Therapist Rae McDaniel: On 'Gender Magic,' LGBTQ+ Rights & Hope

An illustration of Rae McDaniel against a blue, yellow, and orange background

Rae McDaniel is a licensed therapist, certified sex therapist, gender specialist, coach, educator, and author. They are the founder and CEO of Practical Audacity, a Gender & Sex Therapy practice in Chicago, and recently published their first book: “Gender Magic: Live Shamelessly, Reclaim Your Joy & Step Into Your Most Authentic Self.”

Their work explores the freedom we can find when we look at gender and sexuality from a lens of curiosity and compassion — fighting shame and uplifting pleasure in the process.

An illustration of Rae McDaniel against a blue, yellow, and orange background
Rae McDaniel / Illustration by Johnathan Huang for the Goodnewspaper

We sat down to chat with Rae about their work, the nuances and playfulness of gender, and about the resilient, energetic nature of hope. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A Conversation with Rae McDaniel

Kamrin Baker, Good Good Good: Let’s start with something straightforward. Can you give us a brief overview of who you are and what you do? 

Rae McDaniel: My name is Rae McDaniel, and I’m a nonbinary gender and sex therapist based out of Chicago. I’m also the author of “Gender Magic,” a speaker, and a transgender diversity and inclusion educator. 

Kamrin: Could you tell me a little bit more about your background and how you got into this line of work?

Rae: Absolutely. It's a windy road, so buckle up. I grew up as the adopted child of Southern Baptist missionary parents — fundamentalist, very conservative. I didn't come out as nonbinary until much later in my life, until I was in grad school.

My journey up until that point was going to a very conservative college in rural Texas, where my best friends were the theater kids, who were some of the only out-ish gay kids on campus. Don't know why I was drawn to them. It's a total mystery.

Kamrin: Yeah, who’s to say?

Rae: Who’s to say?! 

But I saw them struggling with their identities, with coming out, with relationships. And at the same time, I was falling in love with psychology.

So I decided that I wanted to become a therapist to work with the LGBTQ+ population. I went up to Chicago for grad school and focused pretty much all of my work on that, and that has been my career for the past 10-plus years. 

Along the way, I found out a couple of things. Number one: I really loved working with trans and non-binary folks. Again, total mystery as to why. No clue. 

And I also found that I developed a love of sex therapy and helping people have pleasure in their bodies, helping people have relationships that felt really good to them.

I was able to take everything that I had been learning academically, everything that I was learning from my own personal journey, and reading a shit-ton of research from all different fields and poured it into creating the Gender Freedom Model, which became a peer-reviewed journal article.

Then, over a period of a few years, that became the basis of “Gender Magic,” my first book.

A white person with short, brown hair speaks to a group of people.
McDaniel's work includes speaking engagements, consulting, therapy, and more. Photo courtesy of Rae McDaniel

Kamrin: Could you delve a little bit more into what gender freedom is?

Rae: I define gender freedom as the ability to name and express your gender in whatever way feels authentic to you, regardless of your identity. 

So, regardless if you are trans, nonbinary, or cisgender, gender freedom is for everyone.

No matter who you are and how you identify now, we were all put in a box when we were born, typically in a box labeled male or female. And along with that came a lot of cultural expectations, a gender manual, if you will, that may or may not feel like it fits you.

But, regardless of whether or not you identify as cisgender or trans or nonbinary, it is worth looking at that manual and critically questioning, “Does this really feel like it is the most lit-up, authentic version of me possible?”

And if not, how do I want to shift how I show up in the world so that I am more aligned with my biggest and best self?

Kamrin: I love that. I saw a TikTok recently that I’m sure you’re familiar with or either practice in your work, where someone who does diversity and inclusion work said a big question they always ask is “How do you know what gender you are?” 

It’s a question cis people, like myself, probably have never pondered before. And I think that’s such a good example of finding that curiosity.

So, I’d love to know a bit more about how you’ve seen everyone, regardless of identity, benefit from exploring gender with that open curiosity?

Rae: I think it always benefits us to look at whatever expectations society and culture have put on us and say, “Does that actually fit who I feel like I am?” And that is applicable across many, many categories of our lives, including gender. 

The other thing about bringing curiosity to gender identity, to gender exploration, and how we express our gender to the world, is that I think in our society, we often view gender as a Very Serious Thing, Trademark.

It's so wrapped up in our sense of identity.

And what I found is when people can just relax with gender and let themselves be curious about what feels good and what doesn't, without it having to be this big life-changing thing, necessarily, people just have a lot more freedom to exist and to be present in their lives. 

I'll give you a couple of examples from cis folks that I know. One of my close friends is a cisgender man, has a couple of kids, very masculine presenting generally. He was telling me this story of that he had a little date night with his young daughter, and she wanted to put makeup on him.

