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A Radically Different Take on Questioning Your Gender Identity - The Gender Freedom Model

Updated: Dec 14, 2023


A person with long brown hair  sits with their legs crossed in the air. Outstretched wings are painted on the wall behind them in shades of white, orange, and teal, making them appear as if they have wings that help them levitate above an orange floor.
The Gender Freedom Model offers a new model for exploring gender identity based on euphoria rather than dysphoria.

CONTENT/TRIGGER WARNING: Discussions related to sex, sexuality, and gender.



What is the Gender Freedom Model?


In my last blog post, I did a short book review on "Gender Magic: Live Shamelessly, Reclaim Your Joy, & Step Into Your Most Authentic Self" by Rae McDaniel, MEd, LCPC, CST. In that review, I briefly described how McDaniel's Gender Freedom Model flips the script on how we often approach questions related to our gender identity. I found the book both informative and enjoyable, especially the audio version as read by McDaniel, themself. But I also wanted to provide a brief overview of the three parts of this model as a therapist as well as a queer person.


Most of us are familiar with the traditional narrative of "born in the wrong body" that typically involves accounts of knowing something was different at a very early age. This narrative generally goes on to describe years of questioning and pain as the person tries to understand their relationship to their gender assigned at birth. This is the tale that is often told because, while it is true for some, it is also very easy to sensationalize, market, and codify at the cost of really understanding the nuances and variety of experiences for people who are transgender, gender-expansive, and gender-diverse.


This is also the narrative that much of gender-related care is built around, including standards of care by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders version five (DSM-5) used by mental health professionals, and insurance companies. The result here is that a person who may not match this singular narrative may not receive the care and support needed to help them become their authentic self. Though things are changing, if slowly, this can result in someone being denied access to care they need or desire because they don't check enough boxes based on the criteria based on this very narrow understanding of how people experience their gender.


One personal cost with a dysphoria-focused narrative is also that many people may question whether or not they really are transgender, nonbinary, or otherwise gender-diverse. I've encountered many people who question whether or not they really are transgender or nonbinary because they don't experience the painful, debilitating dysphoria often described in the typical narrative surrounding transgender people. This can lead a person to isolate themselves from supportive community or deny themselves gender-affirming care and expression because they don't "check all the boxes."


Let me make this clear - dysphoria does not specifically mean extreme pain. In fact, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines dysphoria as "a state of feeling very unhappy, uneasy, or dissatisfied." Oxford Languages simply describes it as "a state of unease or generalized dissatisfaction" without the modifier of being "very" uneasy or dissatisfied.


At its most basic, dysphoria is simply the opposite of euphoria, or general satisfaction and happiness with something.


As a therapist, I can tell you that many clients start making real change when they focus on their desired solutions rather than their problems.


That is to say, they start experiencing growth or recovery when they look more to where they want to be than where they are now.


And this is where the Gender Freedom Model comes in. Rather than focus exploring gender identity through the lens of what feels bad, it focuses on three key areas chosen to pursue what feels good. These areas are Play, Pleasure, and Possibility.


Yes, you read that right. The first area is Play!


Exploring your gender is often a case of trying things out and finding some things feel really good and other things don't quite "click." In another popular book on gender identity, Gender Outlaw by Kate Bornstein, the author talks about gender identity and presentation as being like a playground. Kate talks about society putting a fence down the middle of the playground and saying that one side is for boys and the other side is for girls. In both Gender Outlaw and Gender Magic, the idea is to pull up the fence and open the whole playground to everyone. Climb on things, swing on the swings, slide down the slides, and see which ones you like and which ones might be kind of "meh" for you.


With gender exploration, this might involve taking a playful approach such as wearing a daring shade of nail polish you've never worn, even if around the house, just to see if you like it. Or it might involve getting with some affirming friends to have a makeover night that also involves music, snacks, and other fun things. For folks exploring a masculine presentation, this might include using makeup for stage techniques to create a stubble shadow and more angular contouring.


For you gamers, it might involve using the character customization screen in a game to explore an idealized version of yourself! The Sims 4 has been used by many folks to play with ideas since it has a lot of ways to play with the secondary sex characteristics and presentation of your character. Plus, the base game is free on the game service Steam.


