Inside a Twin Cities couple’s ‘Trans-Glam-Punk-Rock Love Story’

Venus and Lynette stand next to each other, their heads touching
Lynette Reini-Grandell and Venus de Mars talked with Jill Riley about Lynette's new book, "Wild Things: A Trans-Glam-Punk-Rock Love Story."
Sara Fish for MPR

By Jill Riley | The Current

Two local artists — author Lynette Reini-Grandell and musician Venus de Mars — share their story of transitioning, resilience, and advocacy, now captured in a new memoir, “Wild Things: A Trans-Glam-Punk-Rock Love Story,” out now from Minnesota Historical Society Press.

The book not only details the long-espoused couple’s personal story and their artistic ventures, but it can provide a touchstone for transgender people and those who love them.

Reini-Grandell and de Mars visited The Current studio to talk with host Jill Riley about the new book and their life together.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation, and read a transcript below.

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Interview transcript

Jill Riley: You're listening to The Current. I'm Jill Riley and I have some special guests in the studio today as I want to talk about a brand-new book and talk about this brand-new book on this Friday morning, which is International Transgender Day of Visibility. And recently, I was looking through a catalog from the Minnesota Historical Society Press, and my eyes landed on this book, and I just needed to know more. And it's called “Wild Things: A Trans-Glam-Punk-Rock Love Story.” And I can't just talk to the author, because I thought, you know what? Somebody else's ears are really going to start burning if we're, you know, talking about her while she's not here. But two guests in the studio right now: Lynette Reini-Grandell is a writer, poet, musician, professor, but also the author of the book as this is Lynette's memoir. Also in the studio, Venus de Mars is here. You know, longtime figure in the Minneapolis music scene, also a visual artist, performer. She's been performing most notably with All The Pretty Horses, and I know Venus is working on a memoir as well. So Lynette and Venus, welcome to The Current. Thank you for being here.

Venus de Mars: Thank you.

Lynette Reini-Grandell: Thanks for the invite.

Jill Riley: Of course! So “Wild Things: A Trans-Glam-Punk-Rock Love Story,” and this book is many years, many years in the making. Lynette, When did you kind of reach this point where you thought, “You know what? I want to tell this story that involves a couple, a longtime married couple” written from your point of view. At what time did you decide, “OK, I'm gonna get this down on paper and tell this from my point of view?”

Lynette and Venus sit in front of mics in the studio wearing headphones
Lynette Reini-Grandell and Venus de Mars talked with Jill Riley about Lynette's new book, "Wild Things: A Trans-Glam-Punk-Rock Love Story."
Sara Fish for MPR

Lynette Reini-Grandell: I resisted writing this for many years. I had a couple of friends who said, you know, “You should write your story,” especially since they heard that Venus was writing a memoir. I resisted, because I'm not trans, you know, and I wasn't sure if anybody was interested in my part of the story.

Well, that all changed when Donald Trump got elected president. And suddenly, I realized that I needed to capture the moment in time, the moments — many moments in time — that Venus and I had navigated the world, while Venus was slowly trying to figure out what would be the best way to express who she was.

And she came out in the 1980s to me, and then to more and more people as you started fronting the band. And of course, that was a very different time. And it seemed as if with the new generation of young people who were finally emboldened to come out to their parents and grandparents and ask for the treatment that they needed, it seemed as if there was going to be a whole new generation of people experiencing the trans experience differently — I'll put it that way.

And so I wanted to, you know, just for them also say, “OK, here's where we came from,” because now we've got these political forces who are threatening to shut that down. So I started writing. At one point, I thought, “Wow, if things go really really badly, this is going to be sort of like a ‘Handmaid's Tale’ document of back when people had rights,” and you know, it'll be discovered 100 years from now.

