Lenny Zenith Talks Transphobia in the Music Industry & New Album 'What If the Sun'
It would be easy to call Lenny Zenith’s new album What If the Sun a debut, since it is techincally the singer’s first album under his own name. But Zenith has been participating in the music industry for decades as a member of multiple indie pop-rock bands, including Jenifer Convertible, Minor Planets and Tenterhooks.
But with What If the Sun, Zenith is finally taking his music into his own hands. The singer tells Billboard that for years he didn’t feel safe publicizing himself because of his transgender identity. But now, he’s ready to let the world know exactly who he is. “I want my voice to be heard, and I want to be able to support working with other transgender people and artists," he says.
Zenith spoke with Billboard about growing up trans in the 70’s, the continued transphobia in the music industry, and how opening for acts like U2 and Iggy Pop taught him about how the industry works.
This is technically your debut album, but that feels a little reductive considering how long you've been in the industry. What made you want to create an album under your own name?
After being in bands that didn't seem like they were getting the attention I thought they deserved, I thought "Well, let me just try putting it out under my own name,” because a lot of people know my name. When I was performing a lot in New Orleans, it was often billed as "Lenny Zenith and RZA (the band, not the rapper)," or "Lenny Zenith and Pop Combo." And I have a lot of friends there, and I've been playing there regularly. But forever and ever, I had these band names, like Jenifer Convertible, Minor Planets, Tenterhooks, and so people didn't know or didn't realize that was me, even though I played with a lot of big acts. But they were under band names, so I just thought this was the time. Lo and behold [laughs] it seems like a good move, because now I'm getting some notoriety that I hadn't gotten before.
The bio describes this as a "coming of age late of age." Can you explain what that means to you?
Well, clearly since I'm older and I've been doing this for a long time ... I'm sure a lot of people wonder, "What took you so long? Why now? Why didn't you do this in your mid-to-late 30's or early 40's? Why did you come to this point where you felt confident enough and safe enough to put an album out under your own name and then go completely out in national media?" Because I've lived stealthily for many many years — for decades, actually — because of work, because of family issues. I'm more prepared than ever, even though on the last album, I was pretty much out with the press. I want my voice to be heard, and I want to be able to support working with other transgender people and artists.
Two of the songs on this album, "Still I Rise" & "Suddenly Someone," directly express your own sense of trans pride. Why was it important for you to be direct in your music regarding your identity?
People have marginalized trans identities and non-binary identities for so long, even within the LGBTQ community. Trans lives and trans bodies get marginalized, and non-binary bodies get marginalized, and so I said, "No, let's be proud of who we are and learn this radical acceptance of who we are." We won't tolerate anything other than full acceptance and participation in the world. Part of the proceeds of my album are going directly to trans women of color who, unfortunately, suffer the most from violence against trans people. That is unacceptable, and it's unacceptable to be discriminated against in housing, or employment, or anything.
It was hard to grow up trans, especially in the early 70's, and I don't want kids to have to go through that, I want them to have a voice and see successful trans people that go for their dreams. I wish I would have been more visible, I tried to be more visible, but it was not super easy to get the press interested at the time. And at times, it was dangerous to be visible. I've been threatened to be beaten up and raped on a couple of different occasions in the past, so I didn't want to be too out at certain points in my life.
I'm so sorry to hear that. Well, you mentioned that you transitioned at a very young age — how old were you?
Yeah, I was 14, I went to junior high school in Glendale, California, and when my dad dropped me off at school, he just said, "Go fill out the forms and bring them home." He didn't go with me, so when it came to the male and female checkboxes, I just left them blank. So that was the first time I went to school as a boy. That was in the 70's.
What was it like having to come to terms with your identity in that era?
