Solace: The App That Supports Transitioning, One Step at a Time

by Merryn Johns

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday September 17, 2020

The transgender community continues to face discrimination. And with an alarmingly high suicide rate of 41 percent, it's clear that for many members of the transgender community, the process of transitioning can be lonely, challenging, and sometimes even dangerous. Solace, a groundbreaking app that launched in late 2019, aims to support transgender individuals through their transition with an intuitive and safe interface that offers resources, accountability and a news feed.

While there are general and age-specific resources for transgender people online, as well as websites offering information about the emotional, mental, legal and medical aspects of transitioning, undergoing the process in real life can be overwhelming, especially for trans people living in non-urban or rural areas without direct access to resources.

From the moment they set up their Solace profile, users choose their gender, name, and goals to transition. Solace provides geo-targeted information about the steps necessary to complete each goal, whether updating official documents to reflect the user's chosen identity, accessing surgical procedures, purchasing clothing in a safe environment or perfecting a makeup technique. As users take the actions necessary and mark each goal as completed, Solace updates their progress tracker and offers positive reinforcement and ideas.

Since its whirlwind launch on December 31, 2019, co-founder and executive editor Patrick McHugh has seen a spike in usage as people seek Solace amid national turmoil.

"The pandemic hit so many resources, whether it's support groups for trans individuals or something like being on a sports teams — particularly in Washington State with closures," says McHugh. "There was no guidance for where trans people could go, what activities were available for them, whether medical treatment and procedures were still possible — no one was really talking about it. A lot of gender-affirming services were the first to go, and they're the last to come back, unfortunately," says McHugh.

The app became a trusted source during a chaotic time. When retailers and businesses such as boutiques, salons, and gyms start reopening, the app "speaks frankly to the possibility that you may be discriminated against, you may face abuse whether verbal or physical, so be prepared for that eventuality," says McHugh.

Geo-targeting is central to the app, which began its life when co-founder Robbi Katherine Anthony worked on a crowdsourced transgender safety map for Spokane, WA, which listed businesses where trans customers had reported negative or positive experiences.

There is no one way to be transgender, notes McHugh. "It's different for someone living in New York City than for someone living in the Deep South, especially for Black trans women."

And this disparity between trans experience is one of the main reasons Solace focuses on delivering information and accountability rather than a social media component.

"What happens in Solace is between that user and their phone. It offers privacy, dignity, and information to accomplish what they need to accomplish without public scrutiny," says McHugh. Though some users have reported that the app doesn't seem to be inclusive of gender nonbinary users, McHugh explains that Solace's core user is "a man or woman who is going through the process of transitioning to combat gender dysphoria."

Since the launch, the app has added a news stream such as court rulings and new legislation that impact transgender lives on a day-to-day basis — think health and human services, house and urban development rules, things that will restrict people's access to housing and health care. Solace also offers a mode for caregivers or parents of transgender children.

A premium service, Solace Plus, has been introduced for subscribers who would like to give back. While the app is non-profit and free for users, signing up for Solace Plus creates revenue for the app's developers to improve its service while rewarding subscribers with monthly gifts such as a greeting and a gift card redeemable at LGBTQ-friendly businesses such as Sephora or Nike, or online services relevant to transitioning.

You can expect to hear more about Solace now that the company has hired its first marketing director and will launch a social media campaign as part of its marketing and outreach. Solace will remain free to download and advertising-free and intends to stay that way.

There are no plans to enlist the endorsement of a trans celebrity, and McHugh has good reason.

"Within this community, something we see frequently is the dichotomy between the haves and have-nots. We want to give Solace users access to resources to pursue everything that they need to get done on their list. Our belief is that if you treat folks with dignity and give them agency and affirm who they are in their heart of hearts, then that's what resonates."

While the pandemic drags on and further isolation impacts those transitioning, Solace offers a proactive way to stay engaged in self-care. "It's huge," says McHugh, "and for some people, it's literally lifesaving."

Merryn Johns is a writer and editor based in New York City. She is also a public speaker on ethical travel and a consultant on marketing to the LGBT community.