"This is Something I Can Love About Myself"


"My name is Sunnie. I use they/them pronouns. I identify as trans nonbinary. I work as a queer and trans trauma specialist. I work with folks who have survived trauma around their sexuality, gender, and or religious trauma.


I was aware that I liked women when I was very young, I think I was around 8 or 9. My first experience telling someone else that was when I was 16. I told a religious leader in my community and it did not go well for me. It was a very terrifying time. Then I kind of just blocked it out. It was almost ten more years before I was like, oh this is real. I was able to have my first queer relationship. But my first actual relationship in a community was when I was 25 in Fort Collins, Colorado. I was not out and I was at a White Christmas play where I got seated at a table of lesbians. They all misheard my name; they thought my name was Craig and I just went with it. I was working for a Christian Wilderness outfitter at the time in Wyoming. I’m at this Christmas play and all these people know I’m gay but the person I’m with, (I’m filling in for her husband). She has no clue she’s sitting with a bunch of lesbians and they all know I’m gay. She goes to the bathroom and they’re like, ‘Craig baby, are you out?’ And I was like no, I’m barely out to me. So my first experience in the community was basically going down this mountain pass periodically to Fort Collins, Colorado and having this amazing experience with these lesbians who called me Craig.


The journey to where I am now started a little over 13 years ago. I was on a 10 day expedition in the Grand Canyon when I fell in love with a woman for the first time. The religious community I grew up in taught that if you pursued your “sinful life” you would die. On that expedition we survived a flash flood in the Grand Canyon that I should not have been able to survive–that is a story in itself–with this woman. I was like, God would have killed me if he didn’t want me to be gay. Surviving that flood allowed me to just let myself feel the best parts of me. Letting myself feel feelings for her was the best thing I had ever felt. I felt relief–and now I have more language for it–of, oh my gosh now I never have to marry a cis man. I don’t have to get married. It was this total freeing experience. Honestly I think my body freed me by being out in nature and in the canyon. I was so deprogramed out there. I didn’t have to see other people. I knew, it was just me and this person and a few other people. It was my natural feeling of what I wanted that I was more connected to.


Those positive experiences didn’t happen until I fled Wyoming and moved to Seattle, in 2012 or 2013. Initially, just my girlfriend went first because we weren’t able to be out in Wyoming but we were able to be out in Seattle. So I was like you go and then I’ll go. We were going to do a masters program (one that I finished in 2019). Once I was in Seattle it was the first time I’d say I had that true experience of freedom because I knew that I was physically safe. Living in Wyoming we held hands once in public and we had beer bottles thrown at us when we were walking home from a bar at night. It was really scary. You physically weren’t safe to be out where we lived. But once I was in Seattle and I had that experience it was ecstatic. I felt like my own aesthetic–I had always had my own aesthetic but it never really fit. Once I was in Seattle it was like, oh my gosh these are my people. My first queer dance party I ever went to–it’s called Night Crush, it’s once a month Saturday night. My friend Coco invited me to go and at the last minute she bailed and I was like I’m still going! This is my first queer dance party; I’m going to go! I wore something I would never wear–this plaid pleated skirt with this punk shirt. I got there and got lost in a crowd of people just celebrating and sweating and dancing and making out. I made out with so many people. I was just so freed. I was just absolutely untethered and was really able to connect. And people’s response to me was vivacious. It was very inclusive and I built a family there, one that’s still my family today. I have parental relationships that are also friendships.


The first time I brought my queer identity to healthcare was when I was getting checked for a mole on my arm. It actually needed to be removed. The doctor who did the procedure that day, he didn’t use my pronouns, kept calling me by my deadname even though I shared my name when they asked and I hadn’t had it legally changed at the time yet. Then, he had an assistant doing the sutures and she didn’t do them correctly. You could tell she was really struggling to do them. They kept having to numb me and it kept going. It didn’t look closed. I was like, is it supposed to be open? He was like ‘oh it’s fine. You can come back in a few weeks and get them out.’ They got infected and I had to return. They had to scrape out a hole in my shoulder and pack it. It was just so horrible. If I was me now, it seven years ago when this happened, I’d sue his ass off. I would hold him accountable. But I wasn’t at the point in my life where I could. The nurse told me, ‘I want you to know you’ve been egregiously treated. You could take action if you wanted to,’ and she gave me a copy of the report at the time. I don’t know if I still have it but he worked for a lower-cost health clinic in Seattle. It was for people who didn’t have insurance. It was just a horrible experience. He wouldn’t look at me the entire time. He didn’t really talk to me. He’s known for being… I went on forums and they were like, don’t get this doctor. Somebody was like, I’m so sorry Sunnie that happened. It was not a good experience. I’ve had positive experiences. I didn’t ever return to that clinic; I went to a different one. I can’t remember the name of it, I don’t know why! The new clinic I went to was called Meridith Andrews Clinic I had a doctor there that was great.