And he let her, and they just had the best time with her putting makeup on him. And guess what? It meant absolutely nothing for his gender identity.

He just had this connecting moment with his daughter that he wouldn't have had if there was this manual that was active in him saying “I can't be a man” or “I can't be masculine if I allow myself to play with gender in this moment with my daughter.” And that would have been a big shame.

Kamrin: Yes. Wow. I love that.

Rae: Another example, one of my friends was talking to me after reading an advanced copy of “Gender Magic,” and she — a cisgender female, a queer woman, a bisexual woman — said she asked herself for the first time all those questions about gender. 

Rae McDaniel's book: Gender Magic
"Gender Magic: Live Shamelessly, Relclaim Your Joy & Step Into Your Most Authentic Self" was released in May 2023. Photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing

You know, “How do I identify? Is how I express myself congruent?” And her answer was yes. And her answer was, “Yes, I identify as a cisgender woman. Yes, I love wearing makeup and heels and dresses.”

And even though nothing changed in how she presented, she knew that she was doing it with more intention, and it gave her more freedom to even dive deeper into those parts of herself.

Kamrin: Yes. I feel like sometimes we’ll hear the line “I don’t wear makeup for men, I wear makeup for me,” and it’s like, let’s dive deeper into what that even means. I think that level of exploration and empowerment can be important for anyone. Having that space to explore is so important. 

So, tell me a little bit more about how your work brings that freedom and joy and pleasure to people? And how does that start to unpack and remove those feelings of shame and self-doubt?

Rae: I really, really love the mission of The Goodnewspaper that moves away from toxic positivity and ignoring all the real conversations but really diving into “What is the good? What can we see here? What can we experience while not ignoring the reality of the world that we live in?”

My work is very aligned with that. 

It starts with these mindsets of gender exploration being a part of self-growth for everyone and something that is to be celebrated like any other part of self growth. It starts with self-efficacy, believing that you have agency over your life and actually taking steps so that you feel more agency over your life.

Now, we know that there are a lot of very real systemic barriers for trans and nonbinary folks to be able to live as their most authentic self. And I'm not ignoring that. But I am saying there are ways that you can have agency despite the systemic oppression that is happening. And we can explore what those are.

The last piece of the mindset is self-love and self-compassion, which might sound trite, but it sounds trite because it's true. You can't have one without the other. 

It’s about situating gender exploration — and gender transition, if that's something that you want — as something that is about you, where your measure of success is not how other people perceive you, but is how you feel about yourself. 

Building on top of that is getting folks moving. I don't mean leaping into something that you are really scared of, or that feels overwhelming to you, or that you are so uncertain of that it causes you very, very intense anxiety.

But taking little tiny steps — smaller than you think — toward something that you are curious about, toward making changes in how you present your gender.

I also talk a lot about focusing on pleasure and finding joy throughout the process because those things are muscles. It's very easy to get bogged down in all of the hard things that are very true about exploring gender in our world today.

But connecting to joy and pleasure reminds you of the why. If every single step feels like a slog through the mud, why are we doing this? We're doing this to be able to live and not only to be able to survive — which is a baseline — but to actually thrive. 

How do I build in thriving every single step of the way? How do I develop a community and a support group that is going to see me for who I am and respect me for who I am right now? How can I have moments of joy when it comes to exploring my gender right now? How can I get to know my body and develop some compassion and some kindness for a body that may or may not be the way that I want it to be? 

Rae McDaniel, a white person with short, brown hair and clear glasses, sits on a pink bench, in a floral suit.
McDaniel is interested in changing everyone's relationship to gender, identity, and shame. Photo courtesy of Rae McDaniel.

When it comes to removing shame, what I’ve found is that people who want to explore their gender, or transition their gender, they try to tend to live up here [points to brain]. And they live up here for a really long time. And that is super anxiety-provoking.

What I encourage people to do is take those tiny steps to gather more data. Every time you take a step and you’re like “Okay, gut check. Do I like this? Do I not? Do I want to take another step?” you’re building a connection to your body, to your intuition, to your gut. 

Another one that’s really obvious, but I have to say it, is finding your people. So much research shows that having a support system is the number one mitigator of distress. And the great news in our world today is that we have the internet, which means that no matter where you live, there is access to people who will see and affirm you for who you are right now.

Finding role models, whether they are big or small. And then speaking to a trusted person, letting somebody in on what’s going on in your brain, whether that’s a friend or family member, or a professional like a therapist. 

One of the other important things is understanding where shame is coming from, especially for folks who identify as nonbinary or trans, or even stepping out of general gender conformity, is understanding that we live in a world where that has been historically punished and is still punished in many ways. And that shame is not yours. It's not about you. It's about the world outside not being supportive of your identity. 

So being able to name that can also help people release that.

 

Kamrin: I love what you said about how this exploration of gender is the same thing as any other self-identity or self-growth journey. We make it such a big thing, but it’s just like any other way we journey through life all the time. It doesn’t have to be the most intimidating thing on the planet.

