RIEN FINCH HEIDT has faced struggles in his young life that no one should have to endure.

At 31, he is finally finding some peace though, living in Waterville, a community that seems to be more accepting than others.

I became acquainted with Heidt after he started attending Waterville City Council meetings and speaking during community notes, a session where people can make announcements, express concerns or ask questions.

Heidt, chairman of the Waterville Democratic City Committee, would talk about caucuses, candidates, elections and related matters. Sometimes he would speak for Friends of Green Street Park, a recreational area in the city’s South End, for which he is technical project manager. The organization is trying to raise funds to help improve the skate park and build a playground there.

Heidt also is the fundraising chairman of Central Maine Pride, which hosts an annual festival for those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. While he speaks openly now about his sexual identity, it has not always been so. While there are various definitions for “trans,” as he refers to it, he has his own: “For me, whether you are not trans or trans, it’s how you identify inside of yourself, and your sexuality is how you define yourself in relation to others.”

Heidt — articulate, expressive and verbal — grew up in Wisconsin as Hannah Heidt, a female. This year, he decided to change his name to Rien, though not legally, and ask people to refer to him by using the male pronoun “he.”

As a young girl growing up in a relatively conservative Catholic family, the idea of “coming out” was unimaginable.

Hannah and her sister and brother attended Catholic schools and lived a fairly routine life, though early on Hannah realized something was wrong — that she felt male.

“It’s very isolating growing up in an environment where you feel you can’t say anything. I was teased in high school for a variety of other things. There was a girl I had been seeing and we would face a lot of discrimination. We’d go out to eat at Denny’s because it was the only place we could afford and the wait staff would treat us terribly. They would take forever to take our order, bring food out that was cold, spill drinks on our table.”

One day, they complained to the manager, who produced a legal-looking document and said they had to submit their complaint in writing and sign it — and they would have to have their parents sign it as well.

“We left without signing, which is exactly what he wanted. We were two scared 17-year-olds. We had nowhere to go. Gay marriage hadn’t been legalized anywhere in the country yet. It drove us apart.”

That was just the beginning of Hannah’s struggles.

FINDING IDENTITY

While in high school, she organized a gay rights day of silence. The day before it was to occur, the principal told her she must give her a list of names of everyone who was going to take part or she would shut it down. Hannah told her she had been talking to a news reporter, and the students would hold the event outside on the sidewalk if it was not allowed inside, and the media would cover it. The principal relented and allowed it to be held inside.

Hannah’s parents were in the dark about her sexuality, and she was terrified of ever telling them. One day when she was 18, she tested her mother as they were traveling in the car.

“I said, ‘Mom, hypothetically, what would you say if I liked girls?’ And she flat-out said, ‘I would say that you were depressed and we need to find you someone to talk to.’ For my mom, it was nothing. She probably doesn’t remember this conversation, but for me it was just earth-shattering. I knew she was not someone I could come and talk to.”

Hannah went off to college, dropped out, got a one-way plane ticket to Hawaii without telling anyone, and tried to sort out her life. She would live in three states before finally settling down. Before her brother was to be married, she told him and her sister and grandmother about being gay, as she planned to bring her girlfriend to the wedding, but vowed not to do so if it would cause a scene. Her sister and brother were supportive and her grandmother surprisingly so.

“She said, ‘I don’t agree with this. I don’t understand, but I want my granddaughter to be happy, and I want to meet this person who’s making my granddaughter happy.'”

Hannah still did not tell her parents, but it didn’t matter as she and her girlfriend broke up just before the wedding. The struggles continued.

“Just the whole stress behind ‘How many people’s permission do I need to get to bring this person to the wedding’ was mind-boggling. I was lucky I got the reactions I did from my brother, sister and grandmother. Lots of people haven’t been so lucky.”

In 2007, Hannah moved to Minnesota, where she would face more travails. A man she knew wanted to have a sexual relationship with her and the feeling wasn’t mutual.

One day he raped her, she said. Focusing on getting through the terror and pain, she threw herself into her studies at University of Minnesota, where she was a student and from which she eventually would obtain a Bachelor of Science in geography.

One day, while discussing sexuality issues with her friends — she did not like the term “lesbian” and did not feel it was right for her — a friend told her she thought Hannah was transgender. While she was annoyed at first that someone would label her as such, the revelation would come to represent a great epiphany. She read everything she could get her hands on about being transgender and finally felt comfortable with that.