Jill Riley: I'm with Lynette Reini-Grandell and also with Venus de Mars. Venus, I know you best from the band, All The Pretty Horses; more and more people have become familiar with your story and your journey over the years. And I mean, and this has been, again, a journey that has been a lifetime. And you know, having your spouse and your partner with you for such a big part of this journey, if you could just kind of talk about your journey in transitioning, and, you know, really kind of discovering your identity.

Venus de Mars: I was in a closet for a long time, because that's the way it was; very dangerous to come out back in that day. And so I kind of knew something was going on, but I was just avoiding everything, avoiding relationships, avoiding everything. I eventually became very suicidal. After I thought everything was solved when Lynette and I got married and everything was great and new, and I felt like all of that was behind me.

But as we all know, those things don't — you don't outgrow, and I realized I had to face who I was, and I came out, and it was at a point, pinnacle point, when I was suicidal. And then from there, it was just a long, long, winding, difficult, rocky road trying to figure out how to be myself. In the early days, I used art. I became a performance artist, visual artist, painter, installation artist, and I found some validation through that.

The stage, however, gave me the most validation, which I think is what we all want, a daily validation of who we are. When I formed the band and that was — this year is our 30-year anniversary of my band — then it just kind of exploded. I could be myself on the rock and roll stage. And I pushed it in a powerful way because the trope of a trans woman back then — we didn't even use that term; we used “crossdresser” — the trope of that was that I would be submissive, and I wanted nothing to do with that.

And I wanted to prove I was 24/7 because by the time I got into the band, I had already gotten onto hormones and was developing my breasts. And I didn't want people to think that I was just putting on a shtick for attention. So I chose the whole fetish dom look, which gave me power and strength and allowed me to prove that I was 24/7 who I was.

All I got was resistance from the industry. But the audience, I got the audience, and it became everything for me; it became my identity. It was the only thing that kept me alive, frankly, because there was nothing else. There was no community. There was no trans flag. In the early days, it wasn't even a Pride flag. But that became an issue between Lynette and I because I put everything into the band. 

Venus stands sideways, with her head leaning down toward her shoulder
Lynette Reini-Grandell and Venus de Mars talked with Jill Riley about Lynette's new book, "Wild Things: A Trans-Glam-Punk-Rock Love Story."
Sara Fish for MPR

Lynette Reini-Grandell: It's hard to compete with the adulation of hundreds and hundreds of screaming fans and people lining up to talk to you afterwards.

Jill Riley: A few years into your marriage before Venus came out to you, Lynette, and I would love to say that it was “And then we lived happily ever after.” That is absolutely not how the story goes! Because when someone is discovering identity and thinking about you know, who am I? Where do I fit on a spectrum?

Venus de Mars: I didn't even see trans people when I first came out. Anywhere!

Jill Riley: Yeah, and Lynette, I imagine that you didn't exactly have a guidebook or there wasn't, there wasn't some group that you could look toward, or someone that you knew even “Oh, you went through this too? What was it like?” So what was that experience like for you in the very beginning? 

Lynette Reini-Grandell: Well, I have to say that once, and it was really our second time through therapy that one of the therapists was able to help Venus understand that she was somewhere on the trans continuum, and we were lucky enough to get contact information for a group called the City of Lakes Cross Dressing Community now then they changed their name to Cross Gender Community. I don't think they're around anymore. We just reconnected with some of the people from back then—

Venus de Mars: Amazingly!

Lynette Reini-Grandell: ... and so it was typically male-to-female cross dressers — we'll use that term, though that was an umbrella term for anybody on the gender spectrum at that time — and usually they were with with their wives or girlfriends, and we were all trying to stay together. So that was very helpful in terms of being supportive.

Jill Riley: So I'm with Lynette Reini-Grandell and with Venus de Mars, the book is out. It's called “Wild Things: A Trans-Glam-Punk-Rock Love Story.” And you know, Lynette, the way that you write the book, that you structure the book, you know, we kind of start at the beginning: You're both from Duluth; I mean, you you've known each other since you were kids, you know? The way that you structure the book, it's almost as if, you know, we're getting in a time machine and going back in time, because you talk about terminology that didn't exist, and you don't, you don't use it. when you're writing the stories the timeline goes along.

