Despite assurances from the Human Rights Campaign, the insurance system surrounding a medical gender transition is still a thorny issue for Fortune 500 companies. Starbucks— the LGBTQ+ corporate inclusion behemoth—attracted a considerable working segment of the transgender community with re-vamped insurance policies that supposedly covered the “cosmetic” parts of the gender transition.
I started working at Starbucks part-time in fall 2018 with high hopes of getting a full-fledged rhinoplasty. The Seattle brewer beefed up its support system with an Office Space transgender liaison who shepherded baristas through the myriad of hurdles.
The reality? My liaison’s thoughtful responses were buried underneath a byzantine layer of corporate doublespeak gobbledygook. In Feb. 2020, a Twitter campaign confirmed the obvious. According to baristas, Starbucks didn’t live up to the trans savior hype.
Meanwhile, in some parts of the country, much-needed transgender assistance gets overwhelmed by LGBTQ+ social services geared primarily to the Gs. And that makes the medical gender transition seem even worse than it usually is, with few solutions actually propagated by transgender individuals who have completed a full transition in positions of power.
All of which explains why gender transition apps have been the next frontier for Silicon Valley developers.
Evergreen State tech entrepreneur Robbi Katherine Anthony is one of the people hoping to solve the struggles that exist for transgender individuals in the 21st century. Billed as the gender transition app, her company Solace was launched at last year’s LGBTQIA Hackathon in Austin, Tex.
The homey Oprah-style graphics immediately pop out at the user. The tone is soft, but the second page gets into the nitty-gritty. There’s aggregated information about how to buy a bra or update your gender marker with the DMV.
As a trans woman, Anthony has struggled herself. She’s a graphic design and IT support guru, who knows the importance of simplicity in a complicated gender transition. When she pulled Solace together, she filled up the interface with buttons that light up in a cherry blossom pink color for completed transition-related tasks. The interior, designed with the elements of a Siri-inspired virtual assistant, eventually gives way to more complex procedures such as laser hair removal.
Gatekeeping, the practice of doctors sometimes shrouding certain aspects of the gender transition behind their own ingrained biases of the gender construct, occasionally prevents trans patients from wading deeper into their transitions. The process varies wildly from state to state, so the trans patient can’t fully know whether the promised content is being fully delivered.
According to Anthony, Solace aims to present a comprehensive compendium that allows the latest state guidelines to be aggregated piecemeal. With new projects such as a local guide to gender transitions through Medicaid recently unveiled, Autostraddle decided to touch base with Anthony about new projects on the horizon in 2020. This interview took place over the phone on March 10, 2020. It was conducted before the Coronavirus lockdown and has been edited for length and clarity.
Autostraddle: So starting off, could you tell us how big Solace is?
Robbi Katherine Anthony: We have coverage in all 50 states. We’re looking to expand into Mexico and New Zealand later this year. We’re still in the first half of that proverbial bell curve. We’re really happy with the growth and there’s still a long way to go to reach that goal. It really exceeded our expectations. In terms of the user goal we set for 2020, we’re already eclipsed 60 percent for that.
In your experience, how have Silicon Valley executives been in terms of treating you as an equal? I imagine there’s rampant transphobia in a predominantly cisgender white male workspace.
That’s the interesting thing about going the non-profit route. We circumnavigated those traditional gatekeepers. We’re based in Spokane, Washington. The Silicon Valley types aren’t really out here in full-force. Discrimination runs rampant. Investors generally invest in people who look like them. Going the non-profit route, we were able to go around these gatekeepers and raise money from foundations and individual grants. It’s our way of kind of cheating the system.
So I don’t know much about gender transitions outside of my personal experience. With my transition, there are so many moving variables and goalposts. How is Solace able to navigate the highly individualized variables in a gender transition?
When you go through registration, there may be a couple of gender transition goals that you want to add to your list. By no means are they mandatory. You really can build the list that makes the most sense for you. We also have special filters within Solace. It gives users more individualized content based on the state in which they live and pronouns that they use. In future releases, we’re hoping to expand the concept and get into the county level with legal and medical.
Insurance has frustrated me with this gender transition. Even if you have really good insurance with transgender benefits, you have to fight denials. Does Solace have the technology to navigate the arcane insurance nuances that prevent a lot of people from transitioning?
We have a resource in Solace that speaks to insurance in terms of Medicare and being eligible for that. We also speak to getting a private plan or employer plan. We cover the different situations in saying this is something to look out for. Here are the right protocols and the language that they’re going to use. Here are the questions to ask if you’re going through an employer. Here are the laws to be aware of.
So will Solace be able to really articulate the nuances of insurance? When I attempted a gender transition at Starbucks, their corporate transgender support person was still clueless about the insurance rigmarole. I know that insurance is proprietary information, too. Do you see addressing the complexities of insurance as really workable with an app?
