Photo by Susan Indest.
When we think about the glory days of rock ’n’ roll, we think of a sexist boys club that only let in guys who abused groupies and hung out with dudes. Despite this, in the 1980s, female-to-male transgender musician Lenny Zenith and his punk-pop band RZA opened for U2, Iggy Pop, and other legends in New Orleans. Although Lenny is pretty sure Iggy knew he was trans and simply didn't give a shit, Lenny kept his gender idenity a secret, because it was extremly dangerous to be openly trans. These days, Lenny lives in New York, where he works as an LGBT advocate and plays in a new band, the Tenterhooks, while writing his memoir, Before I Was Me. Recently, I caught up with Lenny at a dive bar to hear his tales about growing up trans with a missionary father and a Cuban mother in an era “before seven-year-olds were on Oprah saying they were transgendered.”
VICE: How did you get into music?
Lenny Zenith: I was born in New Orleans, and both my parents are musicians. My Dad is a violinist, and my mom is a singer. They met in Cuba. My dad was a Methodist missionary and met my mom there. She sang on a Salvation Army radio show. He's 30 years older than her—it's kind of weird growing up with a dad who could have been your grandfather—so he brought her back to the United States, and they moved to New Orleans because she didn't want to live anywhere that's cold. He had a church there, and she sang in church, so I was surrounded by music.
At what age did you know you were male?
When I was about four or five, I started having some questions about who I was. I remember sitting under my mom's grand piano and hearing the chords drifting over my head and thinking, There is something strange or different going on here, but I didn't have words for it. In the first grade, I lined up in the wrong line [the line for boys], and they said, “No, you go over here.” Around when I was 11 or 12, my mom, who is Cuban (Latinos often have very strict gender stereotypes), said she didn't like the way I liked to dress. “Why do you have to walk that way, Lenny? Why do you have to dress like that?” she would say.
Did your parents make any attempts to address what you were going through?
When I was around 12 years old, they took me to a pediatric psychiatrist and an endocrinologist at Tulane University to see why I had these strong feelings about being a boy. The doctors said, “We don't find anything abnormal.” I had been called Lenny since I was very young. I had a cousin in Cuba whose name was Leonard, and when I was very young, my grandmother commented, “Oh, she looks like Lenny.” That was kind of fortuitous, like serendipitous.
My parents were kind of freaking out. I won't say exactly how long ago it was, but it was pre-80s. Thank god I had my two great doctors at Tulane, who basically said, “We think we know what is going on here. Lenny has decided what Lenny is going to do, and you guys can either deal with it or do what you're going to do.” And the endocrinologist said to me, “Come back when you're 18, and we'll see if we can help you.” And that's what I did. When I turned 18, I went back to Tulane and started hormone therapy.
Before you turned 18, did you live as a male?
My parents ended up splitting up when I was about 13. I went with my dad, and my sisters went with my mom. And when my dad and I moved to Glendale, California, I enrolled in eighth grade as a boy. My dad dropped me off and said, “Go in and get your paperwork,” and I just looked really androgynous even then, so I went to school that whole year as a boy. It was awesome—got into skateboarding, and I played in the talent show, but I had to fake stomach pains to get out of gym class, and I had to sneak out of class to go to the boys room because I didn't want to go when everybody else was going.
How was that for you emotionally?
It was stressful. I didn't know exactly what I was doing. I just knew I had to do it, because I felt these strong feelings for such a long time. I felt anxious and scared constantly. But all the boys had long hair, and all the girls had short hair, so I didn't stand out a lot. Then I came back to New Orleans and went to high school as a boy as well.
Was your secret ever revealed?
It was during my senior year. A friend of mine kind of outed me. I confided in her and said, “I have something to tell you. I wasn't really born a boy, and I go to school as a boy, but I was born a girl.” Well she told her dad, who told the principal, who called my dad, who was like, “Lenny, what have you been doing?” He came around and said, “Well, as long as you're not hurting anybody.” He was really cool. My mom had a harder time dealing with it. The high school basically said, “Don't come back. We'll send you your diploma in the mail, but no prom and no graduation.” I had been fortunate because I was in school with all these musicians, who taught me about practicing, diligence, and appreciation for music. That's when I decided to become a rock ’n’ roller.
Shortly after graduating, you started your former band RZA, which had success in New Orleans. How did you end up in New York?
An ex-girlfriend was moving to New York, and I thought, Fuck it. I'm coming too. So I ended up here working in the music business as a secretary for EMI Music Publishing. Nobody knew my past, and nobody knew I was transgendered, because when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, I was still stealth, which in the trans community means you're not really totally out. It was dangerous; I had people threaten to rape me in the 80s when they found out. Even today, there's a transgendered person murdered every three days. 41 percent of trans people have tried to commit suicide. Trans people have been so misunderstood. I wish I could have been more out and more vocal back then, but I was scared—there wasn't as much of a community as there is now, and I didn't have the same legal protections as I do now. At the time, just my close friends and my girlfriends knew.
The Tenterhooks play at Hank's Saloon in Brooklyn on February 8.