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Around the time that Leo Soell publicly came out as transgender, they were diagnosed with breast cancer and found treatment at Legacy Meridian Park Medical Center

Editor's note:

[In this story, "they," "them" and "their" have been used as singular, gender-neutral pronouns in regard to Leo Soell. We made this decision to stay true to Soell's gender-neutral identity.]

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The first time Leo Soell saw themselves in a mirror after having a bilateral mastectomy and a haircut, it was the first time they'd felt as though their physical appearance matched their internal identity since childhood.

Words breathe life into every corner of an apartment in Southeast Portland — taped to mirrors and doors, lining bookshelves and tabletops, scrawled on whiteboards and framed posters.

Words from sisters, words from best friends, words from within. On a photo taped to the bottom corner of the bathroom mirror are 24 words to give you pause:

Your hair will grow back and look like this. Your name is Leo. You are strong. Your gender is real. This is real life.

“I identify as transgender. Specifically, I say transmasculine and genderqueer,” said Leo Soell, 25. “The genderqueer piece comes from not identifying within the gender binary of male and female — so (I fit in) along the spectrum, in between.”

Identifying along the spectrum, outside the boxes of “male” or “female,” means that Soell also doesn’t identify with “he” or “she.” Soell prefers the pronoun “they,” a linguistic transition they began implementing two years ago with close friends, and last February with the world. During this time, they also worked with doctors at Tualatin’s Legacy Meridian Park Medical Center, who played a vital role in their gender identity transition.

“Some people might argue, ‘Why don’t you just use “he?” It’s masculine,’” said Soell. “But ‘they’ continuously points to the fact that the language is not inclusive.”TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Within the Gresham-Barlow School District, Leo Soell is the first out transgender teacher.

By definition, “they” can mean a group of people or a single person of unspecified gender, but the language has whittled away at the latter meaning. Using “they” as a singular pronoun sets off grammar alarms in many people’s brains, including Soell’s, when they first begin changing pronouns.

Growing up outside of Boulder, Colo., Soell was born a female named Brina. They remember being one of the only kids in class who was invited to girl and boy birthday parties — yet even then, Soell knew they didn’t quite fit in either category. When their mother would take them shopping, she’d let them choose which department to buy their clothes. Through competitive soccer, Soell was acutely aware that the boys’ jerseys just said “soccer,” while the girls’ uniforms read “girls soccer.”

Then, at age 13, health complications led Soell’s doctors to prescribe a high dose of birth control medication, setting into motion eight years of skirt-wearing and unbalanced hormones. After much self reflection and analyses with doctors, Soell believes that the added hormones from the medicine prompted a dramatic change in personality and a more feminine gender identity.

“As a 15-year-old, how do you even deal with all that?” Soell said, noting that as someone who’s always been attracted to women, traditional birth control uses didn’t apply.

During those years, Soell felt “off” and tried to vocalize their concerns, but didn’t know how. That feeling persisted until five years ago when unexplained liver failure prompted them to stop taking the pill.

Within months, dresses were traded for pants; mood swings were swapped for stability.

“I can’t imagine being 45 and still wearing dresses. Like, I can’t even fathom 45 years of wearing dresses and being me,” said Soell. “It’s horrifying to me. It’s so scary, because I knew something was off even as an adolescent, but I didn’t have the words.”

— — —

Within a few years of Soell’s transformation, their health started failing again, just months after starting to come out as trans at age 23. For several months, things were perfect — Soell was living their most authentic life so far and their body was responding. Previously unable to grow armpit hair, Soell suddenly had some; always athletic but scrawny, their muscle mass increased; endless compliments about their smell hinted to a change in pheromones.

“Once I figured out who I was, finally, with words, it’s interesting because my body sort of started changing by itself,” Soell said. “You can imagine all of these things combined — and this sounds ridiculous — but it actually felt like my actual puberty had started as a 23-year-old.”