Lynette Reini-Grandell: Yeah, I wanted to preserve the experience of what it felt like then. Though I did have to, you know, write a lot of explanation, sort of easing into that, because we have very different terminology now. And I want to honor the fact that we have different terminology, and people are offended if you use the old terminology, you know? We have that with so many different kinds of groups; that's just the way the trend goes. So I wanted to have a record of that, but also an explanation of when it changed and why it changed, including when I started calling Venus Venus, which was actually pretty late in the game.

Venus de Mars, Lynette Reini-Grandell
Venus de Mars and her wife Lynette Reini-Grandell in their Minneapolis home, circa 1998.
Photo by Wing Young Huie

Jill Riley: Lynette, I wonder if you could open to a part of the book that you'd like to share.

Lynette Reini-Grandell: OK, so this is 1998, New York City:

“Would I have chosen to get married if I'd known the difficult path ahead? I don't know. What I do know is that from the very beginning, when I chose a life of art shared with a kindred soul. When the trouble started, and my partner's evolving identity was only part of the trouble, art was often what beckoned me back to our relationship, feeding my hunger for something bigger than myself, something bigger than both of us. I searched for places where we could both be our authentic selves, places that rescued us like an ark in floodwaters, places that welcomed a pair of misfits who loved each other. One of those spots turned out to be a hotel in New York City. We arrived amid a summer chorus of jackhammers” — and I'm using Venus's old name, Steve, here — “Steve and I, with three other band members, Jendeen, Leanne and Tiffany, who sang backup vocals and added theatrics to the show, paused on a busy sidewalk off Third Avenue guarding a pile of amps, guitars and suitcases, hoping the cabs had dropped us in the right place. Initially, it didn't look like they had. Construction scaffolding and a plywood fence jetted out onto the sidewalk where the hotel should have been. But then I realized someone had painted the four-by-eight sections of the fence with the hotel's name in large cartoonish figures; one depicted a man with an outsized head wearing some kind of green uniform, a cap and a bow tie. A doorman? Next to it was a familiar green H, inside a forbidding square and backslash 'no' symbol — a 'not the Holiday Inn' warning. Well, the guidebook hadn't pitched it as a standard hotel.”

And I'll just mention that, that a few years ago, when we were back in New York City doing some research for the book, we talked to one of the managers and he said, "Oh, yeah, Banksy did that."

Jill Riley: Oh, really? That's pretty incredible! An excerpt there from “Wild Things: A Trans-Glam-Punk-Rock Love Story.” And I know that you are both working on memoirs at the same time. What has it been like for you, just as a unit, to revisit?

Lynette Reini-Grandell: Yeah, we had to go through therapy.

Jill Riley: I imagine! 

Venus de Mars: So, you know, when you're in a relationship, and you just skin-of-your-teeth get through this horrible argument, and everything calms down, and you forget about it, and you just put it back there. And then you move on with life? Well, for us, a decade later, in order to make sure we're writing about things accurately, we had to open up that door and confess and untangle and basically dissect it all out again, and we had to get through that. And we did that over and over and over.

Lynette Reini-Grandell: Yeah, we had to verify a lot of things back and forth. And we discovered that we were both misremembering things. And then we had to look back at what we could verify. And it was grueling. I'll put it that way. But we came out on the other side of it a lot stronger.

Venus de Mars: I think so! I think it helped our relationship.

Jill Riley: Now that you're at this point in the year 2023, and sharing this story, what does it feel like to be that couple that someone can read this book and go, “There is a guidepost out there,” and everybody's story is individual, but that there's someone who has at least tried their best. 

