does God bless your transsexual heart?” had me wondering, “Does God? Does society? Does the world?” Far from feeling it as the triumphant, fun track Laura played with Miley Cyrus in a backyard video from 2015, I felt it as a series of unanswered questions. Just as powerful as ever, but in a new way that hadn’t crossed my mind before.
The second moment, and the one that really hit me like a ton of bricks, came during Laura’s performance of “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong,”3 the opening track off Against Me!’s 2002 record, Reinventing Axl Rose.
In his wallet she kept on her nightstand / An AA card and a lock of red hair / She kept secrets of pride locked so tight in her heart / It killed a part of her before the rest was gone / She said, "If I would have known just how things would have ended up, I just would have let myself die."
As she sang that, I thought back to that 2012 version of myself. I really can’t overstate just how important it was to feel hope for the future, hope that progress moves forward, and hope that things will continue to get better.
“If I would have known just how things would have ended up, I just would have let myself die.” I don’t think that’s how I currently feel. But had the 2012 version of myself known that this was where the world was headed? That’s a different story. I don’t think I could have made it, and I worry about what it must be like for trans people just coming to terms with themselves in 2023.
I hope things get better for trans people soon. I hope the world can just let us live our lives.
Below, for paid subscribers, are 4 more videos I took at the show last night, featuring both Laura Jane Grace and Murder By Death.
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