In plain white text atop a blue-to-pink gradient, Solace greets new users with a dictionary definition of its name: “comfort or consolation in a time of distress or sadness.” It’s a fitting name for an app that aims to give trans people more information about various aspects of transition—a one-stop resource for people who know they are trans, but don’t know how to be trans.
After entering some basic information—their name, their pronouns, and their location by state—the user is presented with some common transition “goals,” as Solace terms them. These include all of the major transition milestones like beginning hormone replacement therapy and updating the name and gender marker on one’s passport, as well as seemingly mundane (but surprisingly difficult) tasks like buying the right bra.
The goal, according to Solace co-founder Robbi Katherine Anthony, is to help users make their transitions as easy as possible—something she wished she could be able to say about her own.
“Transition is beautiful, but it’s also incredibly hard,” Anthony told VICE.
Born in New Mexico, the 27-year-old software developer now lives in Spokane, Washington. She came up with the idea and designs Solace with fellow developer Patrick McHugh, and turned to Crowdbotics, a software company in Berkeley, to build out the app. As Solace’s only full-time employees, Anthony and McHugh run “an extraordinarily lean operation,” bouncing between Anthony’s home, her 1998 blue Honda CR-V, and whatever coworking space they might be working in on a given day. “It’s fly or die every single day here,” said Anthony. But she’s committed to making something that she hopes makes transition a little less confusing, a tool she would have appreciated if it had existed all those years ago.
“My transition has been rough,” she told VICE. “But I’ll be damned if I don’t do everything in my power to help others avoid that.”
Solace co-founders Patrick McHugh (L) and Robbi Katherine Anthony (R). Photo courtesy of Robbi Katherine Anthony.
Anthony said that one of the biggest hurdles she faced in the early stages of her transition was finding out how to transition in the first place. She blamed a lot of this inaccessibility on gatekeeping, a term that, in a trans context, often refers to the many ways in which a health care professional can refuse gender-affirming care to a trans patient—say, a doctor who won’t prescribe hormones, or surgeon who won’t operate on a woman he doesn’t find attractive or cis-passing enough for his standards. Anthony told VICE that she experienced this kind of medical gatekeeping firsthand, but she also used the term to describe her experiences with other trans people.
“Certain people in the community become gatekeepers of information,” Anthony said. “Transition is a model of oral tradition, but if you have to meet people in order to transition, that inherently limits transition to people who can access that network. Some people physically cannot do that or don’t want to.” That information is also highly anecdotal, which she said is a problem because it ignores “how one person’s circumstances are not analogous to another person’s.”
“Solace disrupts that model,” she continued. “If the process could be reduced from finding the right gatekeepers to having a compendium that allows you to proceed on your own terms, I think it would be healthier.”
I asked Anthony if creating Solace, an app designed to circumvent community gatekeepers, might turn her into the very trans community gatekeeper she set out to circumvent.
“That’s a really fair question,” Anthony said. “Gatekeeping, in its most nefarious forms, requires folks to do some interaction in order to get information. Whether it’s being approved by a moderator to join a group, seeking out a time or space or venue based on terms dictated by someone else, or being forced to curry favor with someone for them to share information—that’s gatekeeping in my book.”
Solace, which launched in December 2019, is quite unlike any of the other trans-specific apps available through Apple’s App Store. Searching for “trans” or “transgender” on my iPhone turns up an endless scroll of dating apps for cis men trying to meet trans women and crossdressers with nearly illegibile, knockoff brand names like Tinded, Sinder, and Transdr. “They’re mostly godawful,” Anthony said. “Fetishizing trans people… transsexual dating dot this, and stuff.” There are a few practical options that actually seem to have been designed with a trans user in mind, like audio recording apps to practice voice modification, crowdsourced “safe” restroom finders, and a selfie-driven transition tracker. But nothing is quite as comprehensive as Solace, which contains more than 180,000 words of text, according to Anthony’s estimate.
The app gives users the ability to curate a custom checklist of transition tasks, which are divided into three categories: legal (updating your birth certificate, what you can do about workplace discrimination); lifestyle (coming out to your family, connecting with other trans people); and medical (facial feminization surgery, laser hair removal, family planning). Every item is comprehensive, containing lots of actionable information about the task at hand. The “coming out to family” entry, for example, includes both tips on what to do (write a coming out letter to each and every family member, ask to be called by your name and pronouns, be ready to explain what “transgender” means) along with general advice (make sure you are sober when you come out, be prepared to lose your housing or financial support).
Many of the resources are tailored to the user’s gender identity and location, as non-discrimination laws and the legal hoops one has to hop through in order to change the name and gender marker on their state-issued documents vary by state. For example, the page for updating your birth certificate in Arizona correctly notes that you’ll need an affidavit, a certified copy of a court order, a photo copy of a valid government-issued ID, a signed letter from your physician verifying that you’ve “undergone a sex change operation,” and a small fee. The page for Washington is significantly shorter, as the Evergreen State doesn’t require surgery or a fee.
Solace is free to download and the creators have no intention of selling user data to third parties. “We will never charge a penny,” Anthony said. “We’re currently donor supported. We tap into foundation support, sometimes as grants. We’re structured as a nonprofit. This community faces a disproportionate amount of poverty, so putting a paywall on this thing felt counterintuitive to what we were trying to do. And data-mining,” she paused. “Our stomachs turn at the thought of it.”
Anthony declined to share how many people have downloaded Solace since launch, though she said she and McHugh are currently halfway to reaching their 2020 user goal. The app has had a number of updates since its December launch, like the addition of more detailed information regarding Medicaid coverage for trans care in different parts of the country. Anthony said that she also plans to integrate a news aggregator with articles about a variety of trans topics, implement “dynamic pronouns” within the app’s copyto match the pronouns the user enters, and launch a mode for parents and guardians of trans kids.
Listening to Anthony talk, I couldn’t help but think about how different my experience with transitioning has been. It’s not that I haven’t had to seek out other trans people to find out who they see for laser hair removal or whether progesterone’s really worth the hype; I’ve had to do all of those things. The difference is that I view them as positives rather than negatives. I’ve found a lot of value in talking to other trans people about their experiences and sifting through their anecdotal experiences to figure out what might be right for me. I’m deeply grateful for all the friendships I’ve made and communities I’ve joined after putting myself in uncomfortable, new social situations. I asked Anthony if she was concerned that an app like Solace might lead trans people away from their local communities. “It’s a byproduct we’re aware of,” she said, “but I wouldn’t say that it’s a goal of ours.”
“Our entire ethos is about providing this community with agency, and part of agency is allowing people to access information on their own terms,” she said.
Solace might not be of that much use to me, an extrovert in a major city who’s already in community with other trans people (and my questions at this point of my transition are more existential than they are practical—less about how do I do this or how do I do that, and more about what do I do now). But it could be useful to people who don’t know any trans people, or live in a part of the country with no visible local community, and might be particularly helpful for early transitioners or trans people who haven’t come out yet and are still trying to figure out where to begin.
Regardless of who makes use of Solace’s many comprehensive resources, Anthony was clear about one thing: she doesn’t want anyone to rely on the app forever. “The ultimate sign of Solace’s success is that the user deletes the app because they don’t need it anymore,” she said.
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