This Nonbinary Therapist Is Asking: “What Does It Look Like For Trans Folks to Thrive?”

Courtesy of Rae McDaniel

It’s well-documented that individuals in the LGBTQ+ community are at greater risk of experiencing mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. For LGBTQ+ youth, this can be dire: research suggests that lesbian, gay, and bisexual young people are twice as likely to report feelings of sadness or hopelessness as their straight peers.

So, it goes without saying that mental-health services are crucial for LGBTQ+ folks. But too often, queer folks run into challenges accessing these services – whether that’s finding affirming care or being able to afford therapy. Rae McDaniel, MEd, LCPC, saw that firsthand growing up. Their queer friends often struggled to find the resources they needed, prompting McDaniel to study psychology and become a therapist. In 2018, they founded Practical Audacity Gender and Sex Therapy in Chicago, a gender and sex therapy group practice of queer-identified/aligned, trauma-informed professionals.

“What does it look like for trans folks to thrive?”

In their forthcoming book “Gender Magic: Live Shamelessly, Reclaim Your Joy, and Step Into Your Most Authentic Self,” McDaniel reframes the conversation around the LGBTQ+ community and mental health, detailing the power in carving out joy – for trans and nonbinary folks specifically. In a world in which news headlines are outlining unprecedented dangers to the LGBTQ+ community, McDaniel told us about small ways queer individuals and allies can fight back and find joy. Read on to find out more about McDaniel’s own life story, their “Gender Freedom Model” of therapy, and mental-health resources they recommend for trans and nonbinary folks.

Related: It’s a Dangerous Time For the LGBTQ+ Community; Here’s How We Can All Help

POPSUGAR: I’d love to hear about your journey and what drew you to wanting to become a therapist.

Rae McDaniel: I grew up in a very conservative, Evangelical household in Louisiana. I went to college at this very conservative Texas college, and I was a theater kid growing up, and my best friends at college were all the theater kids as well – which, in this conservative, Christian environment, if leadership at the school found out you were out and gay or identified anywhere under the LGBTQ spectrum, you could be expelled. So I watched my friends, who were some of the only out-ish gay kids on campus, navigate coming into their identities, navigate dating, navigate being in this environment, coming out to their family. And it was a struggle.

Along the way, I also fell in love with psychology, so probably my junior year of college, I decided that I wanted to be a therapist that worked with the LGBTQ population to help people like my friends who were struggling with their identities, who were struggling to really thrive in a world that isn’t always welcome.

PS: Based on what you know from your own experience then and now, why is it particularly important for queer folks to have access to mental health resources? And what are some of the other barriers that exist in accessing those resources?

RM: As far as importance, all of the research that we have says that support and community is a number-one factor for improving mental health. We know that we live in a world where there is still a lot of hate directed toward LGBTQ individuals, and that starts wearing on you. We have a lot of research that says these tiny little microaggressions – or papercuts, if you think of them that way – can add up over time, and they start impacting someone’s mental health negatively. So in order to manage living in the world that we do, it’s really important that LGBTQ folks get mental health support from professionals and also have access to a strong and supportive community.

“If we aren’t taking the time to feel that joy and pleasure and connection, what is it that we are fighting for?”

As far as barriers, as I’m sure you can imagine, there are many. Some big ones are the fact that many, many states have passed or are trying to pass laws that will limit the health care and the mental health care of specifically transgender and nonbinary folks, but that trickles over into the entire LGBTQ population.

Other barriers are that there are a lot of mental health professionals who are not trained in providing affirming care, and historically, the mental health profession has done a lot of harm to the LGBTQ population, including making being gay or being trans a diagnosable thing. I will say that any big organization for mental health now is affirming of LGBTQ individuals, but that legacy still stands, and it takes a little bit more for LGBTQ folks to trust that the person that they’re seeing for their mental health needs is actually going to be affirming and supportive of their identity.

PS: I wonder if you can explain a little bit about your practice and how you arrived at creating the Gender Freedom Model.

RM: In my work as a therapist and as a nonbinary person myself, a few years ago, I noticed myself getting very frustrated by the fact that it felt like all the literature – all the research and narratives about transgender folks and transition – was all very negative. And that’s not coming from nowhere – we know that there are a lot of barriers for transgender folks. We’re not ignoring that. But what I wasn’t seeing was the other side of it, which is, what does it look like for trans folks to thrive? How are we as mental health providers, as family, as friends, as part of the LGBTQ community, supporting trans folks in that exploration and transition, if that’s what they want? And how can I, as a nonbinary person, help my clients go through that process with a little bit more ease, and is this narrative of exploring your gender and transitioning your gender being a slog through the mud, is that the only story? Because frankly, that sucks.

So I started looking at: I have these clients who are thriving, I feel like I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life as a nonbinary person, what does the research say about positive coping? What does educational theory say about moving out of a freeze stress response? How can we take all of this and provide a path for trans and nonbinary folks to explore their gender with more ease and joy and pleasure? And out of that came the Gender Freedom Model, which is now a published article in a peer-reviewed journal and it became the backbone of my upcoming book, “Gender Magic.”

PS: Obviously, it’s an unprecedented time in terms of anti-trans legislation and a lot of news is traumatic for trans, nonbinary, and other queer folks. How do you guide your patients when so much of the news is negative right now?

“Scream, cry, hit a pillow, go do some jumping jacks, run, dance it out.”

RM: Well first, let’s be a little bit real. It’s a lot. It’s not going to help us to go into this place of love and light and rose-colored glasses and let’s pretend that this isn’t happening, because it is. So it’s important to feel the feels, to acknowledge that it’s happening, and to let those feelings out in whatever way feels good to you. Scream, cry, hit a pillow, go do some jumping jacks, run, dance it out. Whatever it is, our emotions live in our bodies, and they need to get out in order for those feelings to move through us. So that’s the first thing.

I also say to take a breath and make sure you’re taking care of your heart. It’s OK to slow down, it’s OK to put down the phone and stop doom-scrolling. It’s important to be informed, but it’s also important to set limits for yourself for how much input you’re getting about all this negativity for your own mental health.

Adrienne Maree Brown in an interview said that she has this practice where she lights a candle sometimes in honor of all the things happening in the world that are genuinely heartbreaking and hard, but that she does not have the capacity to hold in that moment. And I love that, because it acknowledges that this is real, this is happening, but it also gives you permission to actually live your life, to be happy, to feel joy, to feel pleasure, and connect with your community. Because if we aren’t taking the time to feel that joy and pleasure and connection, what is it that we are fighting for? We are fighting to thrive, and if we want to thrive, we have to figure out: what are the small ways or even big ways that we can continue to thrive no matter what the world throws at us? And that requires a lot of both self- and community-care in the middle of our activism.

PS: Are there other resources you would recommend for trans and nonbinary folks?

RM: There are a ton of resources out there for trans folks, for LGBTQ folks, I have some on my Instagram and also some on all of my websites. If there is a local LGBTQ center in your state or your area, that’s a great place to look for resources and community.

I really believe that the world is a much better place when all of us have the freedom to walk around as our biggest, most authentic, most lit-up selves, and that’s the world I’m trying to create with “Gender Magic.” And I hope people will join me in that mission.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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