Man enough to be a woman and still rock'n'rolling

Following the news about punk singer Tom Gabel, Matilda Battersby hears about the pressures faced by musicians who dare to cross the gender divide

It has been all over the newspapers that Against Me! singer Tom Gabel has decided to live as a woman. The Mail Online's headline shrieked: “Punk rocker says he is having a sex change operation to become a woman... but he's STAYING with his wife.” Another read: “Drugs, Sex(uality) and Rock'n'Roll”.

It was quite a surprise that the frontman of a rather macho band (all black jeans, tattoos and growling guitars) should have felt this way. During an interview with Rolling Stone magazine she described plans to take hormones and undergo gender reassignment surgery, after which he will be named Laura Jane Grace. “I'm going to have embarrassing moments,” she said. “But [I'm] hoping people will understand, and hoping they'll be fairly kind.”

The news reports have not all been “fairly kind” and a couple were not very understanding at all, revealing thinly disguised ignorance about transgenderism. Several made inferences about Gabel's sexuality and the implications for his marriage, confusing Gabel's gender dysphoria (where you feel trapped in a body of the wrong sex) with questions about whether being a woman and having a wife makes her gay. Most strikingly, several of the reports lauded Gabel as “the first major rock star” to come out as transgender. While it is undoubtedly the case that in 2012 transgenderism is still a taboo, the statement that it has taken this long for a major musician to “come out” as trans simply isn't true.

Fans of Jayne County will already know this. Born Wayne Rogers in 1947, County began performing as Jayne in 1979. With a signature track titled “Man Enough to Be a Woman”, County is acknowledged as one of the earliest, probably the first, transgender rock star. Despite never quite achieving the commercial success of some of her peers, the American was a big part of the English punk scene, forming Wayne County & the Electric Chairs in 1977. David Bowie, Patti Smith and Lou Read have credited her with influencing them.

There are more recent examples of high-profile musicians who have changed gender: Mina Caputo, formerly Keith Caputo, singer of heavy metal band Life Of Agony, confirmed last year that she was transitioning. German pop singer Kim Petras is probably the world's youngest transgender musician (and one of the youngest post-operative trans people, full stop), after having sex reassignment surgery in 2009 aged 16. Jethro Tull keyboardist Dee Palmer (formerly David) transitioned at the aged of 67, long after he'd left the band.

The word “transgender” doesn't refer to people who have had sex changes. It is an umbrella term used to describe those who identify with a gender which isn't the one they were born with, or with no particular gender at all, regardless of whether they have sex reassignment surgery or take hormones.

Another famous muso, Antony Hegarty of the Mercury Prize-winning band Antony and the Johnsons, was born male, but is transitioned. “Do I feel female? You know, I feel like a mixture. I feel pretty mixed. I probably would identify as transgender,” he told NME. Similarly, Genesis P-Orridge of 1970s band Throbbing Gristle, sees himself as “pandrogynous”.

It's not only rock and punk that have a healthy number of trans representatives. Jazz bassist John Leitham became Jennifer Leitham in 2001. Dana International, who won the 1998 Eurovision song contest for Israel, released her debut album soon after having sex reassignment surgery in 1993.

Regardless of whether Gabel is the first rock star to admit to being transgender, he is still brave to go public. The paradox of the music industry is that, despite nurturing talent and putting musicians with unusual or distinct sounds in the spotlight, there is still a perception that artists need to be squeaky clean and conventional if they're to sell. Record labels have been known to advise against lifestyle choices that are celebrated and accepted in wider society, such as being gay, for fear that fans will no longer fancy their pop stars or believe that one day they can marry them – and that this will dent sales. Their attitude may be repugnant, but you can understand it from a business point of view.

Of all the companies I called, only one would speak to me on the record. That was Brighton-based Fat Cat Records, whose founder, Dave Cawley, spoke very supportively of trans artists but agreed he wouldn't be surprised if pressure was applied at the corporate end of the industry not to come out.

Several people I spoke to off the record made it clear that the mainstream music scene is not a happy place to be transgender. One industry executive, who did not want to be named, said: “Trans musicians are treated in much the same way as gay artists. The straight men who run the music business aren't ever particularly comfortable knowing how to work them and there is pressure not to come out.”

I contacted seven transgender musicians for comment, receiving polite refusals from Gabel, Dee Palmer and Justin Vivian Bond, and silence from three others.

Our Lady J, a gospel singer who has a growing following and counts Daniel Radcliffe among her fans, launched her musical career after transitioning from male to female. She told me: “There is a responsibility to educate that comes with being trans if you have any hope of surviving. I think this often keeps people from transitioning. There are huge risks, both professionally and personally.”

Joan King, chair of The Gender Trust, has worked as an artist manager in the music industry for two decades. “There is pressure not to come out as transgender in the music industry,” she said. “But I don't think this is any different from boy bands being told not disclose that they have girlfriends and wives.”