DURHAM, N.C — As the sound of 430 people clapping in unison began to reverberate off the brick walls of the Motorco Music Hall in perfect metronome timing, Laura Jane Grace stepped out onto the stage with guitar in one hand and birth certificate in the other—a document that she would immediately set on fire.
The room erupted into a fury of cheers as Grace and her band, Against Me!, sang out their battle cry, “We’re ready for a revolution,” in protest of North Carolina’s House Bill 2, which requires transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds with the assigned gender on their birth certificate.
“The way you effect change is by empowering the grass-roots movement,” Grace told the crowd, “by empowering the people.”
Against Me!’s founder and lead singer, Grace, came out as transgender in 2012 and two years later the band’s album “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” tackled the inherent struggles of coming to terms with one’s gender identity, particularly while in the public eye. The 35-year-old Grace, a prominent figure in the punk-rock scene before her transition, has since become a champion of transgender people’s stories.
While Grace applauded Bruce Springsteen for being a vocal ally and canceling concerts in North Carolina, she told The Washington Post a few weeks ago that 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 law 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, including fans she says she refuses to let down.
“Bruce Springsteen pulling out of a concert has a noticeable financial effect,” Grace said before Sunday night’s concert. “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.”
As if cut from the same protest music that fueled artists such as Bob Dylan and John Lennon, whose song “Give Peace a Chance” became an anthem, Against Me! and the band’s fans viewed Sunday night as a show of force against modern-day oppression.
The sold-out concert came during a particularly fraught moment in the fight between North Carolina and federal authorities. Last week, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction to suspend the law until a court can make a determination on whether HB2 is lawful, claiming it violates federal civil rights law. The federal lawsuit and two suits by North Carolina officials were swiftly followed by a directive from the Obama administration that requires all schools across the country to allow trans students to use the bathrooms of their choice — or risk continued federal educational funding provided under Title IX.
While the chances of a quick resolution to the HB2 standoff seem to be rapidly deteriorating, Against Me! is using its platform to raise awareness of laws such as HB2 that alienate the transgender community.
“You know, there’s been a lot of focus on just the bathroom part of HB2, but one of the other huge parts is that it takes away a transgender person’s right to sue for discrimination on the state level and that is huge,” Grace told The Post on Sunday before her band performed. “I mean, if someone else has the right to sue for discrimination and I don’t, how that is constitutional?”
“The bathroom part of this bill is just ridiculous,” Grace said, a sentiment shared by her fans in the audience.
“I think it’s politicians stoking the fire,” said Durham resident Teresa Parkinson, a retired educator of 29 years. “This bathroom thing is a nonissue — just go to any truck stop around the country and you will see homophobic slurs and white supremacists logos on the wall.”
Mak DePetrillo, 19, of Buffalo started her 22-hour journey last Friday to see Against Me! and stand in solidarity in the protest, saying, “This is more than a show for me. Laura inspires me. She’s so outspoken and so unapologetic on who she is. I mean, the fact that she could’ve canceled her show and done all these other things, I think it’s great she’s being visible and literally standing in the face of adversity.”
James LaPorta is a freelance journalist based in Jacksonville, N.C.