Rebecca Solen

I think everybody should have the opportunity to live as themselves.

LWD:  Describe yourself today in three to five adjectives.
Rebecca:  Well that’s a toughie. In three to five adjectives — Happy, curious, determined … Help me out here.

Melissa:  It’s how would you describe yourself.
Rebecca:  Concerned. Persistent.
Melissa:  I was gonna say, you could stop.

LWD:  Awesome.
Rebecca:  Five? You said three to five, but erring on the side of … yeah, okay. This is our interaction.

LWD:  So how are those adjectives that you just used different than when you were a child or a teenager?
Rebecca:  I think the adjectives that I use now are a lot more optimistic, they’re a lot more open compared to my earlier years. I was very closed off. I was almost — I guess you could say secretive, because I was hiding my real self. So, the adjective shift is actually quite large. Just the changes over the past year, and well, yeah.

LWD:  Can you describe your family dynamic growing up?
Rebecca:  I grew up in a conservative household, active Mormons, almost to the point of sheltering from the world I guess you could say. The church has its views, and I tried to be active in the church as well, and I did all the things that were expected of me at the time, even if I didn’t understand necessarily what it was that was being shoveled into my mind and what I was being told. Obviously when I was really young, I didn’t understand what transgender was. I kind of got an idea that the church was against it, and that I would be essentially an outcast if they knew. Because of that, you get a level of shame that piles in your own mind to the point where you just know you have to hide.

LWD:  Can you tell me about the first time you realized you might be trans?
Rebecca:  In terms of when I had the words to describe it, or just when I knew something was wrong?

LWD:  Let’s go with when you felt something might be wrong.
Rebecca:  I think the earliest that I can remember, it was about age five. I think that’s where my memory really started to kick in, when I started to be able to remember things. It’s more of a feeling. It’s like looking at myself in the mirror, and thinking that something was off. I didn’t match to what I was expecting to see. I think that’s the best way to describe it.

Now of course, at that age I didn’t have any idea. What I knew was that you get into grade school, and all of a sudden it becomes bad to hang out with — if you’re a boy, it’s bad to hang out with the girls, and girls don’t hang out with the boys because naturally there’s the whole cooties thing. I still don’t know how cooties transmit to other people. I’ll never get that.

For me, I felt more comfortable with the girls. I had girls as friends, and I related to them really easily. I enjoyed being with them. It just seemed like I matched with them. But of course, having a male body, then all the other kids make sure they let you know that, hey, you’re supposed to be over here. That created in my mind the whole issue where I’m thinking, okay, something’s off. I need to find out what.

I think I figured it out fairly young — realizing that, hey, I feel like I’m a girl but everyone’s telling me that I’m a boy. Apparently my body is male, so we have an issue. I don’t know — I just, I couldn’t figure out if I could say anything. I felt like I couldn’t, and so I just hid it. As I got older and started learning more about positions of the church, I began to feel like I was somehow to blame — that being transgender meant that I was some kind of evil sinner. I hated myself for that because I was always taught that if God deems this to be so evil, then I must be evil. That’s where the whole cycle really started of me disliking myself, and almost becoming self-destructive.

LWD:  As you had mentioned before, it’s only been about a year. What was it like for you to have hidden your true self for so long? What were some of the repercussions of doing that?
Rebecca:  I think that when you hide yourself for that long, you also don’t get to know yourself. You cannot hide yourself from other people, but expect to know yourself. You just can’t, because you’re so busy trying to push yourself away, that you end up working so much on the façade that the real you just kind of disappears in the background.

So in my case, I focused so much on hiding that I never really figured out what my goals were going to be in life. I didn’t figure out what practical steps to take to get the career I wanted, and things like that. I ended up drifting a little bit, and that’s actually a really bad thing. Because you figure you’re going through high school, a lot of people are getting ready for college, and me, I had no idea what I wanted to do. All I knew was that I was in pain, I didn’t know if I could ever come out with it, and the only thing that I had to rely on, really, was a belief in god, and hoping that I was acceptable to him. And that’s it.

I tried to do the best I could with what I knew and what I had, but there were so many things that essentially got deprioritized, because I was hiding a secret.

