Gender, performance, performativity, and the stage

As I was scrolling through facebook this morning I saw a link to an NPR story “Laura Jane Grace, Transgender Punk, On Life In Transition“, which turned out to be a beautiful conducted and written interview on the transition of Laura Jane Grace, the frontperson/singer of Almost Me!, a punk group that I had not actually heard of (academia doesn’t leave one much time for getting deep into the contemporary punk scene apparently) until this morning, but that I am very much intrigued by now.

The reason I even clicked on the link, however, was not because I am a fan (see above re: knowing nothing about current punk) but because of the tagline featured above a picture of the band, a tagline which is not a direct quote from the piece but an interesting way to frame the piece, and gender/transitioning in general:

NPR performance fb

shameless screenshot from the NPR facebook page.

“I don’t have to think,” Laura Jane Grace says of performing as a woman. “I can just be and exist.”

What the “performing as a woman” refers to is the on-stage presence of Grace. The actual question and answer from the article are as follows:

MARTIN: And performing is better for you now?

GRACE: Of course. It’s what it was when I started out, as far as being a joyful experience and what I live for. I don’t have to think; I can just be and exist.

But written the way it is on the facebook page “performing as a woman” has connotations beyond the idea of performance as a punk star. To me, at least, it referenced the idea of performing gender as described by Judith Butler:

The performance of drag plays upon the distinction between the anatomy of the performer and the gender that is being performed. But we are actually in the presence of three contingent dimensions of significant corporeality: anatomical sex, gender identity, and gender performance. If the anatomy of the performer is already distinct from the gender of the performer, and both of those are distinct from the gender of the performance, then the performance suggests a dissonance not only between sex and performance, but sex and gender, and gender and performance. (Gender Trouble 175)

I am by no means insinuating that what Grace is doing is drag—her performance on stage is not one of gender-bending, her gender is female and the anatomy is irrelevant—but that what the NPR screenshot suggests that she has found her comfort zone. Being on stage as a man was probably far more of a taxing performance in terms of the performative nature of gender, whereas having self-identified (even calling the latest album Transgender Dysphoria Blues) and begun the transition process, Grace has become her full self and is able to focus the performance on the music, rather than the image that someone plagued by dysphoria would likely feel they had to project. This is what the second half of the Butler quote above alludes to: prior to transition, Grace would have felt the distinction of sex (male) and gender (feminine) internally, as well as the disconnect of the performed gender (masculine) for the sake of the audience. Now that all line up (not that I know the extent of the physical transformation, but again, anatomy is less of a concern here*) Grace can focus on the rest of her life, and partake in the “joyful experience[s]” that can be marred by the need to be consciously aware of who your audience is and what they might be thinking.

*To those who might argue that anatomy is important to this process, I’m sure for some it might be… but our ideas about the binary nature of sex and gender and the links between the two are outdated at best and extremely harmful at worst. They are what force families into making uninformed decisions on behalf of intersexed children, and they are what keep many from leading full lives in the way in which they need. Serendipitously (because I wasn’t following but someone retweeted) I saw this on twitter just as I was sitting down to write this:


Genitals = sex, Gender = heart, mind, body, soul, love, hate…. and anything else you might feel shapes you. If the only thing that shapes you is what you see between your legs you lead a pretty small, sad existence.

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