“But there was still a lot of stress, a lot of pressure, in particular with my family. I had two sets of clothes. I had two wallets, I had two watches and two sets of shoes. I’d go on a plane to visit my parents for Christmas and put on the right sweater, grab the right wallet, just in this attempt to make them happy. Not ‘coming out’ to them was always, always because of their faith. I was a willful kid, and they always forgave me. They were always there. They were like, you are a kid, we love you. There was just this feeling that this is the line that their faith won’t let them cross. It meant, and it still means, so much to have them in my life. I love my parents. I decided it was a sacrifice worth making to deny my identity so they’d still let me be their kid.”

GETTING HELP

That burden turned out to be too much to bear for Hannah, who plummeted to a deep place.

“The depression that comes from that, the self-loathing that comes from that, just all accumulated in 2009. Take all of that, take all of the struggles and put it against that of any other daily struggles and try to navigate the fallout from being raped, going to school, struggling with post traumatic stress disorder, hiding my identify and living a dual life — there’s no way someone can manage that. It’s just an unimaginable struggle.”

Hannah attempted suicide and it would not be the only time.

He — and I refer to then-Hannah now as Rien, as that is how he identifies himself — was bereft. He needed a reason to live and took in a feral rescue cat he named “Athena.” He found a loyal friend in the long-haired, black and white feline that would attack his friends but always purr while in his arms.

“I needed something to live for, and I felt I wasn’t living for myself. I had a family that didn’t quite understand — and I felt couldn’t understand — so I got Athena and she was just my lifeline.”

In 2010, Rien got a job and immediately came out to his employer. He was then fired, he said. After graduating from college, he couldn’t find a job, had no insurance and therefore was unable to go to a therapist, which he desperately needed.

Around that time, he was offered a job in Maine as a political organizer for the Democratic party and he embraced the idea. He moved to Waterville, fell in love with the city and eventually landed a job at Collaborative Consulting, which recently was bought by CGI. He enjoyed the job but wound up in the hospital and spent the next couple of months piecing together his life.

“It wasn’t easy. I wound up back in the hospital in June, and I’d actually brought my parents in to talk to the doctors. My mom was so devastatingly heartbroken and she asked the doctor, ‘We’ve been watching her struggle with depression our entire lives. What can we do? How do we make this stop?’ “

In June this year, Rien finally told his parents, face-to-face, that he was transgender. He had joined a support group that gave him the confidence to start being himself. He approached Collaborative and asked to have his job back — he said he hadn’t told the company why he left — and decided to ‘come out’ to his employer. He asked to be called “Rien,” an Irish-Germanic name that means “little king,” he said, and requested his peers refer to him as “he.”

Though he was fearful of speaking out, his boss was amazingly supportive, as was an official who is higher up in the company.

“The day I came out to my co-workers, I was so nervous I threw up,” Rien said. “I had lost friends. I had been fired from a job. You don’t know how people are going to react, and it involves a huge degree of vulnerability. I think most people can’t understand that because you’re not just saying, ‘Hey, I’m trans, hey I’m gay.’ For a lot of us, it’s here’s this thing I’ve been keeping secret and have been chewed up about, and I’m putting it on the table and I don’t know what you’re going to do.”

‘WE ARE HERE’

When he finally told his parents, it was like a huge burden had been lifted.

“My dad said, ‘All we ever wanted for you was for you to be happy,’ and my mom cried.”

A longtime quilter, Rien’s mother carefully folded and packaged a beautiful quilt she had been working on and which Rien had been admiring and handed it to him. When Rien got it home, he unfolded it and found a note inside from his mother.

“She signed it, ‘XOXO. Mom.’ Eventually, my mom and I are going to be OK, and I know she’s going to be OK with it because she still gave me the quilt. This is the first quilt she pieced and designed herself instead of using a pattern.”

When I interviewed Rien, he was smiling, bubbly even. But he worries about a lot of things, like whether in the wake of the presidential election, things might change. He worries for a friend who works at Planned Parenthood. He also worries about the recent rise in hate crimes in New York City and feels it is a ticking time bomb.

“I’m not worried about me; I’m absolutely terrified for my friends,” he said.

People have two choices, according to Rien — to sit quietly and live with the terror, or go out and confront it.

“We are here, we are valuable, we deserve to be here, we’re not going away. We shouldn’t hide who we are. That’s kind of the side of the fence I’m on — you just meet the terror head-on and close your eyes and pray. I’m not scared of being in Waterville. Waterville has a history of being a diverse, inclusive community, and maybe I’ll just be a tiny bit of an idealist and a romantic and believe that it’ll hold, that we’ll always be a diverse and inclusive community.”

He asked that I mention there are a lot of LGBT support groups in central Maine from which people who feel marginalized can gain strength.

And he asks that people come together as a community and say, “It’s OK. You’re safe here. It’s OK to be here. We want you here.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter for 28 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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