In 2016, Paul Ryan could have been replaced by a Mormon transgender woman.
But it was the thought of sentences exactly like the one above that dissuaded former Democratic challenger Rebecca Solen—then known as Ryan Solen—from coming out during her congressional campaign, which ended in a 65-30 loss.
“I wanted the campaign to be about the issues,” Solen recalled during a phone interview with The Daily Beast, two weeks after coming out as transgender in a Facebook post. “And there is this tendency for media to sensationalize something like this, so I didn’t want it to [hinge] on that—to become the sole issue.”
Solen, a married Iraq war veteran with four children and a self-described “moderate Democrat,” was already facing a tough political challenge: Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has held Wisconsin’s First Congressional District since 1999.
Picturing the media frenzy that would ensue if she were to come out out only reinforced Solen’s decision to keep her identity hidden during the race.
“In a higher profile campaign, like running against Paul Ryan for example, it probably would have really gone off the rails,” she said, laughing.
But after she was done running her campaign, Solen realized that she had also been running away from herself for too long.
Like many transgender people, Solen knew from an early age—5, she says—that “something was off,” long before she had words to describe what she felt. Having been raised in a conservative, religious environment like the Mormon faith, however, Solen “suppressed” the thought that she was a woman for years, ultimately for decades.
Staying busy, as she did during her 2016 congressional campaign, distracted Solen from that thought but, as she told The Daily Beast, it “always comes back.”
“Right after the campaign, and the busy times, and the craziness that went along with that—it did come back with a vengeance,” she recalled. “All the thoughts were there.”
Shortly thereafter, she decided to come to terms with her identity—and with her family.
“It got to that tipping point where I had to say something,” she said. “I had to.”
Solen drafted a lengthy letter to her wife, realizing full well that coming out as transgender can have dire consequences.
“You build up these ideas in your head [about] just how bad everything could get, trying to prepare for the worst,” she said. “I know she loves me and yet, still, in the back of my mind, I was trying to prepare for the possibility that me coming out could have some very detrimental effects on the family.”
Fortunately, Solen’s wife agreed to “work through it and figure out what we need to do.” They currently “have a strong marriage,” Solen says, and as for their four children? They barely batted an eye—which made Solen’s earlier concerns seem like overkill.
“We sat down the kids one by one and talked with them to find out what they were thinking, how they thought it might affect them socially, at school, things like that,” Solen recalled. “And you know what? They were all good with it.”
Polling has shown that younger Americans overwhelmingly support transgender rights—a circumstance that wasn’t the case when Solen, age 40, was going through high school.
With the support of her family, Solen began transitioning this January, legally changing her name to Rebecca and officially changing the name on her political Facebook page earlier this month.
“Guess what?” Solen wrote to her group of a thousand followers at the time. “I’m transgender.”
Solen intends to remain politically active but she’s not running in 2018, primarily for unrelated medical reasons but also, in part, because of her gender transition.
It’s not that Solen doesn’t think she can be successful as herself—indeed, candidates like Danica Roem in Virginia and elected officials like New Hope, Texas Mayor Jess Herbst seem to be ushering in an altered landscape for transgender politicians—but rather that she didn’t want to go through the early stages of transition during a closely watched campaign.
“When you transition, all of your friends and family are going through the transition as well,” Solen told The Daily Beast. “So I really wanted to make sure that this was a time that was focused on family so they could understand where I was coming from, what I’m doing—and not feel like there’s constant stress and constant pressure to make sure that you’re doing what you need to do for a campaign.”
Part of what Solen and her family are figuring out is their status in the Mormon Church, formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Mormon Church currently allows gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to remain members in good standing so long as they do not engage in same-sex sexual activity.
However, as The Daily Beast has previously reported, transgender Mormons can be subject to church discipline if they seek sex reassignment surgery—an important step in many people’s transitions; otherwise, their individual situations are handled on a case-by-case basis by local leaders, with varying results.
Solen, who served a Mormon proselytizing mission in Munich, Germany, as a young adult, told The Daily Beast that she’s still waiting to see what happens with her case.
“I haven’t been informed about what [my local leaders] want to do,” she said. “They’re in the know. I’ve told them this is happening with me, that this is what’s going on. And a lot of the membership have been very, very supportive, which I’m so grateful for. They’ve been very kind.”
Although Solen is skipping the 2018 cycle and endorsing her former campaign supporter David Yankovich instead, she is hoping to use her platform to support LGBT people.
“I’m not an expert in all things LGBTQIA,” she admitted in a Facebook post this past Sunday in which she explained the surprising timing behind her decision to come out. “At best, I am well versed in my own experiences as a transgender woman trying to navigate a world where many assume the worst about that which they don’t understand. But, if my voice becomes a source of comfort and inspiration to just one struggling individual, then it has been worth it.”
Looking back now, Solen isn’t sure what would have happened if she had won her 2016 campaign against Paul Ryan: Would she have come out as transgender this year anyway, or would she have have tried to ignore the inevitable even longer?
“I think I might have put it off for a little because I would have been really busy at that point, too,” she told The Daily Beast, before adding: “I really don’t know. It’s a tough call because I’ve dealt with this and suppressed it for so long that the pressure to try and hide it was just becoming unbearable.”
It is, Solen agreed, one of those impossible questions: a “what if?” that’s interesting to speculate about but ultimately meaningless in light of the fulfillment she has experienced these past few months. She lost the race, yes, but she found herself.