How to Be a Supportive Ally for People Going through Gender Transition
What if conversations about gender transition centered around pleasure and possibility instead of suffering?
It’s a question that Rae McDaniel, MEd, LCPC, has spent more than a decade exploring. As a licensed therapist, coach, educator, and nonbinary person themself, McDaniel has guided many transgender and nonbinary people through journeys of gender exploration and transition. Their first book, Gender Magic: Live Shamelessly, Reclaim Your Joy, & Step Into Your Most Authentic Self, out now, distills a career’s worth of wisdom — including a thorough breakdown of the Gender Freedom Model, a pleasure-centric framework for gender exploration that McDaniel developed to help ease and demystify the process. They guide readers with easy-to-understand definitions, journal prompts, and practical advice.
McDaniel is the first to admit that we’re living through a challenging time for transgender equality — especially regarding restrictions on gender-affirming healthcare, which many trans and nonbinary people pursue as they transition.
“The hard things are real,” McDaniel tells SheKnows. “The Gender Freedom Model isn’t about ‘love and light’-ing our way through gender transition, or saying that it is always easy. It’s saying that there are tools and mindsets that can make it easier on you.”
Below, find our full conversation with McDaniel, who spoke about their innovative therapeutic framework and how parents of trans kids living in states with hostile laws can best support their children.
SheKnows: We rarely hear about gender transition through the lens of pleasure. Can you walk us through how and why you developed the Gender Freedom Model?
Rae McDaniel: Thank you. The reason I created it is exactly what you said: You don’t see it talked about that much when it comes to talking about exploring gender or transitioning your gender. I was really frustrated that a lot of the literature I was seeing focused exclusively on suffering and anxiety and all the really hard things that come along with being trans in our world today. Those things are important, and they are absolutely real, but I was missing the other side of the coin. Through exploring their gender, a lot of my clients felt better than they ever had in their life, experienced closer and more connected relationships, and made huge, amazing changes in their lives.
We also are in a very particular time where there is a record number of anti-trans legislation, and it is about to become one of the great moral issues of the 2024 presidential campaign. So I wanted to create a model that would help my clients interact with exploring gender in a way that centers joy and pleasure and connection while not ignoring the hard stuff.
SheKnows: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about transitioning that you’ve encountered in your work?
RM: Gender transition is about transitioning into the most authentic version of you. Sometimes that includes some sort of medical transition, and sometimes it doesn’t. It really just depends on the person and what feels good for them. But people get very stuck on medical transition when there are many, many steps and things to explore before you get there.
The biggest misconception that I hear is that you have to know what the endpoint is going to be before you take a single step forward. What that does is it keeps people in their heads, feeling frozen and a little bit helpless. Instead, I position gender exploration as just another part of self-growth. It’s another way that we understand who we are in the world and decide how we want to show up, so we don’t have to have all the answers.
What I also teach in Gender Magic is, instead of getting stuck in your head, take tiny steps forward. Now, this doesn’t mean doing something that you’re really uncomfortable with. But if you were curious about something like taking hormones, as an example, it can be really helpful to take some steps to gather more data. So, set up an appointment with the doctor and ask questions. Get information about what changes you might see in your body on what timeline. Get your blood work done, and make sure that everything is good there. That doesn’t mean that you have to start hormones, right? You’re not starting hormones until you actually do. But you get to do a gut check of, “How did it feel to book that appointment?”
SheKnows: Gender dysphoria, which is arguably the opposite of pleasure, is often positioned as a prerequisite for gender exploration or transition. Do you agree with that?
RM: That does not make sense to me at all. I think it is wild that we have created a narrative and system that says you have to hate yourself in order to be yourself. Some trans people do experience gender dysphoria. Often, a lot of that dysphoria is based on how other people are treating trans folks. I think that is an important thing to name. And this has been my experience: I did not hate my body before I transitioned. I chose to change my body in certain ways because it felt more aligned and authentic to me, not because I hated myself.