Yeah, I do. Currently, we’re a team of two. Our bandwidth is really constrained. As we grow and raise more money with grants, I see us hiring more people that could really flesh out the answers and help navigate. We currently try to put all that information out there and allow people to parse through it. We also have the functionality with Solace that allows people to enter in certain aspects of their life. It generates a very nuanced way to approach these things. It’s a bit of an open question. I definitely see us being able to approach it. At present, Solace has 200,000 words in it. We’ll definitely hit 250,000 words by the end of the year. In the upcoming years, I can see us around 500,000 to even a million words. The insurance part is something that we’re aware of and we’re trying to move as fast as possible.
Have users been frustrated with the unsolved insurance conundrums in Solace?
We’ve heard back from a few people about parts they wanted to flesh out more. We’ve had people point out inaccuracies. There’s a button at the bottom where people can report inaccuracy. It’s a very small percentage of our user base. Every time we get those messages, we double down.
Since you only have two people on staff, are you looking to add more members to your team?
Yeah, I’d like to add at least one more full-time employee this year. Naturally, I expect us to get bigger as time goes on and the money’s there. At the very least, I see us becoming a team of three or four in 2020. With our growth and income on the pattern, we hope to keep growing.
What are some of the features in development and how will they be affected by the upcoming election? Do you believe that Joe Biden would be supportive?
In terms of features, we have a dashboard online that demonstrates some of that upcoming development. One of the things that we’re working on is a Web-only version of Solace. It’s not a complete copy of the app. It’s a different articulation of it. That’s just ensuring that more people can use it in ways that they’re comfortable with. We’re also working on a printed edition of Solace. That’s going to be for educators, professionals, school counselors, and support groups. We’re working on our second flagship application and hopefully releasing it by the end of 2020. In terms of the political scenario, we’re obviously very attuned to the news and how things change. We’ll just brace for impact based on the election. We’re generally not reactionary. We try to be very pro-active in how we approach these things. Let’s say there’s a change in the executive branch. It’s probably not going to change a whole lot in Solace until actual laws get changed.
So can you talk about this new flagship Bliss app or is it still under development?
Bliss is targeting another problem that we’ve recognized as an inhibitor in a transition. We started with a market research survey and asked: “What are the things that have held you back from a gender transition?” The top three items included a lack of access to reliable information, which is something Solace addresses. The second item was financial. Being able to afford a transition is a pretty tall order and not everyone can do that. Bliss seeks to address that problem. The third problem is the community. We are trying to cultivate the social connections that are important for the transition. We’re not sharing the feature sets right yet. We’re still very early in the development process.
I’ve researched this financial issue extensively. I talked to a transgender wealth manager on the West Coast. He sometimes advises his clients to take on more debt, which is an unconventional viewpoint. The severity of gender dysphoria sometimes requires that. Is that something you find with Solace users? Should people be putting themselves into more debt for a gender transition?
I can’t say I found a lot of evidence to support that. I haven’t focused on answering that specific question. We will be using a different financial tool and it will not put our users into debt or recommend they go into debt. I do understand the logic there. I’m in a conjecture valley right now. You would want to go through a gender transition as quickly and expeditiously as possible. It will create a better quality of life and make your job prospects easier. The debt can be repaid faster post-transition versus trying to piecemeal it. I do have a theory there. I don’t know if I’m a firm believer in it myself. You’re essentially taking a mortgage out on your most authentic self. I give credence to that.
Could you talk about your experience at the LGBT Hackathon? I’d be interested to hear about the marketing channels that exist for a gender transition app.
We’ve been really lucky that we haven’t engaged in traditional marketing yet. We see a spike in users whenever we speak to the press. We’ve got really good word-of-mouth right now. We’ve seen our user count consistently climb without lifting a finger. And part of our plan is that we would tap into the existing networks that are out there. There are communities that want to work with the transgender community and they have these channels. By virtue of being a non-profit and not monetizing our users, it governs how we spend marketing dollars because we don’t get an immediate return on investment. If I was to drop $10,000 on marketing, I wouldn’t have a way to recoup that. I sometimes reach out to people by email or groups at bigger companies Thus far, that’s what has been fueling our growth. It’s word-of-mouth. It’s a really wonderful multiplier effect.
As you look to grow further, how do you balance the capitalist realities with operating as a non-profit?
We’re pretty heavily reliant on grants. We’re a fiscally sponsored project of a larger non-profit. And then, we just have some faithful and fearless donors. They give to us on a recurring or one-time basis. The combination of all that has provided us with a budget and what we need to do. It’s extraordinarily lean. I am not getting rich off of this. It’s a little bit of luck, timing and a lot of financial savvy in getting the right people in the right roles.
Last question. I live in Nashville. And I know it’s worse in other parts of the South with gender transitions. How have you managed to address the gender transition deserts that exist in the Deep South?
Two things. Solace is very secure. There’s definitely trust that we are able to proliferate in those areas. There’s not a concern about this information being published anywhere. Secondly, we write our content in a very cautious tone. The worst-case scenario is our starting point to coach you from point A to point B.