It was pretty scary, but I was, I'd say ... resourceful. [laughs] I went to the library, and I read books on it, and I learned about people like [trans professional tennis player] Renée Richards. Fortunately, my parents took me to a doctor right around the time I was 12 or 13. It was at Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans, and it was because they thought something was wrong with me, because I was constantly dressing like a boy and wanted to be a boy. These two doctors that I saw, which I write about in my upcoming book, saved my life basically. One of them was an endocrinologist who said "I think I know what's going on here, come back and see me when you're 18." And that gave me a glimmer of hope. The other one was a pediatric psychiatrist who said to my parents, "Lenny has decided what Lenny is going to be, and you're just going to have to either accept it or not." I don't know how they had any understanding of what being trans was at the time, they certainly weren't teaching it in medical literature at the time.
My mom, being from Cuba, had a harder time with it, but I ended up moving to California with my dad after they split up. He was kind of ... how do you say it, dismissive? He just thought it was gonna go away, he didn't really pay attention that much. So, I could dress however I wanted to, and I went to school as a boy. I did that all the way through high school, with the exception of one year where they sent me to an all-girls school for about three months. I didn't last long [laughs].
[laughs] I bet not. Now, I do want to talk about your career — you have opened for some incredible acts like U2 and Iggy Pop. What were the lessons you took away from those experiences?
Ultimately, that it was sadly, extremely competitive, and not always fair. When you end up opening for people that go on to become legendary, like U2 or Iggy Pop, you think, "Oh, well I must be next." But it's just super competitive and based on the whims of a group typically made up of straight white men primarily. I also worked in the music business for a while in the '90s, and I remember this one A&R guy commenting to another A&R guy — because they knew I was in a band even though I was working in copyright — and he joked to this other guy, "When I look at Lenny, I see a rock star." But it was a complete dig, because that's not at all what he thought. I'm short, I have curly hair, I wear glasses, and I look kind of like a dweeb. I don't have what they believed was a rock star look. Like, tall, slim hips, pouty lips, the works.
In the '80s, when I was playing in New Orleans, a producer took an interest in me and almost got me signed to MCA Records. Another artist from New Orleans called the record label and said, "Oh, don't you know a bout Lenny Zenith?" And they outed me. The record exec flew me out to L.A. and did the whole thing — limousine, nice hotel, I ate sushi for the first time in my life, I was just a skinny 20-something. The A&R guy said, "I just can't sign you and then have people find out later that you're not a guy." So my one big shot at a time where it could have made not just a difference to me, but to the community as a whole, got shot down by this person who outed me, and by this A&R guy. It was not a possibility, even though Boy George was very popular — that was a completely different thing.
But now, you have your own record label, XYYX Records, which is aimed toward promoting visibility and safe spaces for trans and non-binary artists. With your company and the state of music today, do you think the industry is changing?
You know, it's going to take some time. I don't know if this was recently, but the MTV Movie Awards had a non-gender role award for movies (back in 2017). And I thought, "Wow, that is really a step in the right direction. Not Best Male or Female Actor, it's just Best Actor." You know? And the music industry, in small pockets is very supportive. But, an LGBTQ-friendly label or a trans-friendly label might not be right for everybody, but for those people, if the music is good and their hearts are into their music — we're already talking to one artist from the UK who is extraordinarily talented, and is also transgender. But you don't have to be transgender, we call it "transgenre, transgender." We're open to allies as well, but they need to know that this is a primarily trans-run, trans-focused label.
There are, you know, a lot of trans artists out there, and I find it interesting the way that trans artists who are female-bodied, or who present female, might get more acceptance than male-bodied trans people. I might be wrong about that, but I'm looking forward to getting closer to no gender in the future. Let people play! Gender, like sexuality, is fluid, and some people in the LGBTQ community don't always want to admit that. I did a photoshoot here in New York where I put on fishnets and heels. It's outside of the male presentation I put forth, but why couldn't people play with gender more? This label will hopefully bring attention to people who might not be accepted into other traditional. I will say, the indie record companies are typically a little bit more open, especially if their music fits the label, but I thought it would be cool to have a label that would not only give voice to transgender artists, but also help the transgender community by raising some money.