That was in August of 2013. But by November, Soell was crashing. Weight loss and intense lethargy were met with doctor after doctor saying “It’s all in your head.” Meanwhile, Soell voiced the words “I think I have cancer” to a friend.

Exactly one year later, they were proven right.TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - A note from Leo Soell's older sister Heli leans against the wall in Soell's Southeast Portland apartment.

— — —

A fifth-grade teacher in the Gresham-Barlow School District, Soell doesn’t take days off. Where career paths are choices for some, for Soell it is intrinsic — teaching is as much a part of their identity as being trans. Even during the spring of 2014, when it felt as though “there was a dragon in the room at all times trying to eat me alive,” Soell didn’t falter.

By that April, they had found Megan Bird, Medical Director of Legacy Medical Group Women’s Specialties, who practices out of West Linn and operates at Meridian Park. Soell worked with Bird for months and began taking a low dosage of testosterone before a lump under their arm and a climax of symptoms set into motion the next phase of the battle within Soell’s body.

It was a weekday in October and Soell was at school when the dragon eating away at them grew stronger and they knew these symptoms warranted a trip to the emergency room. But upon arrival, the hospital staff told Soell they were just experiencing heavy bleeding from their period.

“They all, once again, thought I was crazy,” Soell said.

Bird was called and Soell went to her office in West Linn; the next day, a biopsy was performed to examine the lump, and on Friday, a voicemail on Soell’s phone asked them to come in as soon as work ended.

“I knew that I had cancer because we were led to a room with a bunch of nature photos,” Soell said, running their right hand from the top of their forehead to the back of their head. “Then Dr. Bird came in and told me.”TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - She isn't fond of strangers, but Leo Soell's cat Aimee fits right into her owner's cozy apartment.

Stage 1. Breast cancer. Not genetic. Estrogen positive. These were the things that Soell would learn over the coming weeks, all leading up to a bilateral mastectomy. Always in tune with their physical and mental selves, Soell doesn’t think it was happenstance that their cancer targeted the gendered parts of their body.

“I do think it happened to me for a reason, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I got this particular cancer at this age,” they said. “I think that fighting cancer is the only thing harder than fighting oppression, and gives you enough courage and also stubbornness to continue on your way. For me, I needed that reminder big-time.”

Having breast cancer was Soell’s first real look at top surgery — a term specific to breast surgery for transgender patients — but getting implants made no sense to Soell or their gender identity.

With that, Soell’s transition became a little clearer to those around them.

“It sort of gives a really easy excuse for people to understand the transition part of it,” Soell said. “I don’t think you need an excuse — you shouldn’t need an excuse — but for now, it’s been a good bridge into the normative community.”

After their December top surgery at Meridian Park, Soell completed one more step to creating external and internal harmony — a haircut.

Read more

This story is part one in a two-part series on Leo's journey. Click here to read Part Two.

“Right after that surgery was when I had my haircut revolution,” they said. “I was like ‘You know what? You only live once. I need to start matching some things up with myself.’ And I cut my hair short. That was a huge deal for me.”

When Soell got home, they looked at themselves in the mirror and snapped a photo.

“That was the first time I didn’t have gender dysphoria since I was a kid,” they said. “Because between my hair and my top surgery, I could look in the mirror and see myself.”

Two weeks later, after learning they’d need chemotherapy, Soell taped the photo to the bathroom mirror with a self-affirming note: “Your hair will grow back and look like this. This is real life.”

Seven months later, the photo still hangs from the mirror, and Soell’s hair is growing back.TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - For Leo Soell, a cancer diagnosis meants months of spreadsheets to coordinate care and side effects from chemo that left them unable to eat or drink for one week every month during treatment.

— — —

Initially, Soell was told they’d need six rounds of chemo every three weeks, but intense side effects cut treatment short by two rounds in exchange for a hysterectomy performed by Bird at Meridian Park.

Throughout the treatment, which left Soell unable to eat or drink, solo hikes were the one thing that made them feel toxin-free. Though deemed foolish by their team of doctors at the time, Soell took to the trees anyway, knowing that it was essential for healing.

