A news feed informed me the other day that Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace had appeared on MTV’s House of Style to talk about her, uh, style. On one level, I suppose this is pretty typical of the vapid programming you’d expect from MTV – celebrity turns up, talks about her wardrobe, nobody learns anything of value but some mild entertainment supposedly takes place.
Except this is a big deal in one sense, because Grace is trans, and transitioning. By appearing on this kind of programme talking about her favourite clothes and showing off her collection of obscure punk records, she normalises transness.
There’s part of me that feels a bit uncomfortable about this – social inclusion is a worthy goal, but should it really come at the expense of a dull assimilation into corporate cultural mediocrity?
Still, I went looking for the video. I didn’t manage to find it because MTV really aren’t keen on British people watching American video content (and I can’t be bothered with proxies, at least not over this). However, I did come across a bunch of punks arguing about Grace’s participation in the programme. Some of them were unimpressed, arguing that the singer was engaging in shameless self-publicity. Others pointed out that Grace has stated before that she’s being public about her transition entirely so she can help young trans people who are struggling with their feelings. I sympathise with that latter position pretty strongly.
And so Laura Jane Grace is all over the media, talking to MTV (in a variety of contexts), Rolling Stone, newspapers, webcasts and suchlike about being trans. Like other prominent LGBT people who have come out in a high-profile way, she’s taking advantage of celebrity culture to talk about something real and important for a change.
So I feel okay with Grace being on MTV, and I feel okay with these appearances currently centring on her transness. But there’s still a danger of her becoming a one-dimensional public figure, and the rest of us have to take responsibility for this.
If you look at pretty much any Against Me! video on Youtube or read any piece about the band’s current musical plans you’ll find comment threads filled with people talking about Grace’s transition and/or arguing about her pronouns. No-one, even Grace’s supporters in this context, seem bothered with the idea that there might be anything to talk about other than her gender identity (obviously the rest of the band don’t get a look-in!)
You could blame Grace’s current media presence for this. But it’s not like she doesn’t have plenty else to say. She’s written songs about economic inequality, war, love, solidarity, terminal illness, drug abuse and the death of good friends. None of them have magically disappeared just because she’s since come out.
I realise that arguments over gender in comment threads are a somewhat inevitable consequence of the ongoing cultural contestation of transness. I’m also probably contributing somewhat to the issue by writing about it on a trans-oriented blog. Still, when I’m singing along to I Was A Teenage Anarchist I tend to think about what that might mean about youth, personal growth and political affiliation – stuff that’s important regardless of how the songwriter might define her gender. I hope others are able to keep sight of this.