She Boss with Sarah E. Mulder
Megan: You guys thank you so much for tuning in for She Boss this month I am so excited to introduce Sarah Mulder who’s going to be joining us tonight and of course, we’re doing so over a glass of Prosecco it’s on-brand but June is pride month and people need to be supporting, talking, and rallying around pride month and everything that it stands for a variety of reasons so we’ve been fortunate enough to be introduced to Sarah and all the amazing things that she’s doing. I’m not going to spill the beans on all the stuff that she does because I’m going to have her talk about that but she really has a pulse on an overwhelmingly important topic that all of us need to be talking about on a regular basis whether you’re an individual, a parent or a child whatever the case might be. It’s something that just needs to be addressed, needs to be talked about and Sarah is doing an amazing job of helping those within the LGBTQ community really go through this journey in a very safe place so I thought that it would be a phenomenal opportunity to get a chance to chat with her.
Fun fact she also happens to be bestie with Katie on our team who’s just hanging out right over there joining us. We’re going to just start chatting and learn a little bit more about you. So thank you guys so much for joining us, let’s just open it up. So give us a little bit of background on your history; some of the things that you’ve done, what got you to this place and then we’ll just go from there.
Sarah: So I guess it all started back on a spring day in 1989, just kidding. So I went to UW-Madison in Wisconsin for my undergrad where I got a major bachelor’s in Psychology not knowing where that would take me and then I went to grad school at the University of Indianapolis and when I started grad school I went in thinking I wanted to be a Child Behavioral Psychologist. Halfway into my first semester, I realize that I do not have the patience to work with small children on a daily, I guess. So I really credit my grad school mentor/dissertation advisor/professor/supervisor, Dr Nicole Taylor with starting me off on this journey. She wore a lot of hats for me in grad school but she’s an ‘out and proud’ lesbian she was my first supervisor and my first practicum placement, I just happened to have a very LGBTQ heavy caseload and our supervision sessions, we were actively processing unique challenges of working this population she just sent me all the readings and resources and I fell into it by accident you know it’s equal parts curiosity and fascination, gender and sexuality are so cool to me. Just the spectrum and the ways that we can express ourselves just utterly fascinates me.
Megan: I have never heard anyone describe it that way, that’s really interesting.
Sarah: Yeah and also a lot of compassion and hearing about a lot of the unique struggles that come along with being part of a marginalized community so she is who started me off on this path and then my program fortunately was one that really emphasized diversity and their commitment to it so I was able to take electives and courses in gender and sexual diversity. I had other practicum placements working with providers who served this population so I just built this interest and niche over time in grad school because interestingly enough there are no graduate programs where you can get a specialization in LGBTQ healthcare.
Megan: Was this them then or is that still now?
Sarah: You can find programs that offer courses but there’s no LGBTQ program that exists so the burden is on providers and students who are interested in this to acquire the necessary education and continuing education to make sure they’re informed and competent in this area. So I had a lot of support and guidance throughout grad school. My internship and post-doctoral fellowship were in New Orleans. Fortunately, I had supervisors who were down to just let me continue growing that. So I worked with a lot of queer folk in New Orleans, able to provide some training to psychiatry residents through Tulane and I found it really interesting that I was working with residents who were at the end of their training and this was the very first time they were learning the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation and the first time they learned that, “Hey you should probably ask your patients for their pronouns” and I was really pleasantly surprised that they were so eager for this knowledge and really receptive to it so the long story short is you know it started off with just a happenstance that I fell into this passion area and have worked to grow it over time through education and training.
Megan: That’s fascinating so I have a couple of questions on that so was there something early on that triggered you to go down this like the psychology path, did you experience something in your own life that just opened your eyes to that being something of need or what was it that pushed you?
Sarah: Yes and no. So I don’t have this you know rebels to riches kind of story or experience. Honestly, my mom majored in psychology and when I started at community college actually she was like. “Psych was cool I had the coolest professor in community college you should just take an intro course.” So I took an intro course and I’m like, “Damn this actually is really cool.” So I took another and another and another so again it was by accident. I say in happenstance that I just delved in and I was like, “This is really cool.”
Megan: And if you find a great professor that can be a game-changer.
Megan: Just the application of it and hearing real-life experiences sometimes and stuff like that which is always cool.
Sarah: And to me, what’s important at least for myself within psychology is equal parts curiosity and compassion and I think for myself I really need both. I’m genuinely interested I’m like, “This is so cool I want to learn more” and also very compassionate and want to help people. I think if you’re curious without the compassion it becomes cold and sterile and if it’s compassion without the curiosity it’s a recipe for burnout so I try to feed both aspects.
