If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that it can be tricky to come across as genuine virtually. But Gaela Solo has the skill down. She has a soothing yet confident phone presence. She’s the person you’d want to pick up the phone in a crisis. And, in fact, she often is that person.
Solo works as a peer hotline operator at Trans Lifeline. The line is run by and for trans and nonbinary folks in the US, and is intended to provide safe, anonymous support to trans or questioning people who need someone to talk to. Solo, a trans Latina woman based in New York, says that although people don’t have to be in crisis to call the hotline, many callers are struggling with mental health, discrimination, economic insecurity, or transitioning.
Solo has spent much of the pandemic taking calls and offering support, resources, and, most importantly, a listening ear. We asked her some questions about the importance of her work, barriers to mental health for trans people, and why she loves doing what she does.
Refinery29: How did you get involved with Trans Lifeline?
Gaela Solo: “I heard about Trans Lifeline in 2015. I was in the middle of my transition at the time. I was not in a place to offer any support to others. But I thought it was a great organisation, so I kept it in mind. I first started training to volunteer with them in 2018, but I didn’t go through with it. I had a major mental health crisis that I had to address first. But then in May 2020, Trans Lifeline reached back out to me because they were launching their Spanish extension and needed bilingual callers. I soon went from volunteer to a part-time staffer.”
What’s the process of taking a call like?
“Especially with new callers, I start off by introducing the line to them. Many people don’t know where to start when they call us, they just know they want to connect with another trans person. It can be pretty scary at first. I give them information about the line, tell them it’s anonymous, and make a huge point of stating our no active rescue policy — we don’t report our calls to outside emergency services or the police without the caller’s explicit consent. That’s largely due to our community’s distrust of the police. Not only is law enforcement ill-equipped to handle different kinds of crises, but they often actively antagonise our community. We establish that this really is a safe space.
“If someone wants to talk about suicidality or suicidal ideation, we can ask them how they’re caring for themselves, what support they have. I try to keep the mood levels pretty calm, just so we can hold space. Ultimately, people just want to be heard. And I’m happy to listen.
“If it’s more escalated than that, if they’ve taken pills, I’ll do a quick check list on where they are, who’s around, what care they have at their disposal, and what they want to do next. I’ll admit, I sometimes want to intervene and physically do things to help the caller. But they have to want the help. It’s a tough thing, but it helps to remind myself that I’m a peer operator at a hotline, and there’s only a specific kind of support that I can offer. I focus on doing that to the best of my ability.”
That’s so tough. How do you prepare and get yourself in the headspace to take calls like these?
“I take most of my calls in the morning, so I make sure that I wake up at least an hour before I start, so that I can take care of the basics, giving myself enough time to have coffee and breakfast — to do a stretch or meditation. This is all so I can feel calm in my body, and mentally prepare myself. We operators take on a huge collective burden.”
Did you notice any upticks in calls over the past year, either timed to COVID-19 spikes or major events like the election or the insurrection on Jan. 6?
“I did get some calls where the election triggered something in the callers. In general though, there’s always a higher uptick when the holidays start. They’re a touchy subject, and many of us don’t have our birth families by our side. It happened that this holiday season happened at the same time as a COVID spike.”
What’s it like working there amid the pandemic?
“This job is really feeding my soul right now. Even in a time of crisis, being of service to others has really helped me get by and has informed my own journey through the pandemic. I had COVID-19 back in mid-March, and am still suffering from long-term cardiac effects. But supporting others adds purpose to my life — and I get to keep a pulse on my community.”
You offer support to people every time you take a call. What does “support” mean to you?
“I’m a trans Latina woman, and I’m a very self-sufficient person, very independent. I take pride in my autonomy. But I can’t do everything on my own, and I shouldn’t try to. I don’t have a birth family by my side, so I have to keep my chosen family really close to me and remind myself that I can turn to others for support. That’s really key for me as a trans person who’s supporting others. You don’t know how to help others unless someone’s helped you. The two have to go hand in hand.”
You mentioned you’ve struggled with mental health in the past. Does that help you connect to your callers?
“In 2018, I was in a long stretch of unemployment, living in a new city, and was sinking into a deeper and deeper depression. It got to the point where I was having anxiety attacks. Someone in my chosen family encouraged me to consider antidepressants. I was so resistant to it for so long, but eventually I decided to give it a try. That’s what it took for me to get a hold on life. But I got out of that situation, and knowing I did so helps me deal with the uncertainties of life.
“I use my experiences to help relate to other people on my calls, to make them feel less alone. I remember what it’s like being out in public when you’re just transitioning. I can talk to them if they’re thinking of going on hormone replacement therapy.
“I’m always up front with my callers about these specifics, and remind them they can take things one step at a time, go their own pace, and they can always call the shots. I like to emphasize the agency that my callers have. Trans people are not often encouraged to own their power, so I often make that the focal point of the call.”
When you were struggling with your own mental health, did you call the Trans Lifeline?
“Looking back, I wish I had, but I didn’t. I thought it was only for people who are in serious crisis, but what I’ve learned is that you don’t have to be in crisis to call us or someone who can help. In fact, we encourage people to call any time, because if we can prevent a crisis from happening early on, that’s for the better.”
That’s a good point. How has it been working Trans Lifeline’s Spanish extension, and helping Latinx or Spanish-speaking trans folks who are struggling with their identities?
“Some of the Latinx trans people who call have a lot of concerns with things like immigration and detention — trans women have died in detention. So, there’s a lot of fear. In those cases, I double down on how we don’t report our calls to police or any outside source. Other people just want someone to relate to. Usually, the callers and I don’t just get one another as trans folks, but understand the cultural upbringing. We might have both had large families, or maybe we were both raised religiously. You might not get that cultural understanding elsewhere.”
You’ve talked a lot about your chosen family. Where should trans people start if they don’t have a support system like that?
“My strategy is: Reach out to your local LGBTQ+ center or a gender clinic because those places have a much better pulse on what resources are trans-friendly, and can connect you with your community.”
What’s the most fulfilling part about doing this work, and are there sentiments people have shared with you on calls that have stuck with you?
“I can’t share specifics about calls, but I can share that I have a couple of regulars on the line. I can recognise their voice and the way they speak. When that happens, we can start to check in with each other, almost like anonymous friends. I’ve had a few calls where we’ve been able to talk about music and art and how amazing and transformative they’ve been for us. We can transcend strictly trans topics, and that’s where it gets human. I love the calls where we can both be reminded that we, as trans people — even though we’re part of a small community — we contain multitudes and have such richness of life. I live for calls like that.”
If you are a trans person thinking about suicide or experiencing a crisis, please call the Switchboard LGBTQ+ Helpline on 0300 330 0630 from 10am-10pm every day. Out of hours, please call Samaritans on 116 123.
This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.