LWD:  How did you come to a place where you felt comfortable enough within what you’d found out about yourself to be able to come out to those around you? I know that you’d mentioned that you had wrote a letter to Melissa explaining how you were feeling. How did you come to a place where you felt comfortable to be able to write that letter, and can you maybe walk me through the process a little bit?
Rebecca:  Yeah. I came close to telling her a few times. When it got really hard, and I think each of those times, up until the last time, I chickened out. I kept telling myself, no, I can do this, I can just keep pushing on. And it got to the point of suicidal ideation on several occasions, to where I had a plan in mind, and I think the last time, so in December of 2016 when I finally wrote the letter and gave it to her, that’s when it really got to become overwhelming. I didn’t know what else to do, and I was kind of losing grip on the will to survive, I suppose.

When a person gets to the point where they feel like they’re worth more dead than alive, and I’m not talking monetary, I’m talking in emotional, spiritual, those sorts of things, where you feel like the people around you would be better off without you, that’s where it’s dangerous, and that’s where I was getting to. It finally got to that point where I had to make a decision, because the blinders were going on, I was losing sight of everything else, it was just focused on this one decision, what do I do?

So just after Christmas of 2016, I stayed up late and I wrote the letter, and I gave it to Melissa in the morning.

LWD:  How did you feel when you read the letter? And you obviously have chosen to support Rebecca through the transition, and continue on with your life, and was that a difficult decision?
Melissa:  So, for me, for her coming out to me, I actually was expecting this, because she essentially handed me the letter, and the look on her face and everything, I was expecting a letter of – I’m done – we’re through, I’m leaving you. And as Rebecca said, she had kind of gotten to the place where she was so far removed from existence, essentially, she had this plan for what she was going to do to get rid of herself, and she had pretty much – I don’t want to say completely, checked out, but she just wasn’t there for me. She was just disconnected. And so I thought for sure that I had missed something somewhere along the way, and she had found love somewhere else; found a better something somewhere else, and I was expecting for the letter to say I want a divorce.
Melissa:  And to find out that …
Rebecca:  Surprise.
Melissa:  Surprise, I’m transgender, and this … was a relief, in a sense, because I thought the person that I loved was ready to be gone from me. I thought they didn’t want to do anything with me anymore, and that they were just done, and so to find out that, okay, she’s transgender and this is the way she feels, it’s like, okay, we can work with this. But let’s see what this looks like, and at that point I didn’t know if it meant being more androgynous and not transitioning socially. I had no idea what that meant for our relationship, for our family, or anything, but I figured if I don’t venture down that road I won’t know.

For me, to know that she was in such a scary place of having a plan to end her life, was super scary too. And I would rather have the person that I love be a woman than not be there, and go through life with that hole.

LWD:  As parents of four children, I imagine sharing the news would be stressful and have to be handled delicately. How did you tell them, and how did they react?
Rebecca:  Well, we figured we should do it one-on-one. So, that’s what we did. We started with the oldest. And as we figured, he was going to understand the terms the most. We sat him down and talked with him, and for him it was almost kind of like, “Yeah, okay, got it. What’s for dinner?” Because …
Melissa:  Yeah, like, aren’t we doing something right now? It was just like … we were expecting all these questions to come, or this big, “What are you talking about?” But it wasn’t, it was just like, “Eh.”
Rebecca:  He was totally cool with it. Said, “Okay. That makes sense, got it.”
Melissa:  We kind of had been leading up to it. So I found out on December 27th, and for about a week or so, maybe two even, we kind of just processed it as a couple first. But we were dropping hints, I guess you could say, to the kids. Like, “Don’t ever be afraid that you can’t talk to us about anything. If you ever have anything that you need to talk to us about, we’d rather you come to us. Be it that you are failing a class, you like a boy, you like a girl, and that’s okay.” Just kind of setting the stage for we’re about to tell you something big, and we want you to know that it’s okay for you to tell us big stuff, too.

And so, I don’t know, I think the oldest kind of got a couple of those little hints that we were dropping.
Rebecca:  Yeah, the second and the third kids, they took it fine. There weren’t really any questions, per se. And the youngest, I don’t think he really fully understood.
Melissa:  I still don’t think he fully understands.
Rebecca:  I don’t think he fully understands yet, but I mean, he’s six.
Melissa:  Yeah.
Rebecca:  So you know. We’ve just got to give him time. He seems to be open, but –
Melissa:  Yeah, he’s switched. He doesn’t call Rebecca daddy anymore. He does switch to the new name that …
Rebecca:  They call me Mati.
Melissa:  Mati, yeah. So, it worked well, it rhymes with daddy, so it was kind of an easy transition, but Mati is M A T I, and it’s actually the Ukrainian way to say mom or mommy.
Rebecca:  I have Ukrainian heritage.
Melissa:  So we were kind of just looking, like, what can we find for the kids to call her that’s not dad? so that’s kind of what we settled on, but for the most part the kids have taken to it really well. They don’t bat an eye or anything. The youngest still misgenders a lot.
Rebecca:  I think he’s getting it, though.
Melissa:  Slowly.
Rebecca:  He’s getting there.
Melissa:  Slowly, but he still uses the he, him, his …
Rebecca:  Which is to be expected, I mean, it seems like he’ll pick it up right away.
Melissa:  60% of the time or better, but he’s getting there.
Rebecca:  I don’t get all up in arms about it.