The next part is allowing yourself to explore and experience Pleasure.


This part of the Gender Freedom Model looks into matters of pleasure and eroticism. It includes discussions on intimate justice as a framework for how systemic oppression affects people with marginalized identities and their beliefs about how they deserve and pursue sexual satisfiaction. This part of the model involves freeing up our ideas around pleasure and our worthiness of it. It also expands the idea of eroticism beyond the immediate association with sex to engaging with all of our senses in ways that delight us - whether that's a sensual massage or a sumptuous plate of chocolate strawberries.


Tapping into the principle of play with the Gender Freedom Model, exploring pleasure involves approaching pleasure and eroticism with a spirit of openness, curiosity, and mindfulness. These are often hallmarks of a lot of sex therapy work, but the idea here is to allow yourself to explore and experience such things from new angles as you explore your gender identity and presentation. This might involve exploration by yourself or with consenting adult partners into what feels safe, sexy, and brings you into moment while also allowing yourself the permission to experience pleasure as your authentic self. This also includes setting boundaries and saying no to things that do not feel good.


It also involves an element of "queering up" pleasure and eroticism, which expands the idea of what healthy relationships and sexual and romantic relationships look like among consenting adults. Exploring your gender identity and how it relates to your relationships and sexuality often scrapes against the cultural norms that are installed in us from an early age that assert that the only healthy relationship - even with ourselves - is one that is heteronormative, cisnormative, monogamous, and rooted in white, western, patriarchal ideas.

This can be additionally frustrating to those who are asexual or aromantic who are bombarded with messages that there is only "one right way" to have meaningful relationships and pleasurable experiences with others.


Allowing yourself to explore new ways of giving and receiving pleasure, enjoying relationships, and experiencing yourself and others can unlock new realms of enjoyment that lead to the final pillar.


Looking toward a life of Possibility.


As we come to realize that we're not cisgender, straight, or a combination of both we often see doors of possibility close ahead of us. Fears about losing existing relationships or finding new ones rise up. Who would hire you? Will you ever find someone who loves the real you? Could you even find friends? Will you be seen as a burden to those around you?


Exploring the third pillar of possibility, involves creating space for yourself and acknowledging that transition of any kind is rough but having intentional and realistic desired outcomes provides something to work toward. It can also tap into other times you've made a big change, such as changing jobs or navigating new relationships, to look at where you already have skills and strengths that can be used. It also involves making possibilies seem approachable by breaking things down into small, manageable steps.


The area of possibility also includes intentional work to create supporitve connections in the queer community and cultivating a sense of pride in your identity as a form of self-compassion and emotional resilience. The book and the work it describes acknowledges that both of these are processes, and not necessarily one unique to queer identities - though made more difficult by being in a marginalized community. But the work is done to cultivate supportive connections and a sense of hope in self-work that often threatens to make us feel like our future is very limited.


Putting it all together.


While the Gender Freedom Model created by McDaniel is not presently a formally researched counseling approach, it invovles a shift in focus common to positive psychology models. This makes it easy to partner these ideas with existing counseling theories to create a plan for exploring gender identity, presentation, and desired transition. In looking at gender exploration and elements of transition throught the lenses of play, pleasure, and possibility, the focus is placed on making the work done in counseling seem approachable and empowering.


I've really only scratched the surface of this in this post, but hopefully I've given you a little taste of what this book presented and the way it has informed the way I work with folks who are exploring their gender identity. Too often, therapy can focus exlusively on points of pain rather than also looking at what someone's life might be like beyond that pain.


But, even if you're not ready for therapy yet, what are ways you could use these ideas?


What are some things you might experiment with in a playful way?


Are there pleasures you can connect with now that delight who you are on the inside even if that doesn't match how you are right now on the outside? Can you allow yourself to bring more of those pleasures into your life in healthy ways?


Where are you struggling to see the possibilities ahead of you? What would it be like if you allowed yourself a moment to "dare to dream?" Can you take a break from the usual worries of, "What if something goes wrong?" to indulge in imagining what it would look like if it all went right?


Do you have questions about these ideas, the book, or how it might inform our work together? Click the link below to contact me.


However you step into play, pleasure, and possibility, you've got this.


I believe in you,

Quinn



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