“Anytime I finished a hike, it was the cleanest I felt. It was the only time where I didn’t have the taste of chemicals in my mouth throughout all of treatment,” they said. “After each round, you needed a reason to keep going because they sucked. They were horrible, so I kept having these tiny revolutions in between rounds.”

On a hike in the Columbia River Gorge between the third and fourth rounds of chemotherapy, Soell decided to change their name.

“With each step, I felt stronger and more whole,” Soell wrote later in their journal. “I knew in that summit that hiking is what will get me through chemo. One step at a time, surrounded by trees and the comfort of belonging to something greater than myself.”TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Near Leo Soell's apartment is a cemetery they often walk through. An interesting hang-out for some, but for Soell, it brings clarity.

After that hike, they arrived home and told a couple friends to call them Leo, a name chosen both for its masculinity and astrological might. Instantly, they felt that the name fit.

Soell called their older sister, Heli, to announce the change in a final test, but didn’t tell her the new moniker. After Heli guessed correctly on the first try, Soell went to the Multnomah County Courthouse the following day to file the paperwork for their name change.

Two weeks later, after their fourth round of chemo, they were back for the hearing in a beanie sans eyebrows, giddy with excitement, and would shortly be writing their name on brunch waiting lists and exclaiming “That’s me!” upon hearing “Leo?”

“It was ridiculous that I was ever named anything but Leo,” they said. “It’s just like after I had top surgery. I can’t believe I hadn’t had it until that moment.”

— — —

Soell’s intention was never to be more visible than anyone else. They describe their upbringing as privileged, a reality they are hyper aware of today. For Soell, higher education meant Lewis & Clark College, a place where they were able to study gender identity and learn about themselves from a scholarly perspective.

“I had all this privilege to now have a body that fits my gender and even the ability to buy clothes that fit my gender. Not everyone can do that. ... I match up quite a lot with my gender, but people still misgender me,” Soell said. “So then I think about a kid who’s living in a conservative, rural community who has no access to any of this and what their life must be like.”

For these reasons, Soell knew they couldn’t be silent, that they couldn’t let others call them “she” or “woman” or “girl” just because it’s easier in the moment. So when their coming out matched up with the cancer attacking the gendered parts of their body, they knew they had a chance to be heard.

“Stuff started happening to me and the world was not ready for me. So I’m trying to make the world ready for other people,” Soell said. “I just fought cancer and everything changed overnight.

“But was I rude to people or mean? Or disrespectful because everything in my life changed? No, I wasn’t. If I can do that when I have poison in my veins, (people) can do that when someone is asking to be themselves. So I have a lower tolerance for intolerance because of that.” TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - While fighting cancer, writing was a large part of Leo Soell's healing process.

As Soell explains it, they’re faced with “a lot of ‘otherness,’ but it’s just me being me.” They’re a person expressing themselves the truest way they know how and are working toward a world where inclusion is given, not just sought.

“Inclusion is always positive, as long as everybody is happy and healthy and treating everybody with respect,” they said. “I think that love wins, no matter what.”

And everywhere you look around Soell’s apartment, that sentiment rings true. Notes from students, flags from favorite countries, signs from pride events. And framed in a shadow box is a chest port, the medical device that delivered their chemo drips.

“For you, we are building,” reads the frame’s mat in handwritten letters. “The only way out is through.”

Around the corner, a whiteboard note from sister Heli leans against the bright blue wall that matches Soell’s eyes. “Fearlessness is being terrified and moving forward anyway.”

Across the hall, taped to a closet door and written in red marker, an end-of-year message from a student — “I appreciate my life. I learned to be (my)self. I will miss Leo.”

And written in a notebook in tidy, thoughtful scrawl, a personal reminder in the form of a six-word memoir: teacher, learner, advocate, lover, perceiver, lion.TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - At just 25 years old, Leo Soell is a teacher, cancer survivor and advocate.

By Caitlin Feldman
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