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'I'm much happier than I was three years ago.' Singer Sam Bettens on his transition and new, 'revealing' music video

Friends call him brother. His children say daddy. One day he hopes to become a grandfather. Sam Bettens (49) was known worldwide as the lead singer of Belgian band K's Choice when he decided to transition. And now he walks the beach in swimming trunks: 'I never want to hide myself again.'

Tomboy

As a young girl, Sam Bettens was a tomboy and wore the clothes of his two big brothers. He did not question his gender; he had never heard of the word transgender. 'I was a girl and got breasts, I accepted that reality.'

In the summer of 2018, Bettens began to understand exactly what the nagging feeling he had had for years meant. 'I saw a picture of friends' child who was born a girl but as soon as he could talk cried out that he was a boy. That's how he went to school too. I thought back to the horrible skirts I had to wear at my Catholic school and felt a stab of jealousy.' Not long after, his wife Stef developed breast cancer and had to undergo a double mastectomy. 'That evoked in me the wry thought that I would actually like it if I no longer had breasts.'

Transition

After long conversations with a transgender friend, his wife and a therapist, he realised he wanted to go through life as a man. Thanks to hormone therapy and breast surgery, he finally became Sam. Like many other transgender people, he therefore prefers not to use his former name anymore, no matter how well known he became under it.

Bettens spoke candidly about his transition in interviews and vlogs. The cover of George Michaels Freedom by his band Rex Rebel, was a quip: in the music video, we see Bettens donning one male outfit after another, exploring who he wants to be. In the clip accompanying the new single Body he walks around bare-chested. For men born as men, this is nothing special; for Bettens, as a transman, it is sensitive.

Sam Bettens: 'Being able to be completely yourself is a universal theme' ©Richard Mertens

Why did you want this, to show yourself with bared upper body?

'The number Body is about daring to show yourself as you are, which is not just about being transgender. The subject is universal, because we all long to just be able to be ourselves. When we were working on the clip, I suddenly thought: this might be the moment to show what I look like as a transman, two years after my breast surgery. Precisely because I am privileged and not bothered by negative reactions, I feel the responsibility to mean something to all those people who do have to deal with judgements. I was not able to go through my transition anonymously and unnoticed anyway, so I can better use my fame to contribute to more openness and understanding.'

Also because you missed an example yourself?

'Yes indeed. As a teenager, I did not know there was such a thing as gender dysphoria, where the gender you are born with does not match who you feel. Had I been 12 today, the world would have looked different to me. The scariest and most difficult part of the whole process was not the surgery and hormone therapy, but the questions and uncertainty beforehand: was I even transgender? Wasn't it a midlife crisis? I was in my mid-forties and had a wonderful wife and children, a great career, I was not suicidal - did I have the right to want more? That's what I found most complicated. I knew that my choice to transition would not be victimless; it would be difficult for everyone around me, for my family, my parents. I was also afraid that I might not be able to sing or take care of my family anymore.

Fortunately, Stef responded understandingly; she always found my masculine side attractive. Of course, it also meant saying goodbye to how things were before and was difficult. But we could always talk openly and honestly about that. My bandmates also told me to choose my happiness. And my transgender friend said, 'You don't have to stand on the edge of a bridge first to live your life the way you want.' I needed that encouragement, and hope to give others. I realise only too well how lucky I have been - some transgender people lose their partners, friends or jobs. But either way, you don't owe anyone anything. Every person has the right to be themselves.'

Less afraid

Do you hope the music video changes anything? 

'I hope it makes people less afraid of anything different. Many people have known me as a woman for years; now my breasts are gone and that might be weird for a while. But it is not my intention to shock; I want to show that in the end it is not as strange or scary as you might have thought.

I found it super exciting. At home in California, I regularly walk without a T-shirt. I feel fine with that by now but in the studio it felt very vulnerable. Not even so much because of my chest, because I am very happy with that. But I always keep seeing details about my body that are less masculine; for instance, my pelvis is just a bit wider than in men born as men.