Megan: I would imagine too without the curiosity you sort of lack the expertise to fully understand someone’s perspective too which can make it hard to be compassionate and maybe sometimes in a positive way where you can be really impactful. So talk a little bit about the- I feel like there’s been such an open dialogue over the last couple of years around gender identity and really what that means and I’m happy that finally, we’re having this comfortable discussion but there’s so much more to go and I think the second you start to see any sort of legislation come out about you know to support same-sex marriage, there’s a hundred more right behind it trying to ban or shut things down. So I’d be curious to hear just from your perspective like what have you seen so far? Where are you saying we go? What can we do as a community to help just fuel that?
Sarah: I think the overall trajectory is a positive one and so you have to zoom way out to see that positive trend because when you look at it from the day to day or the month to month, you just see these jagged lines where you go up and you’re like, “yeah” and then you have laws that are trying to ban treatment for trans kids or ban gay marriage and you’re like, “Ah we’re going back down.” So it’s a very jagged line when you’re looking at it day day-to-day but inarguably when you zoom out you do see an overall positive trend, it’s not as steep as I would wish it was but it’s headed that way and over the course of a day I may have clients who are 10 to 16 years old and clients who are 50 or 60 plus years old and that for me reaffirms that positive change is happening. I have clients in their 50s who started transitioning and coming out and being able to do that only well into their adulthood and yet I have a kid on my couch whose teacher is using their name and pronouns and their school is trying to have policies in place to support that.
Megan: That’s awesome.
Sarah: There are positive changes occurring here in the south I would argue that it is a little bit spotty I have some kids within this region who are at schools that are awesome and they have policies in place to support their queer students and other schools where it’s like pulling teeth to get the bare minimum. So it is very spotty but I think the overall trend is headed upwards.
Megan: That’s good. So what are some of the common challenges that you see come into your office? I’d be curious about the common challenges through the lens of- and as we talked about I have three kids so, of course, I’m like as a parent, I’m like anything possible I can do to allow my children to feel like they’re safe, they’re accepted, regardless of anything and there are not a lot of parents that feel that way and some of the parents of my daughter I mean absolute horrific stories around their ability to feel accepted, to feel open, to be able to talk and express things. So it’s almost this double-edged sword where there’s a lot of freedom and there’s a lot of open dialogue which is a good thing but from those families who are maybe a little bit more traditional in their way of thinking, that’s a huge challenge so what are some of the biggest things that you face on a day-to-day basis that you’re working through?
Sarah: So there’s a variety. Clients who come to me, do so because they know I’m an affirming provider.
Megan: Why don’t you explain what that means?
Sarah: Yes so an affirming provider means that I work through this conceptual model that says variations in gender, identity and sexual orientation are a normal part of human experience that to have questions, uncertainty or changes and how you view yourself or your orientation is not disordered or pathological.
Megan: There’s not something wrong with you.
Sarah: Yeah and so there’s the conceptual framework and then affirmative therapy proceeds through that lens to provide a space where clients are safe and supported in exploring that I’m not there to tell a client, “This is who you are this is what you should do” so much as open up a space for them to feel safe enough to explore and question that and come to an understanding that feels right for them. So clients come to me knowing that I practice through that framework and a lot of clients come to me because they are seeking guidance in exploring gender identity, sexual orientation or looking for assistance with medical gender transition. A lot of my clients come to me just for “run-of-the-mill” depression, anxiety, trauma things like that and they just happen to be a part of the LGBTQ+ community so it’s not so much that’s their focus but they need a provider who is informed to know uh enough that that’s a lens we have to look through.
Megan: Yeah I’m curious about that because obviously the statistics will show that challenges with depression, with anxiety, with suicide are so much greater within this community for a variety of reasons which is just absolutely devastating so it’s interesting to hear you talk about how a lot of your clients come to you not necessarily for that, which is interesting so it makes me wonder if maybe a lot of those individuals are seeking help and resources through organizations that are not equipped to have the conversations they need which is worrying, I would imagine.
Sarah: I definitely have a lot of clients who I’m not the first therapist that they sought services for or from. I have a lot of clients who have had objectively negative experiences with providers who are either trying to assign conversion therapy or are overtly unaffirming telling them that, ‘no that that’s wrong or that’s bad’ and then on the “lesser negative” and finding providers who are just uninformed and so a lot of my clients have worked with providers in the past where they say, ‘I felt like I was teaching my therapist how to help me’ sort of thing and that’s on the ‘less extremely negative’ end but still a challenge. So I think a lot of clients seek out affirmative providers like myself, I’m not the only one in Huntsville so that they know, ‘Hey if I say this my therapist is going to know what I mean. My therapist is informed enough to look through this lens of understanding that sociocultural influences play a role in depression and anxiety for marginalized communities’ and things like that.
