Gainesville artist Laura Jane Grace given key to the city amid punk rock festival
Laura Jane Grace arrived in Gainesville in 1997 to make music and create a life for herself.
In the process, she formed a punk group considered iconic by fans, took part in initiatives to support her community and became one of the first visible transgender figures in popular culture.
More than 25 years later, Grace returned to Gainesville from Chicago to accept the key to the city Friday — now recognized as Laura Jane Grace Day in the City of Gainesville.
“As it turns out, you do not need to be enrolled in UF or Santa Fe to receive a world-class education in Gainesville,” she said.
Grace was the founder and lead singer for punk rock band “Against Me!”. The band began in Gainesville when Grace was 18, performing with acoustic guitars and buckets for drums in public spaces and small venues across the city.
“I found a community of activists and artists and total freaks and weirdos that I wanted to belong to,” Grace said.
Grace’s marriage of music and activism went beyond her records. She also became involved with many community initiatives, most notably nonprofit socialist group Food Not Bombs and Gainesville’s local Civic Media Center.
Her experiences with these groups taught her about community and accomplishing things together, she said.
“I learned the true meaning of DIY and activism… DIY does not mean do it yourself,” she said. “It means it will be better if we do it together.”
As her band grew in popularity, Grace left Gainesville and began playing shows across the country.
But that was far from the end of her time as an activist or a visible figure for communities in need of support.
In 2012, Grace announced in an interview with Rolling Stone that she identified as a transgender woman and would be beginning the process of transitioning.
She was one of the first publicly visible transgender people in popular culture.
“I knew from a really young age that there was something different about me that I didn't quite understand,” she said. “And this was a thing I was afraid for anyone to find out about.”
With her transition, Grace grew from a musician and activist to one of the faces of a conversation about transgender issues that has sparked over the last decade, including those in Gainesville.
“One of my biggest fears was being rejected by this community,” she said. “I have now learned just how misplaced my fears were.”
City Commissioner Bryan Eastman presented Grace with the award and revered her for her work as a musician and activist. He said that the city had “practically retired” giving keys after presenting the award to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 2006.
“His music is, for a generation, synonymous with the city,” he said. “But for my generation… Gainesville is the city of Hot Water Music, Less Than Jake and above all the city of Against Me!”
Eastman also recognized what Grace has done for the transgender community. He said coming out was much different in 2012 because of the lack of transgender figures in popular culture.
“I remember it hit the punk rock world like a bomb shell,” he said. “For many of us, the people I knew, it was the first time we really reckoned with what it meant to be transgender.”
Hundreds of fans and festival goers for FEST 21, Gainesville’s annual punk rock music festival, gathered in the City Hall plaza for the ceremony.
Gabby Repic, 31, traveled to Gainesville from Pennsylvania for FEST 21 and to see Grace’s ceremony. She said she had been a fan of Grace and Against Me! since she was 15 years old.
“I mean, there's just something so like raw and relatable about their music that when you feel out of place, and you find something that feels like home, you stick with it,” she said.
Repic said that Grace’s work in activism has kept her a fan throughout the years.
“It’s about having somebody with a louder voice than us who has the same feelings,” she said.
Grace’s work also resonates with a newer audience. Carly Gillam, a 20-year-old Gainesville resident, said she discovered the city’s punk rock scene through Grace’s music.
“I’m just inspired by her,” Gillam said.
Grace continues to spread her message as a solo artist. She released her first solo record in 2018 and has continued to release her own songs since Against Me! went on hiatus in 2020.
No matter where her music and activism takes her, the city made it clear she’ll always have a home in Gainesville.
“I know for certain what a really special place Gainesville is and I know that you all realize that too,” she said.
“When I came to Gainesville, with a dream of playing music, I had no idea how to actualize that dream,” she said. “And if it were not for the community here, I don't think I would have ever been able to connect those dots.”