Laura Jane Grace, lead singer of the band Against Me!, has gone through a high-profile transition in recent years: from the leader of an underground punk rock band that cut its teeth playing basement shows and house parties to chart-topping guitar hero to, now, the host of her own reality television series as part of AOL Originals.
That series, True Trans, focuses on the other big transition in Grace’s life: Namely, the 2012 transition to living openly and publicly as a woman, after spending most of her life publicly identifying as the gender she was assigned at birth. But more than just Grace’s own transition, True Trans tells the stories–in their own words, with their own voices and faces–of a number of transgender men and women, as Grace and her AOL camera crew met with people for the show while the band was on tour in the spring.
Like most of our lives are, Grace’s life can be defined by change–whether in major and intensely personal ways, the change that comes from being on tour with a rock band, or in the creative transition from working in one type of media to another. So what has she learned through all of these transitions?
When Someone Makes You A Great Offer, Jump At It
Grace never saw herself hosting a television series, but the deal AOL Originals came to her with was too good to turn down. “They came to me with a really open-ended opportunity,” she says. “Basically just like, ‘Hey, we’re AOL Originals and this is what we do. We’d like to do a show with you, and what the show could be is pretty much up to you.’ So I sent them a list of people that I had either met through social networks like Instagram or Twitter or Facebook, or people who I had admired from a distance–authors or other musicians or activists–all people who I wanted to have a chance to have a conversation with and talk about their thoughts on gender and the way their identities were shaped growing up.”
Because Against Me! had been on tour all year at that point, and because Grace knew that the plan for the rest of 2014 was to spend most of it on the road, she planned to build the show’s format around those circumstances. As she traveled, she’d meet people and, as she puts it, “ask all the question that are oftentimes too personal to just ask casually.” That’s a pretty hard deal to turn down: go about your business the way that you normally would, have conversations you’ve been wanting to have with people you’ve been wanting to talk to, and maybe make something of value from it.
“It just seemed like a really amazing opportunity, and it was,” she says. “Even if what was filmed never saw the light of day, that experience for me was incredible.”
Say Something Worth Saying
“People were like, ‘Wait, you’re doing a reality show?’” Grace recalls. “Because some people think that means you’re doing, like, The Real World or something, where there’s going to be manufactured drama or something like that, and daily confessionals on the bus.”
That’s not the type of reality show that True Trans is, of course–and you probably don’t hire Laura Jane Grace if that’s the sort of show you’re looking to make. Instead, each of the season’s 10 episodes deals with a different theme–growing up, coming out, transitioning, etc–to create a collection of different stories. And it was important to Grace to make sure that this series didn’t just tell her own relatively high-profile story (though, she says, “it is mixed in there a little bit”), but also the stories of people who don’t often see themselves represented in the media.
“I was just really personally motivated to do this,” Grace says. “Completely–especially talking to people who were further along in their transition, like someone like [porn star] Buck Angel, who transitioned in the 80’s, and learning the differences between transitioning back then, or the differences between people’s fields of work, and what it’s like transitioning in those fields.”
Grace notes that there are commonalities in most of the stories (“the whole ‘I came out to my parents, they weren’t that accepting,’” she says), but that those things actually turned out to be reassuring–which is one of the things you can achieve when you provide an opportunity to speak up to people who don’t always get a platform.
Trust The People You Work With
One of the biggest challenges for Grace, as someone who’s spent almost fifteen years as the lead singer and songwriter for her own band, was abandoning control over the final product. She’s in every episode of True Trans, of course, but she didn’t direct them–which is a major shift from running the show with her own band.
“It’s still an experience in progress,” Grace admits when we talk about the show, a few weeks before its October 10th premiere on AOL On. “I haven’t seen the finished work. I lived it, and I know what happened and what they filmed, but it’s definitely abandoning control–this person’s going to edit this, and there’s a director who puts it all together to make it cohesive.”
Grace says she had an easier time learning to trust her crew than she anticipated, mostly because, as she puts it, they “lucked out” with the camera crew and the people who worked on the project, which helps when you’ve got a five-person crew following you around from the moment you wake up until you got to bed.
“Having that kind of faith in someone teas a lot,” Grace says. “But knowing the people who worked on the show, I put my faith and trust in them that they’ll do a good job with everyone’s stories. But it’s definitely a trip.”
Embrace Uncertainty–And Change
Grace may be accomplished and experienced as a musician, but hosting a television series involved learning on the fly. “A lot of it was figuring it out as we went,” she recalls. “There were definitely instances where, as we were going, even certain topics that we thought would be the focus of certain episodes, we were like, ‘That doesn’t even really make sense.’ We just kind of learned as we went.”
Of course, “learning as you go” isn’t just a lesson that Grace picked up from the creative process–it’s also something she’s taken with her from the people she met, and the stories she heard, while she worked on the show.
“One of the things that I found most reassuring and most inspiring with talking to people was realizing that even someone who was way further on in their transition didn’t necessarily have it all figured out yet, and that their definition of gender and who they were–their identity–was still a work in progress, just like any other human being’s would be,” she says. “So realizing that it’s not this race where I’ve got to get to the finish line, and I will have transitioned magically. There’s a lot more of realizing that’s just life–you’re constantly changing and coming out, accepting parts of yourself, being honest with it, embracing it, and taking a proactive step to do something about it, and better your life, is just a part of living.”