LWD:  Yeah, for a six year old that sounds pretty darn good, because I know some adults that can’t even get it right, so.
Rebecca:  Yeah, really.
Melissa:  Yes.

LWD:  In this last year, what struggles have you faced since coming out at trans?
Rebecca:  Oh, it’s a list. I guess trying to figure out what changes I was going to end up going through physically, emotionally. Obviously taking a step like this, you don’t know what to expect. You know what you think you want to happen, but you don’t … you can only anticipate it so far, I guess, is the best way to put it. Starting on the hormones was huge, that changed, almost changed mental operation, the way I think. A lot of people will describe it as just a night and day change, and I heard one person say it was like you put the right fuel in the engine. You know, if you’ve been putting diesel in a gas engine, it’s not going to operate very well.
Melissa:  You break it.
Rebecca:  Until you put the right fuel in. And in that case, it was kind of like that, almost like my brain was expecting that. And so the shift there was really good, and then there was the interaction with other people.

So at work, I didn’t know what to expect. Some people had kind of cued in and noticed a few things. I went and I got my ears pierced, and, you know … A lot of people knew me as just kind of a quiet, not really outspoken type of person, and then here I come into work one day with my ears pierced, and the earrings, and the … you know, you kind of get the look? Like, um, wait.

And so there were some rumors that went around, but I talked to my manager right away and I let him know, and he was like, “Oh, okay, cool. So however you want me to help, just let me know.” I talked to HR, and kind of got the arrangements made. And my work has been phenomenal about it. They helped every step of the way that they could. And of course, it’s not necessarily easy to go through all of this, and so they did what was the best they knew how to do, I guess is the way to put it, because it doesn’t happen that often.

And so work overall was good, church was a little more difficult. It was kind of a longer story, how I let the entire congregation know. But, we’ll just say I did it right in front of everybody. I was at the pulpit, and I told them all. I figured, if you’re going to let them know, let them know.

And so I did, but I think that earned the ire of an awful lot of people. There was some upset over it. We have a lot of members of the church in our ward here that are supportive, and have been very kind. But, there’s also a good bunch that are still very against it. They still believe this is a mental illness, and that I’m a danger somehow.
Melissa: You’re evil.
Rebecca:  They think I can’t be in church, because somebody might catch the trans, oh gosh. Yeah. Because you know it’s contagious, right?
Melissa:  Maybe I should go change my name and start my testosterone, then.
Rebecca:  Oh, is that what it should be? Okay.
Melissa:  If it’s contagious, I must be transgender too.
Rebecca:  So there’s the challenges that are there, and of course, being in the public eye for a year, there was obvious interest from the media when they caught wind of it. I had no intention of letting them know until it was much further down the line, and I think I told you this before, it was somebody in my Facebook feed that copied the post and gave it to them. I started getting phone calls … I still could only guess who it was that outed me. But still, a really rotten thing to do.

And I think it was at that point that I realized I could sit back and I could probably transition quietly, privately, and that’d be it. Most people wouldn’t know, or wouldn’t necessarily care, but I knew I had good family. I knew I had a lot of friends that supported me, and I thought this is actually more of an opportunity. I have a chance here to talk about it, because it seems like a lot of the time people, when they get outed, they turn around and they hide – they disappear. And I totally understand why, because the world can be a very cruel place.

But if people don’t talk about it, then there’s no understanding. All you’re getting is one side yelling and shouting how evil and awful transgender people are, and on the other side the transgender people are just trying to stay out of that mess. Well, I decided I was going to get right in the middle of the mess. I figured that if I was visible, and I was open to talking about it, then I had a chance to help understanding and an opportunity to educate people and help them to figure out that this isn’t a mental illness – that it really is a situation that people find themselves in. They’re so afraid of coming out that they end up with horrible depression and anxiety, and their relationships suffer as a result.