Rae: That’s part of gender freedom, too, is realizing that gender isn’t actually that big of a deal in the sense that we should all have room to play with it. It doesn’t have to mean everything that we make it mean or be so serious or big. 

Kamrin: I think it's common, too, in those boxes of gender that we've already been assigned, to be like, “Oh, I feel like a woman," when really, you mean that you feel empowered. 

Like, that’s not my gender. That’s a feeling. And I can connect those things, and they can have a relationship, but am I feeling empowered because of the genitals I have? Or is it because of a feeling I’m experiencing? I think untangling all of that is really cool and really necessary. 

Rae: I love that you said that. I could go on a soapbox forever about how we assign genders to just values or qualities or energy. Being strong does not make you masculine. Being soft or kind or compassionate does not make you feminine. Those are just qualities of human beings. And we all have them in varying amounts, and we do not need to assign them a gender.

Kamrin: I love that so much. Obviously, it’s been ingrained in us, but I love how we can detach all of that and realize how we are all just different, and that’s a baseline we can return to.

You spoke to this idea of naming the shame and how it’s not really ours; it’s the systemic injustices. With everything going on in the world, with so much hate directed toward trans and nonbinary folks in particular, how does that cultivation of hope become part of the resistance? Can you speak to that a little bit?

Rae: I love this question so much. I spoke to it a little bit earlier in that it reminds us of our why. When we cultivate hope and pleasure, it takes us out of, “I'm working toward this thing” and into “I am embodying this thing now as much as I can, while I am also working toward a better world where we can all be free and safe and taken care of.”

I'm a huge Audre Lorde fan, and in particular, her writings “The Uses Of The Erotic.” In it, she talks about eroticism, not as this exclusively sexual thing, but as creative energy, as connective energy, as this feeling of aliveness and pleasure. 

And once we feel that, we are much more unwilling to accept a world where we don't feel that way, where other people are not allowed to feel that way. And I have found that to be true.

So if we're cultivating hope and pleasure, we are also staking a claim. And I refuse to live in a world where people cannot feel hope and pleasure. Therefore, I am activated to create that world. 

Often, it means creating that world within our smaller communities. It refills our cup. It lets us rest. And it gives us the ability to have more of that creative energy, that aliveness, because we're not pouring from this empty cup. We’ve taken the time to be unproductive, to have pleasure for its own sake. It reminds us that we are worthy just for existing.

A white person with short, brown hair, lays on a green couch with a black and white dog.
McDaniel snuggles with their dog, Gizmo. Photo courtesy of Rae McDaniel

It also teaches you to be wary of the things that take away hope and pleasure. So, it’s important to know what is happening in the world and to be active in combating that hate. 

It's not about burying your head in the sand, but it is allowing yourself to say, “I'm going to engage with all this hard stuff, this super real stuff,” and then, “I'm going to stop doom-scrolling, and then I'm going to put it down, and I'm going to play with my kids. I'm going to have dinner with my community. I'm going to take my dog on a walk and enjoy nature.”

We have to live along the way. Hope reminds us of that.

Kamrin: I love that so much. It’s giving me chills! I think it’s so beautiful how we can hold awful, scary things in our hands and still say “No, I believe there’s a better world.” And I love how people can come together in community to cultivate that. It’s expansive. It makes you want to find and make that better world. It’s a motivator for sure.

Rae: That’s in line with research, too! This is based off of the book “Burnout” by Emily Nagoski, where she mentions a study about mice and cheese.

Essentially, they put two groups of participants in an experiment, and they each got a paper maze, like, a coloring sheet of a mouse trying to make it through the maze.

One of them has a mouse that's running away from a scary owl. The other one has a mouse that is running toward this yummy piece of cheese at the end. And they found that the experimental group with the cheese made it through the maze faster and with less distress. 

What that tells us is that both of the groups made it through the maze, but the ones who were operating out of fear, out of what they were running away from, had a much harder time getting there.

Versus those who were focused on what they were running toward, and the vision of whatever the cheese is for them, they had a much better time getting to the end. They did it faster.

 They did it from a much more grounded place, and the outcome was the same. So why would we choose to not have our movements be rooted in things that also give us pleasure and joy and connection if the outcome is going to be the same?

Kamrin: In line with that cultivation of hope, I want to ask you the question I ask everyone I interview: What is giving you hope right now?

Rae: I’m based out of Chicago, but I was in New York recently, and I went to a rally for trans youth that was put on by trans youth. It was a big march led by high school youth, and it was just a really beautiful experience.

It was obviously a very serious topic, but there was a crowd of 700 queers and allies, so we’re having fun.

There’s this sense of joy there, even in the midst of something that felt very serious. And I love seeing this next generation stand up and say “this is not a world that we are going to accept.”

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