Sam Bettens, Transgender Frontman of Rex Rebel, Recounts His Coming Out Journey

Sam Bettens
Guy Prives/Getty Images

Sam Bettens performs at Hangar 11 on Dec. 16, 2019 in Tel Aviv, Israel.

When Sam Bettens was in his early twenties, he got to experience what it's like to be a global rock star. As the lead singer for the Belgian band K's Choice, Bettens was booking international gigs, releasing popular music and getting to do what he loved with his best friends.

"It was amazing, and we enjoyed every minute of it," he tells Billboard, fondly looking back on the early days of his career. "I was so young, and I didn't know a lot about life yet, and part of me sometimes wishes that I could experience that now, knowing what I know and with a little more wisdom."

A lot was different for Sam back then — perhaps most notably, Sam went by his birth name, Sarah. He didn't publicly identify as a man yet, but rather as a young woman leading a rock band. Sam would continue to identify as Sarah for nearly 20 more years, before finally coming to his own personal realization.

In 2018, at 45 years old, Bettens says he was finally able to ask himself whether or not he identified as a woman. One year later, on May 17, 2019, he revealed his answer to the world on his YouTube channel: "I am transgender," he said. "I always have been, I just didn't know it until now."

"It was very similar to when I came out as a lesbian in my late twenties," Bettens reveals. "The hardest part was figuring it out. Letting go of the outside noise, which is so hard to separate what's really you from what you've been told and taught by the world around you."

Shortly after revealing who he really was to the world, Bettens made another big announcement — he had formed a new band, with two of his K's Choice bandmates (Reinout Swinnen and Wim Van der Westen), called Rex Rebel -- with a new single, and a few months later, a full album of pop-driven songs for fans to jam to.

With his truth finally out in the world, and a newer, pop-driven project to guide him, Bettens was able to once again recapture that magic feeling he had at the start of K's Choice. " I feel nothing but gratitude that, 25 years into my career, I got to feel like a starting musician again," he says.

Bettens chatted with Billboard about his coming out journey, the massive support he received from Belgium, and how his Rex Rebel bandmates proved to be some of his most important allies in the process.

Let's take a trip back to a little more than 20 years ago, when you formed K's Choice. You guys found some significant success in Belgium early on — looking back, what was it like starting your career off in that group?

When I think back to that time, it almost feels like it's a different person. It feels like such a long time ago, and it also happened to us pretty quickly. We were so young, really early twenties, and it all just came and hit us in the face at once. I don't think we really started reflecting on what we had done or what had happened until years later when we were able to slow down a little bit. It was an amazing adventure. I was so young, and I didn't know a lot about life yet, and part of me sometimes wishes that I could experience that now, knowing what I know and with a little more wisdom and with a little less black and white. But it was amazing, and we enjoyed every minute of it.

At what point did you come to your own personal realization about your gender identity?

It was about two years ago when I asked myself out loud for the first time. I've done this exercise a million times now, but I can think back to all the moments in my life when I could've known or should've known -- there were little signs here and there. But I really didn't ask myself the question until two years ago, where there were probably a couple triggers that just all of a sudden got me to a moment where I was like, "Oh, s--t. I should give this some real thought. I should really dig into this."

Once you open that door, it's amazing what comes out. It was impossible to close it again, and to say, "Well, I'll just go along like I have been, and I'm fine, I have a family, I'm happy, I have a career, I have friends, I shouldn't want more." Once it got rolling, a lot of stuff became clear, and that's where the journey started.

That then led to your very public coming out that you posted on YouTube. Was there ever a concern about how the industry, or your fans, would react to your coming out as transgender?

Actually, that was never a consideration for me. Obviously I thought about it, like, "I wonder how people will respond," but I was never afraid of that. I never thought that there was going to be some big backlash or anger from fans. Really, my biggest concern was whether I was right or not. Whether my feelings were real. Once I had that figured out, all of the reactions of others were out the window — except for maybe my parents. I didn't want to hurt them, I wasn't nervous that they wouldn't love me because I knew they would, I just wasn't sure how hurt they would be, and how fast they would understand. Of course, my wife ... if she hadn't been on board it would have been a whole other story. I wasn't scared for my kids — I was nervous to tell them, but I was never scared. I never thought that would be something that wasn't going to work out.

Obviously you were right not to be concerned, because your coming out was very warmly embraced by your fans and by Belgium at large. After all of that struggle to figure out who you were, how did it feel to have that kind of support?

