Music for a transgender journey
In the contemporary American dialogue about sexual expression, there are increasing numbers of individuals talking about the transgender experience. Christians with friends or relatives struggling with their gender identity, or who simply want to listen with compassion, have an excellent resource for understanding in the music of punk band Against Me! Released in early 2014, their album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, takes the listener into the murky waters of lead singer Laura Grace’s journey with gender dysphoria, as she attempts to articulate her painful struggles with honesty and punk rock swagger. Musically, the album is a solid example of modern punk, scorching through ten songs in just under half an hour. The guitars and driving percussion are matched by Grace’s strong vocal presentation, and the album sonically is a force to be reckoned with.
However, what makes the album particularly worth the attention of Christians is the combination of the powerful music with the personal reflection in the lyrics. As the first album since Laura Grace has come out as “trans,” it is full of raw energy and emotions as she attempts to give language to her experience. Laura expresses deep loneliness and isolation—from self and from community—and demonstrates a longing for wholeness between the self and the body. At the same time, even while expressing this deep pain, Laura shows a heartfelt desire to be true to oneself, and so the “in your face” genre of punk rock is utilized powerfully in her struggle for personal authenticity.
This struggle—seeking to be true to the longings of the self and the resulting experience of isolation—is shouted from the very first song. Grace opens with these words:
Your tells are so obvious
Shoulders too broad for a girl
Keeps you reminded
Helps you to remember where
You come from
You want them to notice
The ragged ends of your summer dress
You want them to see you
Like they see any other girl
They just see a faggot
They hold their breath not to catch the sick
Rough surf on the coast,
Wish I could have spent the whole day alone
(from “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”)
Throughout the album, Grace expresses the feeling that living the transgender life is the only valid expression of her true self, the only way to break the dissonance between the self and the body. At the same time, the attempt to bring the body and the self into alignment through gender reassignment alienates her further from society—both mainstream culture and the immediate family.
Chipped nail polish and a barbed-wire dress
Is your mother proud of your eyelashes?
Silicone chest and collagen lips
How would you even recognize me?
In the midst of the isolation is a sense of inevitability. There is no other option for Grace than the one she has chosen; this inevitability is coupled with rejection for attempts to convince her otherwise.
Even if your love was unconditional,
It still wouldn’t be enough to save me
(from “Unconditional Love”)
Does god bless your transsexual heart?
(from “True Trans Soul Rebel”)
With her sense of societal isolation, internal confusion, and inevitability, Grace seems to take comfort in the certainty of death; the album is woven through with reflections on the fleeting nature of life.
All the things that I have yet to lose
Will someday be gone too,
Back into annihilation
All things will fade,
Maybe it’s better off that way
I wish you’d stay with me
All the young graves filled
Don’t the best all burn out
So bright and so fast?
Full body high
I’m never coming down
Black me out
(“Black Me Out”)
Reflecting on these lyrics, we see something both deeply true and deeply broken. For the Church to build genuine and redemptive relationships with family, friends, and neighbors who struggle with the transgender experience, we must discuss the issues of the body and self-identity through the biblical categories of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. While more work needs to be done for a full-scale theological engagement with the issues of gender dysphoria, this album offers opportunities to begin the conversation.
Laura Grace’s story of sexual brokenness underscores a thoroughly biblical reality: sexuality is deeply and mysteriously intertwined with identity and biology, and in a world that functioned the way it was created to be, these would line up and work in accord with each other and God’s design. The desire for body and self to be aligned is rooted in Eden. Likewise, in the fall we see this initial union torn apart. What transgendered persons experience is a particular, and particularly painful, symptom of what all human beings experience—the split of the body and the self that is a result of the fall. We all weep at our inability to bring our bodies into alignment with our sense of self, whether in struggles with body image, sickness, or simply old age, and we all long for restoration.
The robust biblical story of unity between body, self, and sexuality speaks to the postmodern pragmatism of American sexuality, which says that the pursuit of personal authenticity trumps any sort of physical normativity. As well, the biblical story corrects many Christians who underplay the significance of the body; Christianity that preaches ‘you are a soul, not a body,’ can unwittingly undermine the quest for biblical sexual authenticity by exalting the desires of the self above the reality of the body.
Instead, the biblical narrative gives full expression to the desire to have alignment between the sense of self and the body. By affirming the “createdness” of the body/self union and by acknowledging the depths of the fall, we can lament the deep pain occurring when the two are in disjunction. Likewise, we can speak to this pain with the hope of redemption—brokenness finds healing in Christ. Yet, since in this life healing may be only partial, there is to be a community for the broken—the Church—where the weary come to find rest and support in time of need. Finally, there is the certainty of ultimate and eternal restoration; death will not have the last word.
These truths are particularly important for the transgender community, which has the highest rates of suicide of any of the LGBT groups (one study estimates that 41% these individuals are at risk of attempting suicide). Therefore, it is especially important for the Church to develop meaningful relationships with friends, family, or neighbors who identify as trans. Transgender Dysphoria Blues offers profound insight into the experiences of this community. While certainly a raw album lyrically, Laura Grace’s story gives many starting points for redemptive conversations. Those who are interested in sampling the album will find the tracks “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” “FUCKMYLIFE666,” and “Paralytic States” particularly insightful for these conversations. By compassionately engaging their stories, Christians can extend grace and hope to those who experience such pain, isolation, and confusion in their sexual identity.
Copyright © 2014 Billy Boyce
SourceEditor’s note: For those wanting to grow in being biblically discerning concerning the issues surrounding the transgender experience we recommend the blog Spiritual Friendship: Musings on God, Sexuality, Relationships (www.spiritualfriendship.org).
Music recommended: Transgender Dysphoria Blues by Against Me! (2014).