To backtrack about my gender identity, I think I started hearing the language for being nonbinary when I was 30 or 31. I had never heard it before but that resonated with me. I’m 36 now. Once I understood it, it made the whole rest of my life make sense. I would say I’ve been gender non-conforming my whole life and I understood. I would say that actually embracing my non-binary identity was not until my early 30s.

 

I did have negative experiences in health care before I started using they/them pronouns. I was really mistreated as a human, as a child, in the medical field. I have a lot of trauma about going to doctors. Around the same time in my early 30s, I was at this new clinic, and I requested my childhood medical records because I had memories of going to the doctor but I would be told by my family, That never happened, this wasn’t a thing. I was abused as a child and it’s documented. It’s documented and it was never reported. So I have documentation of it from the age of five. I have a hard copy, and I keep a file on my desktop labeled ‘proof’. I keep it there because it is queer and trans people harmed the most but it’s also children. There is so much abuse that goes on that if you’re a certain class of family you can look the other way, whereas the state targets other people. If my parents were queer, I would have been out of the house just like that. Or if they were a family of color. I would say that I had a lot of negative experience in the medical field. Even when I used she/her pronouns and was a lesbian, if I didn’t dress a certain way when I went to the doctor I didn’t get treated well. If I looked like a dyke lesbian I wouldn’t get treated well.

 

What got me out of Wyoming and into Seattle was going to a group therapy for adults who had survived childhood sexual abuse. The whole reason I went there was because I was told by my parents, ‘you only think you’re gay because you were abused’. That was the only way they would acknowledge it. I go to this retreat. It’s actually very intensive individual and group therapy; it’s a combination of both. It’s really like a catalytic experience. It’s not how you would do normal therapeutic work–it’s more like the kind of work you’d do over a period of years in one week. I did so much work around my abuse that week, I realized, oh my god being gay is the least of my problems and it’s not even a problem! It’s one of the best things about me. This is something that I can love about myself. I wanted to go get my masters from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. I started that masters program and I wanted to help queer folks who had survived religious trauma. So I wanted to understand how trauma worked, how narrative worked, how all these things work together so the deconstruction process doesn’t have to be so explosive for folks when they’re leaving those harmful communities. I went part time and bar tended my way through school so it took me four years to finish a traditionally two year program. While I was doing that program there were no case studies about trans couples or lesbian couples or queer couples. Everything–attachment theory, polyvagal theory, cognitive behavior–everything was so binary. It was so heteronormative and it was so white. I was in therapy myself and had benefited so much from therapy. Traditional therapies often have stagnant roles between therapist and client. The Therapist is the one with the hierarchical knowledge and attunes to the client and helps them see themselves. And there is a cutting off of that space from the rest of their world. And those stagnant roles, long-term, I believe were harmful for me. Because I have already had experiences of being cut off. There’s a way where even the therapeutic experience itself was a huge reenactment for me. And reenactments are ways we relive our trauma. So then through my education or lack of it, I realized I wanted to provide queer care. The system isn’t enough for our people. It’s not that it’s never going to work for some people and it isn’t that I think you shouldn’t go to therapists or doctors, or anything like that. You should but there also needs to be additional care for our community. There needs to be a movement for our liberation. That’s how I moved into Queer Care Connections. I started it during the pandemic because I graduated in 2019 and started meeting with folks and doing this work during that time like sex care and all these different things. When the pandemic hit, I was like this is my time, this is what I’m going to do. Everything was shut down and there was just a huge need for it. I was just ready.