By being open about my insecurities, I hope to hearten others. So the clip and photos didn't have to look too sexy - it's about me looking content and happy. I am much happier than I was three years ago. That's what I want to share.'

Sam Bettens: 'I'm much happier than I was three years ago' ©Richard Mertens

What has changed in those three years?

'In my behaviour and appearance, I was always looking for the limits: is this still possible or is this weird for a woman? My hair became shorter and shorter, my clothes more masculine. I used a binder to flatten my breasts because I could tolerate them less and less. Now my appearance finally matches who I feel inside. That gives peace of mind. When my children tease me about getting old, unlike a few years ago, I can laugh heartily about it. That my son and my daughter say daddy to me, that my wife talks about her husband... what that does is almost impossible to explain. I could never imagine myself as a grandma either. But grandpa - no problem.'

Relief

What was it like seeing yourself in the mirror for the first time after surgery?

'I had been counting down the days until the operation, that's how much I wanted it. Four days later the bandages could be removed. My wife was there when I removed the bandages in the bathroom. I thought I might get emotional and cry. But the surprising thing was: when I saw myself without breasts, it was not surprising at all. My skin was of course still swollen and red, yet I thought: yes, now it's right.'

No tears?

'No, relief though: this is how it should be. The whole week after the drains were removed, I walked around at home shirtless, whether I was cold or hot. I never want to hide myself again.'

How does the outside world react?

'For friends in America who I see every week, it is easier to call me Sam than for uncles and aunts who have known me as a woman all my life. That takes time. My voice is lower than before, but when someone addresses me as a woman, I get the feeling that I still have a long way to go. For someone my age, this process is slower and more difficult than for younger people.

I will never forget the first time I walked on the beach in my swimming trunks. I walked past a group of football-playing boys and heard: 'Hey, cool tattoo.' I felt great: in the eyes of those young guys, I was just a guy with a tattoo. It also evoked sadness because I was never a boy of 22. That lack of what I could never be is a grieving process.

Sam Bettens: 'I'm making up time'. ©Richard Mertens

I am making up for that time. From other trans men - we form a Facebook group - I hear that they are happy they can finally put on a tie. I myself like to buy men's deodorant, men's shampoo, men's shower gel. And I exercise a lot. It is not attractive to still be vain as a man of 49 but I try to forgive myself for that - it will probably lessen by itself.'

What was the biggest recognition for you?

'My mother used to not often call my name; I have older brothers and she always called me 'little sister'. In her e-mails, she was quick to write: 'hello Sam' or 'good morning dear son'. She did that very consciously. Some friends address me as brother. And this morning, a friend asked why I was still awake at 2.30 in the morning. I replied that I had seen his app when I had to pee. 'Yes, we old men have to get out more and more at night, don't we,' he said. 'Those seem like small comments, but they are priceless.'

Rex Rebel performs at Rotown in Rotterdam on Wednesday 17 November. Click here for the music video of the song Body.

Passport Sam Bettens

Born 

Kapellen, Belgium, September 23, 1972

Training

Photography degree, did not finish because of breakthrough with band K's Choice

Career

The musical career of singer and guitarist Sam Bettens, then Sarah, began in the early 1990s in the amateur band The Basement Plugs. Together with brother Gert, he then formed The Choice, later K's Choice. K's Choice scored a world hit in 1995 with the single Not an Addict. This was followed by several albums and other hits, and the band toured the world. Bettens also performed solo, wrote title songs for the films Zus & Zo and Live! and worked with Bløf and Ozark Henry, among others. In February last year, he released debut album Run out. In 2019, he announced that he is transgender.

Married With Stef Kramer, two stepchildren, two adopted children

Lives in Palm Desert, the United States.

 

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A Quattro Mani

Photographer Marc Brester and journalist Vivian de Gier can read and write with each other - literally. As partners in crime, they travel the world for various media, for reviews of the finest literature and personal interviews with the writers who matter. Ahead of the troops and beyond the delusion of the day.View Author posts

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