Lynette sits wearing all black looking sideways and smiling
Lynette Reini-Grandell and Venus de Mars talked with Jill Riley about Lynette's new book, "Wild Things: A Trans-Glam-Punk-Rock Love Story."
Sara Fish for MPR

Lynette Reini-Grandell: I'm hoping that the book is helpful for people. I mean, to some extent, I saw it as sort of a self-help book, you know? A lot of the problems between us turned out not necessarily to be gender related.

Jill Riley: Well, I found myself relating to plenty of the stories in here.

Lynette Reini-Grandell: So there's that, there's that. But also, you know, you mentioned 2023, and we're looking at the political turmoil and the bills being passed in various states across the country, both limiting women's rights and also trans rights. And it is heartbreaking to watch.

Venus de Mars: I think the fact that we made such incredible — and I will say progress — I did not think I would live to see.

Lynette Reini-Grandell: And then of course the political winds have changed for a lot of those states.

Venus de Mars: The pushback is horrific. It's horrific. They don't even understand how damaging it is for kids to have this possibility to be who they are. I mean, there's one of the bills in Tennessee, and on July 1, if you are not 18, you are forced to de-transition. That is horrific.

Jill Riley: Venus, I wonder if you could just tell us about a moment, you know, again, for families that are listening this morning, especially on a day like today, International Transgender Day of Visibility, if you could talk about a time where you connected with a family, or connected with a young person, who, you know, came to a show and just said, “I'm here and I have someone to look up to,” and how did that feel for you?

Venus de Mars: In 2014, I toured with Laura Jane Grace, and I'm still doing what I did way back in the day with my corset, my pasties, you know, all of that. And so these kids, young trans kids, most of them, were there with their parents. And their parents would, like, have their kid pose with me, and we'd get photographs, and this blew my mind! I spent decades trying to stay clear of being seen as any kind of threat, and fearful of repercussion. If I had that when I was growing up, if I had someone, I would have avoided all of the struggle, all of the damage, all of the emotional terror I went through as I grew up and tried to untangle who I was.

My voice is male; it sounds male. I don't like that. I have a love-hate with my voice. I'm misgendered constantly if people don't see me; that takes a toll, but I get through it. If I had had access to hormone blockers, that wouldn't be the case. This is so important. This option is so important. If we can get back on track and move forward, I am from a generation who may be disappearing because I have to go through surgeries and all kinds of things to back up what puberty that I did not want did to my body.

Wild Things: A Trans-Glam-Punk-Rock Love Story book cover
'Wild Things: A Trans-Glam-Punk-Rock Love Story' by Lynette Reini-Grandell.
Minnesota Historical Society Press

Jill Riley: Like you said, we've come a long way. But how far back are we going to go? International Transgender Day of Visibility is today. We're talking about the book, “Wild Things: A Trans-Glam-Punk-Rock Love Story,” two incredible people in the studio with me right now: Lynette Reini-Grandell, writer, poet, musician, professor; “Wild Things,” this is Lynette's memoir. Venus de Mars, artist, visual artist, and musician, and probably best known around these parts for All The Pretty Horses, sharing your story through this book, a partnership and a marriage almost 40 years. I did want to go out with some music from David Bowie because Venus whenever I see or hear your name, I think of the event that Mary Lucia used to put on, the David Bowie tribute, and I just remember after the intermission, you coming out with the band — and Lynette, you were there as well — the performance of “Heroes.” You know, if you could just talk about performing that together on stage.

Lynette Reini-Grandell: Well, Venus asked me to play violin on it. It was really wonderful. I mean, being able to look at her across the bank of a couple of microphones onstage.

Venus de Mars: For this particular one, I wanted to highlight exactly what you said: It was our relationship that pulled me into that song and why I chose it. And so I structured the presentation of it as just me first, and then Lynette joined me, and then slowly the rest of the band started coming out and adding on until we were able to move into the final part, full-on band, full-on sound, and full-on emotion. That, for me, was an incredible experience, to look over and see my spouse of so many years joining us onstage, and that particular song is all about survival.

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