Megan: I’m sorry I’m a bit biased in this question but I’m just curious because I think this is where you can find some of that traditional thinking which minimizes perspective and openness to conversation. What would be some of the things that you would say to a parent who has a kid who is just sort of curious about things and doesn’t really know how to have that conversation and is just sort of lost? Are there certain prompts? Are there certain discussions? Is it just a matter of- and again like being a mom of teenagers sometimes getting conversation is like pulling teeth I don’t know what would be your suggestion around stuff like that?
Sarah: So I have a few. Mostly tell parents that I work with that, “Hey you don’t have to have all the answers like your teen doesn’t need you to have all the answers, they need you to just listen and meet them where they’re at.”
Megan: Yeah that’s right so you also see parents have children as well and it doesn’t have to be the children and the parents right or the teens and the parents.
Sarah: Yeah typically I do a lot of work with the children or teens individually but if you’re working with kids and teens, there has to be some level of parent or family involvement so I spend a lot of time just telling parents like, Meet your teen or your kid where they’re at like you don’t have to have all the answers.” I do share lots of resources and reading materials because a lot of parents, their confusion or fear stems from just not knowing. It’s like, “I have all the educational resources”, like, “Please read please read these let’s talk about- what are your questions? I also facilitate a parent support group for parents of gender diverse kids and I try to get them connected up because it’s incredibly validating and really empowering for parents to hear from other parents that other parents are freaked out too and just muddling their way through things together.
Megan: There’s such a strength in that camaraderie. I think especially when you’re working through something that you just don’t understand, I mean frankly you just don’t understand and it’s okay not to understand.
Sarah: Yeah I tell that to the parents and clients I work with all the time that you shouldn’t understand because you’ve never been through this before and I tell parents too it’s like, yes I talk about this all day every day I’ve worked with so many clients but I also have to recognize that as a cisgender person I will never fully understand what my clients are going through. I feel like I get closer and closer every day but I’m never going to hit that nail on the head and so you know I tell parents that you don’t have to know exactly what your teen is going through. They’ll tell you, they’ll teach you what they need and it’s a learning process that you have to do together.
Megan: I think the beauty in that too is overwhelming if you can allow it to happen where you can actually learn from your kids and hear them share with you about their journey. I think so often as parents, we just assume that we know everything and we’re right and we’re totally not like totally wrong all the time and that’s a-okay. So what’s the biggest misconception that there is about the LGBTQ community that you’re like if I could erase something from the planet that way no one else says it again and I ask that question in the vein of a lot of individuals who are attempted to be humanized in this community especially on tv and things like that it’s just not accurate of who they are. And unfortunately you see a lot of actors, actresses, transgender actors in these things and they’re there to check the box as opposed to equally represent the community.
Sarah: That’s right, as a token minority presence.
Megan: Exactly and that’s really frustrating to see I would imagine even more so from where you sit so what- I don’t know, is there just this misconception out there that it’s like-
Sarah: There are lots of misconceptions and I would probably ask my clients for their perspective on that is as volks of lived experience like, “What do you wish like cis straight people would get?” With that in mind, I think what comes up for me is this idea that a person who is part of the LGBTQ+ community that is probably the least interesting thing about them. I tell my clients this all the time it’s like, “Your being trans is the least interesting thing about you are an artist you are a writer you are a parent you are an engineer whatever.” So I think a misperception is this over emphasis on just that community label as being the most interesting thing about it because if you look referencing Hollywood characters it’s like, “Oh they’re the gay character not the engineer or the professional or the parent who just happens to be gay or trans” like that is-
Megan: Why do you think that is because we’re just a society we’re just not used to that and so I mean-
Sarah: I don’t know I think it might be that, I think it might also be what I call aggressive allyship where it’s like, “I need to prove that I’m an ally like yeah let me make it really known” rather than just what LGBTQ+ people really want. Based on what my clients tell me it’s like, “Treat me like a normal person.”
Megan: Like I’m not a label
Sarah: I’m not a label. A lot of my clients when they come out unaffirming and negative responses, they’re like okay, “It’s going to happen I can deal with that.” Weirdly enough some of my clients are more creeped out when people are overly affirming like, “Oh my god you are so great like that’s amazing” and they’re like, “thanks”.
Megan: Because of just being you
Sarah: So it’s like true allyship is just treating people like they’re human right, aggressive allyship is seeing someone for their label and treating a person like their label versus “Hey this is just a person the fact that they’re queer honestly the least interesting thing.”
Megan: Yeah but what matters is that they make a killer casserole right that’s what’s important. I love that though that’s so true, you explain that very eloquently. So what can we do as a community? I don’t know just to rally, just to support and again not like overemphasize the label by any means but to be more inclusive and just be more mindful and I mean I don’t know but from where you sit, what would that look like?
