Ever since they were a kid growing up in St. Louis, Lawrence Rothman has been hard to pin down. The 35-year-old singer-songwriter, who identifies as non-binary and uses gender-neutral they/them pronouns, remembers watching Prince on MTV and connecting with the star’s performance: how he was both abundantly masculine and indelibly feminine at the same time, in dazzling suits and heavy eyeliner. That multiplicity carries through to the music Rothman makes today. Over the course of their forthcoming debut, The Book of Law, Rothman moves from the funk-guitar prom jam “Wolves Still Cry” to the Marissa Nadler-assisted murder ballad “Ain’t Afraid of Dying,” from the Leonard Cohen-indebted duet with Angel Olsen, “California Paranoia,” to the disco ball-ready synth pop of “Jordan.” It’s on that last song where Rothman proclaims what might be the album’s defining lyric: “I’ve lived long enough in shame.”
After working behind the scenes as a producer on albums like Olsen’s My Woman, Rothman comes fully into focus now—all nine different alter egos of them. These named sides come to life in vivid visuals from director Floria Sigismondi, the eye behind Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” and many more videos, as well as the person who discovered Rothman in 2013 and took them under her wing. “I'm the mothership and all the alters are my vessels,” Rothman says. “What would be untrue to myself would be to come out with one single look and be one single person. If I were to be the most authentic, I would show people that I'm changing all the time.”
Over the course of an hour-long phone conversation, Rothman discussed their non-binary gender identity for the first time outside of a close circle of friends and family. Below, in their own words, they detail how they came to terms with who they really are, and how they found the truest expression of their multifaceted self through music.
I’ve felt gender fluid ever since I can remember. My mother was very open to the idea of me not conforming to any one gender. I would play with Strawberry Shortcake dolls, but I would also have Transformers. She'd let me dress however I wanted. We had MTV playing all day long, and my mother was a huge Prince fan. Seeing Prince on TV, I felt like, “Oh, you can wear whatever you want to wear and present yourself blurring the line.” Even Michael Jackson—I know he didn't blur gender, but I always thought that's what he was doing when I was little. There's no stubble on his face. When I was 8 years old, I thought he was trans. I didn't know.
When I first started going to school, I didn't think anything of it. Then, over the course of a few years, I started experiencing major drama. I would check both boxes on the standardized tests: male and female. They started pulling in my mother and had me do counseling. It wasn't accepted in St. Louis.
My father worked 14 hours a day, six days a week, so I barely ever saw him. That was probably a blessing in disguise—he wasn't there to notice it early on. In my teen years, he started noticing and would get aggressive. I didn't really exhibit a strong masculine presence. He would call me “sissy boy” jokingly, not realizing that it was totally eating my heart out. I started to do what any teenager would do: rebel and cause problems within my family, just because all this turmoil with my father had never been ironed out.
It got super intense. He forced me to grow facial hair and act more masculine. One moment that forever changed me was when he forced me to go without shaving for three weeks. I'm Jewish and we've got Israeli and Russian in us, so we're very hairy people. At 14, I could grow a beard. During those three weeks, I hit a low I'd never experienced before. I couldn't look in the mirror. It was the first time I felt really uncomfortable in my own skin. That was the introduction to a confusion that lasted 10 years. I wanted to tear the skin off my face. I went into the bathroom at school and I shaved everything off so hard I started bleeding. I had a complete nervous breakdown. A teacher found me in the bathroom and called my parents.
That moment is when my father realized realized there was something going on. He thought maybe I was gay. He's a good person, but he just wasn't open to it. He didn't understand things outside of the gender binary. I had scars on my face, so I'd wear makeup to cover them. My father would literally have me wash the makeup off.
In St. Louis, there was nowhere to go. Today, I'm sure there's options. But back when I was a teenager, this was all new territory. I wish there were names for that feeling when I was young. I feel like it would have saved me a lot of turmoil and depression and suicide attempts.
The only thing that was fun about St. Louis was every kid had a basement, so I was able to form lots of bands. I would have five different bands going at once. One would be totally punk, one would sound like 10,000 Maniacs with string players from school, another one would be more hip-hop. I'd always be the singer, and how I'd dress at shows would be completely different.
When I was 16, I pretty much ran away from home. Between the way I looked and the way I felt, having extreme lows that put me in the hospital, my mother knew that I had to leave St. Louis. It was against her wishes, but she allowed me to leave. But I left with no financial support. That was the deal: “You can leave because we don't want you to die, but we're not going to support you financially.” I had a cousin who lived in Chicago, so I moved to Chicago and I met a group of people who were way older than me, in their late twenties. Through them, I started to come to terms with myself and feel some sort of freedom. They were much older, so they were all very comfortable with themselves. If it wasn't for this group of people I found, I probably wouldn't be talking to you right now. I had sexual and drug experiences I probably shouldn't have gone through at 16, but it was better than living where I'm from.
There was one woman who was a lot older than me, a musician and a burlesque performer. She had a very open mind and she was a very smart person. She was the first individual to help me understand what I was feeling and give it a name. Back then, there weren't all these names you can look up on the internet. All I knew was that I didn't feel fully male or female. She explained it to me in a way that made sense and then introduced me to other people that were feeling the same way. She showed me literature that was hundreds of years old, like Oscar Wilde and William Blake. Some of the Greek philosophers were talking about these ideas. She taught me that being androgynous has been going on since the beginning of time. For some reason, somebody decided that you're either male or female. But I don't think it's that cut and dried for anybody, really. Even if you identify as female or male, everybody's got feminine sides and masculine sides.
When this woman turned me on to all this literature, it really clicked. Why do you have to check a box that's male or female? Why is it that if you want to fill in both boxes, all of a sudden you end up in your principal's office? I felt validated that I wasn't weird, I wasn't a bad person. The only place where I hit a wall was seeing that it hadn't been identified in society. It wasn’t even talked about until maybe the last five years or so. It was still: “Are you a crossdresser? Are you trans?” It was not very clear, even though it felt clear to me. I'm always identified as male when someone sees me for the first time, so people would be like, “Why does this guy have makeup on?”
It's still really new to a lot of people. But for me and people who feel the same way, it feels like it's been going on forever. I finally gave it a name to my father in 2014. My parents were getting ready to move to Los Angeles [where I live], and I thought I needed to have a very transparent conversation because they were going to be seeing a lot more of me. I wanted to vocalize the fact that I'm non-binary and gender fluid, that I don't identify as male or female. I got my dad on the phone and he couldn't accept it. It became an emotional roller coaster ride for a good month. I didn't talk to him for almost a year and a half. My parents moved to L.A. and I still didn't talk to him. I blocked him from my phone. He just didn't get it. When I had the conversation with him, it took me back 15 years. I felt like I was back to square one.
The whole time I was making the record, I was estranged from my father, and I couldn't really see my mother. I had to throw myself into as many projects as I could to distract myself. I did not want to go back to the brain I had 10 years ago where I ended up in the hospital. There were nights when I came close. The guy who helped produce my album [Justin Raisen] probably saved my life more than once just by refocusing me so I didn't fall into that upside-down world. I think it was July of this year when my father and I started speaking again. He's slowly started to come back in and he understands my gender more because there's been some mainstream stories on this stuff. He read about it on CNN.com. To him, if CNN acknowledges something, then it's not weird.
I think a lot of people still don't really get what it means to be non-binary. That's why I want to be open about it. The more people acknowledge it, the more it becomes a conversation, the more young people that are experiencing these feelings will identify it earlier on. And hopefully it'll save them a lot of trauma. My father really made me realize that. That's why on my record, every single song deals with what I've gone through. It's like an open diary of my experiences.