It's been a historic week for equality in the United States for reasons good and bad, surprising
and predictable, bold and hesitant.
On Tuesday, voters in North Carolina did what we all sadly assumed they would, proving they
are oblivious to history's lessons. It may be disappointing but it shouldn't be surprising that
a state that banned interracial marriage until 1977 would, in 2012, approved a constitutional
amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama was forced to admit the beliefs we assume he held
all along. He became the first sitting American president to affirm his support for same-sex
marriage. It doesn't change anything legally and he made the announcement only after his own
vice president made it practically impossible to remain on the fence. Still, it's an historic step.
But wedged between these opposing news items, tucked into a corner of the pop culture
universe, a punk singer became a historic figure.
It was a gesture of immense bravery that went largely unnoticed outside of the music and LBGT
communities: late Tuesday night in a story posted on Rolling Stone magazine's website, Tom
Gabel, lead singer of popular punk band Against Me!, revealed he has gender dysphoria. He
announced he will change his name and begin living as a woman. Soon after, Gabel will begin
the process of changing his biological sex from male to female.
Gabel, soon to be Laura Jane Grace, is not the first musician to publically reveal his
transgendered self. That honour, according to Alan Cross, goes to late-'70s actress/singer
Jayne County, born Wayne Rogers. Others include former Jethro Tull keyboardist Dee Palmer
(formerly David Palmer) and Lucas Silveira, founder of Toronto band The Cliks. Gabel,
however, is easily the most prominent public figure to make this revelation (once we remember
that Chaz Bono was relatively obscure until news broke of his transgenderism).
Against Me! are not a little-known band. Each of their five albums has been critically acclaimed.
Spin magazine named their "New Wave" the best album of 2007. They've toured with the Foo
Fighters. Rolling Stone named them "Best Punk Band" in 2008. Against Me! is one of the
most successful touring bands in their genre in the past 10 years.
Gabel's success as a singer and songwriter combined with his announcement can and should
make him historically significant. Gabel can enlighten us about a condition that remains
misunderstood by most people. Transgenderism is still a taboo subject, certainly in comparison
According to a 2011 study by The Williams Institute of the UCLA School of Law, transgendered people make up about 0.3 per cent of the adult population in the U.S., compared to about 3.5 per cent who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Despite their numbers, they too often lead lives of isolation, undeserved shame, suffering, and persecution. A stunning 41 per cent of transgendered people have attempted suicide, according to a 2010 survey by National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
This situation is clearly unacceptable. Transgendered people need reassurance that they are
able to lead happy, fulfilled, and successful lives alongside the rest of society. That reassurance
comes only when a well-known figure stands up and says, "I am one of you and I am not ashamed of it." The role Gabel has volunteered for is not without risk. Before there was Harvey Milk there was Williams Haines -- a silent film star whose career was cut short when he refused to deny his homosexuality.
It would be naïve to think Gabel will be remembered as cultural icon on par with Jackie Robinson and Harvey Milk, if for no other reason than the comparatively minute portion of the population that is transgendered. Regardless, Gabel deserves our praise. He could have retired from music and gone through his journey in secret. Or worse, he could have taken his secret to the grave as so many before him undoubtedly have. Instead, he is in the front rank in the battle for equality.
Whether it makes a difference -- or even whether it is remembered - depends on us. So far, the reaction to his announcement has been overwhelmingly positive. But it will be a long journey and we won't know how it ends until Gabel steps on stage as Laura Jane Grace.
Follow Michael Raine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mpraine.