What sticks with me the most when working with folks surrounding their trauma is–people ask me like, oh gosh you work with queer and trans trauma and it’s this dread face but the work that I do is powerful. It’s precious. And it’s gorgeous. I get to watch these folks engage the worst that’s ever happened and there’s a moment where they realize, the worst is over. They map what triggers them but they also map their glimmers, they map what helps them. Recently I had someone tell they were Baker Acted when they were a kid when they told their therapist. The Baker Act is something that exists in Florida. In different states it has different names but basically, a medical professional or a mental health professional or the police can decide you are not mentally fit, and they can send you to a center for 72 hours. Depending on laws that are passed in the state about sexuality and gender, like in this person’s case, the therapist took the action because the kid said they were trans. That they weren’t mentally well–they basically said that they were a risk to themselves. You know a lot of trans kids have thoughts of suicide, and they disclose that. So because of the combination of those two things they were sent to an institution. Their parents couldn’t even go with them. And they blame themselves for that. The kid was not in a state of crisis. Their trans identity subjected them to being Baker Acted. It’s maddening. These stories happen so often. So many queer folks who go to get mental health care when they are young, do not get adequate care and realize that talking about what’s going on is not safe. The mental health system has a huge precedent for surveillance. In its origins in this country, it was used to manipulate and market Americans from the 20s. It has a history of being problematic. Right now I feel like it is very acceptable to go to therapy in society right now. It’s like, Oh are you seeing a therapist?, something that people talk about. That is movement. People didn’t talk like that in the 90s or even early 2000s but at the same time, the history and violence in mental health put on queer and trans people and QTPOC folks, it goes unaccounted for. There has been no justice for it. It continues to go unchecked in ways. That is partially why I want to build a collective of providers for queer care within Queer Care Connections. There are so many barriers to getting care whether medical, mental, or physical. There are so many barriers that break that down. Aside from all the systemic barriers, there’s just literal financial barriers for people. Something that I started with Queer Care Connections is a mutual aid fund where folks can give toward other folks receiving care. You can sponsor someone for a month of care that’s periodic and that can change them to being able to have confidence, to having a stable job. I don’t believe that people need to be in therapy for ten years. I believe there is a combination of individual care but also social care. Creating communities, teaching communities how to recover from trauma and how to repair from conflict. There is so much love in the queer community and there is also so much conflict and drama at times. We are targeted by a system. We are chosen and traumatized in ways but then also there’s not that care that’s going on and people aren’t repairing and recovering fully from that. Then they’re reliving that trauma with each other. It’s a set up. We’re literally set up to have problems that make our communities not sustainable for the long term. That’s part of a need I see Queer Care Connections filling. Teaching people how to heal together. It’s something that can be lived out in a way where you don’t need to keep paying a professional to know how to reground yourself. You can do that in community.


I read this thing once about Napoleon who was a dictator who led huge wars that were just deadly to the world at the time. One thing he did was he had his generals create weapons that just wounded people, not kill them. If you wound enough people, then people around them are taking care of the wounded. There is less of a resistance. Oppressive powers, oppressive legislations like youth trans sports bans that are happening right now, those are purposeful weaponized, terrorization of our children. All our parents and communities are focused on taking care of our children as we should, but this is targeted. Each generation of queer folks has been traumatized in a way. Like each generation of black folks. All different communities–like immigrants–everybody is targeted by these legislations in such a way that it takes so much care to survive. It is so hard to live beyond that surviving and onto thriving. So we do need other resources outside of the systems that are harming us for care.


Things like what you're doing with Diagnosis Queer, even educating people on what they should expect and what they can advocate for in a medical experience is so empowering. I just think if I, little Sunnie, would have known or had something like this, I would be able to go in with so much more confidence, and that matters in those experiences and encounters! It matters so much.

 

Having providers, depending what state you’re in, a doctor can choose whether or not they believe they can care for you as a trans person and a queer person. These concepts like being Baker Acted where the mental health and the medical field intersect, where a trans person can go in to try to get hormones and a doctor can decide that they’re mentally unfit. I’m not trying to spread fear; I am trying to speak to the realities of what it would look like for there to be resources for people that were accessible. They can know if they went there, they could get safe care. Oftentimes in those facilities–we have a local one here in St. Pete–and I’m not going to use the name but I know a trans person that went there to get care, they were going in for a check up to have blood work and their doctor asked if they wanted them to look at their scars from their top surgery. Their surgery was like 5 years ago…there’s no need to look at their scars. It would be like, hey do you want me to look at your penis? when you’re there to get your bloodwork done. It’s absurd. That was a 60 year old gay medical professional. Even within our own community, I feel like trans folks face so much, every time they go to see medical or mental health professionals. People need resources where they can learn about trans folks’ health. That’s one I know of that’s accessible for people to call in over. It’s not enough to just be LGBTQ inclusive. We need more.

 

I’ll leave off with a piece of advice for my younger self. I would say, your experience is valid, and if you don’t think that you’re going to be able to advocate for yourself in the moment, bring someone with you. Ask someone, you can bring a friend or reach out and find an advocate that will train you and help you figure out how to find your voice. Even like sometimes now, you can’t bring more than two people because of COVID. Have someone sit next to you outside of screenshot if you’re doing a virtual appointment. If you feel scared, listen to that fear. It’s okay, and there are reasons why you’re scared. You don’t have to ignore it or shame yourself. If anything I’d say be so kind to yourself because it is so understandable why you’d be afraid." -Sunnie Townsend, Seattle, WA (they/them)



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