Laura Jane Grace, champion of transgender voices in punk rock, will protest N.C.’s bill by performing there

As backlash continues against North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” some musicians are canceling their N.C. shows in protest while a growing group of artists – including a trans lead singer – says their shows will go on. 

In “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” the punk band Against Me! sings: “Your tells are so obvious/ Shoulders too broad for a girl/ Keeps you reminded/ Helps you remember where/ You come from.”

The song, a track in their 2014 album of the same name, traces the vulnerabilities of a transgender woman who yearns to freely live her gender identity, but is instead confronted time and again by society’s expectations and misconceptions.

“You want them to see you/ Like they see every other girl….They hold their breath not to catch the sick.”

Two years after Against Me!’s founder and lead singer, Laura Jane Grace,came out as transgender, the band’s album tackled the inherent struggles of coming to terms with one’s gender identity, particularly while in the public eye. The 35-year-old Grace, long a prominent figure in the punk rock scene, has since become a champion of transgender people’s stories.

So in the aftermath of North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory’s decision to sign into law a bill, HB 2, that requires transgender people to use bathrooms that correspond only with the gender on their birth certificates, Grace’s fans were naturally curious about how she would respond. Would the band play its scheduled concert in May?

In a phone interview with The Washington Post Wednesday night, Grace explained her thinking:

The band will play in North Carolina. And in doing so, they will protest.

“What something like HB 2 does is it makes trans people fearful, and when you’re being made a target, the natural inclination is to go into hiding,” Grace said. “That’s why going there now and being visible is all the more important.”

Against Me! is slated to perform in Durham, N.C., on May 15. Last week, Bruce Springsteen cancelled a scheduled performance in Greensboro, N.C. On Wednesday, Ringo Starr announced that he was likewise pulling out of an upcoming concert in Cary, N.C.

But Grace, whose public coming-out in Rolling Stone has helped to shape and reshape punk rock’s relationship to gender identity in recent years, is choosing not to follow suit.

This question of whether or not to boycott North Carolina is being debated at the core of the music industry as well as its peripheries. On the same day that Starr revealed his intention to skip North Carolina, Cyndi Lauper announced that she will be turning her Raleigh concert into a benefit event, with profits going towards Equality North Carolina, a nonprofit working to have HB2 — the “bathroom bill” — repealed.

Meanwhile, lesser-known artists must additionally contend with the financial challenges of losing the profits from a planned show. Springsteen can afford to lose a couple million, if not several, but the circumstances are decidedly different for bands without the same name recognition.

While Grace applauded Springsteen for being a vocal ally, she said the choice is different for trans people. After all, when Grace travels to North Carolina for future shows, she will have to contend with the bathroom regulations herself, and deal with “the lingering thought of being clocked or called out.”

In that way, Grace said, she shares in the struggle of the transgender individuals living in the state, some of whom are fans she refuses to let down.

“Bruce Springsteen pulling out of a concert has a noticeable financial effect,” Grace said. “That’s lost revenue for the city. No one will notice that much if I cancel the show; it only hurts the fans and the people who have already bought tickets, and the people who could possibly be educated in a situation like that.”

Because some of the concertgoers may not be familiar with the realities that trans people face, Grace said the performance is also an opportunity to spread awareness.

The band has extended an open invitation for volunteers to become involved with the show. It will also be donating all proceeds to Time Out Youth, a Charlotte-based organization serving LGBTQ youth.

This act brings the band closer to the people who will really be affected by the bill — the transgender people of North Carolina, she said.

“Transgender residents can’t boycott their own state,” Grace said. “They still have to go to the store, go outside, they don’t have that option.” Going forward with the concert recognizes that life must go on for these individuals while others are avoiding their state.

A campaign called “North Carolina Needs You” is encouraging musicians to follow Grace’s tack. Instead of cancelling shows, the group’s website urges, artists should be scheduling additional ones to support the nonprofits fighting against the bathroom bill

Here’s how to help: Don’t cancel your show because of the bigoted policies of a few wrongheaded lawmakers and our governor. Instead, play the shows. Use the stage as a platform to make a statement. And donate any — or, better yet, all — profits to a coalition of nonprofits, lobbying groups, and grassroots organizations doing on-the-ground work to take North Carolina back. (We understand that times are tight for bands, so no pressure here.)

This strategy already seems to be catching on. In the lead-up to their show in Charlotte on Thursday, British rock band Mumford & Sons posted astatement to their Facebook group announcing that a portion of their profits will be donated to a local LGBTQ organization.

As for Grace, she iterated that “[the law’s] not going to stop me from touring through North Carolina every year. It’s a really beautiful state.”

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