It doesn’t seem fair. I think that this is my opportunity to get out there and change some of that.

LWD:  What do you love about the person you are today?
Rebecca:  I think I’m finally living life rather than constantly holding part of myself back. And I don’t – maybe she can answer more as she sees things from the external point of view – but, I don’t know. I think when you throw yourself into something, your whole self, it makes life different.

LWD:  What does it mean to you to live an authentic life?
Rebecca:  To live an authentic life … I think part of authenticity is being able to share your entire self with those around you, that’s authentic. Not being afraid of being what those closest to you are going to think of you if they knew. I think in my case, being able to talk to Melissa about anything, and to just tell her, and knowing that she’s there. That’s huge. That’s a big difference. You’ve been among other couples out there, even if they’re not dealing with big secrets between them, how much are they really sharing of themselves? And do they ever really feel like they can’t share themselves to that extent? In our relationship, I know we can do that.

LWD:  Was there a defining moment, or a series of moments that happened to you, that allowed you to finally step into your authentic self, to take that step to coming out at trans?
Rebecca:  Yeah. I think during my campaign, when I really stepped in front of people and started learning about other people’s experiences, it kind of got me thinking about what other people are going through. I met with an LGBT group, actually, at UW Parkside, University of Wisconsin, and listening to their concerns, it kind of opened my eyes a little bit to what they’re going through. Not necessarily from a political perspective, but just personally what they faced, and hearing their stories. It’s amazing how much other people’s stories can influence your mode of thinking about things.

Obviously, they took the time to talk to me as a total stranger. Yeah, okay, I was a political candidate, but still a stranger, and they took the time to tell me their stories, and what they face. So that was one piece of it. That kind of told me, well, if they can do it why can’t I? So that helped.

I think it’s that human element, and I was missing some of that human element. I wanted that. I wanted to be able to be the real me. I think that kind of piled on a little bit of extra courage to just say, you know what? This is doable.

LWD:  What happened when you embraced yourself as enough?
Rebecca:  I think the initial question that came to mind when I finally realized I’m going to do this – I’m going to write this letter, it was kind of like, well, I know what’s going on in my head. I’ve got to the point of accepting this is my situation, now I need to figure out what comes next. Because what was going through my mind when I handed her the letter, I was expecting her to read it and flip out. You know, and …
Melissa:  The divorce?
Rebecca:  Yeah. I mean, it’s, just based on the statistics that I knew, there was a reasonable expectation that our marriage could potentially fail, because – and I read it somewhere that said that approximately 75% of marriages fail when one comes out as transgender. That scared the life out of me, because I didn’t know what I was going to do at that point. I was about to set off a chain of events that could potentially destroy our home life as we knew it. I nearly chickened out, even that time.

I had the letter written on the computer, and when she woke up, I asked her, “Why do you love me?” And of course that got her attention, and then she started crying at that point. But I knew the question would do that, because I could have just gone about the morning and left it as it was, and just said, okay, I didn’t give her the letter. That’s okay. We’ll just keep moving. But I needed to give myself something that was going to get her attention, and that’s why I asked her that question, because then she realized something’s up. And when she started crying at that point, it was like, give her the letter and let’s let it go.

As soon as I handed it to her, that was it. The chain reaction was started, it was like, what’s going to happen? How is this going to go? And it went well. I’m glad it went well. I was ecstatic. I think back, and wish I would have told her earlier.

LWD:  Is there anything else you would like to add?
Rebecca:  I think most of all when I talk to people about my story. I try to make sure that they understand that they don’t need to be afraid to be themselves. Yeah, the world is scary and there are plenty of jerks in the world and there could be a lot of people out there that will say ridiculous and stupid things.  But you don’t have to be afraid of them, there a lot of people out there that do support you, and who do love and care about you and those are the people we lean on.  Those are the ones we work together with to continue to spread education and to help understanding so we don’t have to continue to live in fear.  There is no reason anyone should be living in constant fear.  It scares me every time I hear of another transgender person who has committed suicide or has been murdered or beaten.  Because those make the news, we hear about them.  And what are we doing about it? I think everybody should have the opportunity to live as themselves. I think that if they took that opportunity they would realize they really do love life. They love living it out and being able to be who they really are and that’s the goal. That’s what I want to achieve.  I want people to be able to find the same thing I have found and find that happiness.