I got no bad press at all! There was the occasional YouTube troll, but you can't escape those guys. The press in Belgium, there was no negativity, all positivity and support. I heard from people I hadn't talked to in years. I didn't think it was going to be a problem, but I also didn't expect it to be so friendly and kind and nice. No one, not even the gossipy magazines in Belgium, wanted to be caught being on the wrong side of this.

That must have been heartening to see that kind of progress so tangibly.

Yes, it was such a good sign! When I grew up, we didn't even talk about being gay. I didn't even hear the word lesbian when I was little. So to me, that's such huge progress to see everyone wanting to be on the right side of transgender history. There will always be bigots, and they are absolutely still there, but the consensus is that it's okay. That left me with a really warm feeling. And then I quickly felt a responsibility to be an advocate for trans people that are harder for non-trans people to accept.

For me, I was already a very masculine woman, and not that much changed physically. I quickly felt like, "I have to talk to people and tell people that not everyone looks like me." A lot of people who consider themselves to be woke still expect a trans person to be someone that is at some point "finished," which is not true. I had to make sure that I was an advocate for all people on the spectrum, not just the ones who can pass.

After coming out, you formed Rex Rebel with a few of your old K's Choice bandmates. Why was it important for you to start this new project?

It's interesting to me, because Rex Rebel existed before I ever asked myself the question about whether I was trans or not. I had a big need to do something different and to step away from K's Choice, mostly on a musical level. K's Choice was a specific thing — my brother and I make a certain type of song together, and while he loves what we're doing with Rex Rebel, it's not the kind of music that he wants to make. I knew that if I wanted to make something pop-y and fun, I would have to step away. So the musical need was really what came first, but of course now that we've done all of this, and now that I've come out, and now that I listen back to some of the earlier songs that I wrote and the content, I'm like, "Wow! I can't believe I wrote that before I actually thought about whether I was trans or not." So a lot of it was already there, and has been there for 47 years.

Actually, Rex Rebel was my last hurdle toward coming out. We had worked so hard on this band, and we were about to release it and find labels, and all of a sudden, I was like, "Oh, I can't do that to the guys. My voice might change, I might not be able to sing any of these songs live, and I'm pretty much screwing these guys at the get-go." I sent an email to them about this because I didn't want to put them on the spot. I felt like I had to wait two years or something until we get this album cycle going. Then at the same time, I felt like, "Well, the door's open. What, am I gonna wait two years now?" That felt wrong, too.

So I just voiced my concerns to them, and that I didn't know what to do next. They were so quick in saying, "First thing's first: this is not even a thing. You do what you have to do, and Rex Rebel will figure it out." They were not only okay with it, but just super positive in a way that was so cool. It was really sweet, and sort of the last push for my coming out. Like, "Yeah, I can't let music or my career or anything keep me from being who I really am."

The album you put out, Run, accomplished the goal of making a clear distinction between the K's Choice rock sound and Rex Rebel's distinct pop sensibility. After all the time you spent working on this group and coming out, what did it feel like to finally say, "Here it is"?

It has just been the best ever. I feel nothing but gratitude that, 25 years into my career, I got to feel like a starting musician again. Forming this new band with my two best friends, it's just all good. Of course we want to rule the world and be successful so that we can keep doing this, but if nothing materializes other than what we've done so far, and we got to make this together and play together ... so much thought and so much work has gone into this for all three of us. It's exactly what I want to do with my life, and success makes it so that you can continue to do what you love to do with your life, but it doesn't make it better. I'm old enough and wise enough now to be in the moment, and to realize that this is what I love to do — making music with these guys is exactly where I want to be right now.

It sounds like that feeling you described with the early days of K's Choice. 

Right! And that is just the best. When you're a musician, anything you do creatively, you don't ever want to feel like you're on the way down. Not in the amount of money you make or success, but in your creativity. You want to always feel like you're making things that are better than what you did a few years ago. What's the point, otherwise? To get that feeling, like you're really making something unique, and to be able to do it with people you love to be around, has just been the best journey.

Pride 2020 isn't canceled. Join Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter's Pride Summit & Pride Prom on Saturday (June 13) starting at 12:30 p.m. ET for performances, queer conversation, drag, artist cameos, glam sessions, DJs, dancing and more.

THE BILLBOARD BIZ
SUBSCRIBER EXPERIENCE

The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.


To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.