SheKnows: The Gender Freedom Model incorporates trans people’s sex lives and romantic relationships. Obviously, gender and sexuality aren’t the same thing and shouldn’t be conflated, but one can affect the other.
RM: You’re absolutely right. That’s actually the reason that I became a sex therapist. I was having a lot of trans clients come in, and all of them brought up relationships and sex. I wanted to be more equipped to help people with those topics. And the great thing that I really try to point to in Gender Magic is that relationships and sexuality can be a really incredible place to learn more about your gender, and to be affirmed. It can be a place where you can get connected to your body, even if your body isn’t always the way you want it to be.
SheKnows: The stories you included in the book complicate the dominant, very linear narrative about gender transition: the classic “born in the wrong body, knew at an early age” storyline. Why was it so important to you to show more nuance?
RM: I think in today’s world, we often want one answer that fits in one box. And when it comes to self-growth, self-discovery, and authenticity, there is not one singular answer or path. So when we’re talking about complicating the narrative and adding nuance to it, we’re doing that because it creates more space and freedom for individuals to explore themselves.
SheKnows: It seems like Gender Magic was written for trans and nonbinary readers. Was that your intended audience?
RM: Yes, the primary audience is trans and nonbinary folks, or anybody who is exploring gender. I also wrote the book very specifically so that a cisgender person — an ally, those who have loved ones who are exploring gender, or just somebody who wants to understand more about gender freedom and what it means to be a trans person — can pick up this book and not only learn mindsets and language skills that will help them support a loved one, but also learn something about themselves. Everybody, no matter your gender identity, has been put in a box of sex and then the gender assigned on top of that at birth. And it comes with this quote-unquote instruction manual that is not always useful. A lot of people, whether they are cis or trans, would benefit from intentionally engaging with their gender and deciding, “How do I want to show up in the world based on what I know about myself to be true?”
SheKnows: Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about the current legislative landscape. We’re seeing a deluge of anti-trans legislation, including many bills that explicitly target gender affirming healthcare for kids. What are your thoughts on this alarming trend?
RM: I mean, these laws are horrific. They’re starting with trans youth, but they’re expanding to trans adults. The agenda is not to quote-unquote “protect children.” I think Molly on Saturday Night Live said this really well a few weeks ago. They’re not protecting children; they are taking away children’s healthcare. And the legislation that is being passed is completely out of alignment with the actual medical guidelines. This care is very safe — like, safe for 30-plus years. For instance, puberty blockers give trans kids an opportunity to make that decision later.
To legislate the medical decisions of youth and their parents and their medical providers and their mental health providers because of a political agenda is so out of line to me. In Missouri, [lawmakers] are trying to say that treatments for medical transition are experimental, but that’s not true. And the majority of people who are on hormone replacement therapy are cisgender. There may be some side effects for any patient, but that does not mean we should be taking away people’s autonomy over their own bodies.
SheKnows: Why do you think gender transition has become such a politicized topic?
RM: Anytime there is a social movement toward more equality, there is a pushback, so we’re seeing that happen. You can map that out historically. I think the other thing is that when people feel that their foundational understanding of the world is shaken, they can feel a little unsafe. These conversations are shaking up the foundations of how we understand biology and gender. That makes people feel a little bit unsafe — but that feeling of unsafety doesn’t mean that they aren’t safe. We are just expanding our understanding. And that is a good thing.
SheKnows: Do you have any advice for parents of trans youth who live in states with hostile laws but want to support their child’s gender exploration journey?
RM: I want us to maybe collectively take a breath and know that no individual person is going to fix all the hard things in the world. That said, there are things people can do. Research shows that a supportive family and a support system is the number-one mitigator of distress for trans folks. So, [parents] creating a supportive, welcoming, and affirming environment at home really goes a long way.
The other thing is advocacy. The folks who are pushing these laws are really loud, so we have to be louder. Write the letters; make the calls; and show up for the protests. And I hate to say this, but it is worth considering, “What is the quality of life for my child living in this state?” I know moving is not an option for everyone, but if it is an option for you, it may be worth considering some more drastic action.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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