Sarah: I mean that runs the spectrum, to create positive change on a large scale we need- I remember reading an activist’s quote about this, “We need the people at the front line of the battle.” these are people who are protesting and showing up and calling legislators and that’s important. We need folks in the middle and we also need folks who are doing small grassroots change too. I don’t think the answer is to encourage everybody to be an activist show up, go to the capital, protest. We need folks doing that but to not underestimate the impact that small day-to-day changes can have too even something as simple as if you don’t know someone’s pronouns using they/them. Use gender neutral language, ask people for their pronouns, ask people, “Hey what name do you go by?” without assuming what’s on their badge or paperwork is the name that they go by.
Even incredibly seemingly minor semantic changes like that create positive impact that’s what’s going to change the average person’s minds you know the unaffirming person that you might run into at Publix it’s easy for them to write off an activist as, “You’re just too leftist.” But someone that they know and interact with on a daily basis who’s making minor semantic shifts starts to plant these seeds that create bigger changes. So doing something as a community doesn’t have to be big, it can be semantic it can be-
Megan: Little things in your own world that can just make big impacts and rippling effects. On the flip side of that, I’m curious as you’ve been practicing over the last couple of years, have you seen any shift, any negative shift that causes you concern and really just causes a little bit of pause in your way of thinking about things, whether that be something that’s more on a local level on a regional level global scale for that matter just from where you sit in your perspective.
Sarah: I guess the thing that concerns me the most are states who are trying to actively pass laws that restrict the rights of LGBTQ individuals that has trickled down into increased fear and anxiety for my clients and their families. Honestly, an increasingly large number of my clients are planning moves out of state because they’re like, “I don’t like where this is going or what this trajectory is.” Which in the grand scheme is a major bummer because the south is going to be actively losing really brilliant, talented people strictly because they are passing laws that are trying to limit the civil rights of individuals.
Megan: It’s a very scary time, it really is and I mean I know if you even just look at a glimpse of history over the last 100 years there’s been a lot of scary times about things that have happened and I feel as though we’re not moving forward in a really positive direction. We’re really not and that’s a scary thing for me I mean as an individual, as a parent, as a woman I mean it’s just-
Sarah: Absolutely and the stress as a provider comes in the form of when I have clients who are seeking to move forward with things like medical gender transition or marriage, having to think through, “Well here’s plan a, here’s plan b, here’s plan c”. When the most recent law that would ban medical services for trans youth passed, within hours, my phone was blowing up with my trans clients and their parents who were panicking, I was like, “Okay well we’re going to proceed as normally this is our plan a, plan b, we’re going to this state plan c, we’re going to connect you with financial grants to get you here. So it’s just extra work that is really unnecessary.
Megan: But it sounds like there are resources available-
Sarah: There are.
Megan: -for those plan b’s right
Sarah: But it’s really depressing that you have to leave your state to do that. The average cis straight person has 20, 30, 40 options if they needed right medical care. My clients have like five in Huntsville, if they have the means to drive to Birmingham maybe five more, they have the means to go across state lines to Nashville maybe five more.
Megan: The amount of things that we take for granted is just insane. So tell me a little bit about, aside obviously from seeking your assistance and guidance through things, what are some resources that you would recommend to again either someone going through this process on their own or as a parent of someone who’s going through this process or having those kind of conversations what would you recommend is good resources for them?
Sarah: Yeah there’s lots of resources on the local level, state level and national level. Here locally, one of my favorite resources is the Rocket City Rainbow Pages. So they compile a directory of affirming health care providers across most disciplines. So if you need an affirming general physician, if you need an affirming therapist, if you need an affirming dentist or a lawyer, hair stylist, they compile providers and business owners who have identified themselves as affirming and they’ve been vetted so that is an amazing resource. I can’t help but plug the organization I volunteer with it’s called, Trans Family Support Services. We actually exist in California which is where the organization started and Alabama.
Megan: No way, wow
Sarah: So we’re looking to grow but Trans Family Support Services offers- their tagline is guidance for the transition. So we support parents and families and individuals who are part of the community. We have several youth support groups, we have parent support groups. There are financial resources available to access health care and things like that.
Megan: How did I get from California to Alabama that seems like a very-
Sarah: Yeah so one of the parents who was active in the group in California because her spouse was in the military they got relocated to Huntsville and she’s like, “Huntsville needs a chapter.” And then she actually moved to Florida so passed the torch on to myself and a couple of other folks to keep our chapter going that’s right here but we’re obviously looking to grow.
Megan: Is it a membership based thing?
Sarah: No it’s a total non-profit, anyone can access our resources.
Megan: That’s great, what’s the website for that?
Sarah: That’s a good question. It’s transfamilysos.org, I believe but if you look up Trans Family Support Services we’ll pop up. We have a Huntsville chapter, Rocket City Pride is really active. So speaking of June, Rocket City Pride has a plethora of really fun events so that’s a good way to just get connected in a very social way with the community, learn about opportunities to get engaged.
Megan: What’s your most exciting event that you’re looking forward to with that?
Sarah: Roller skating, this will be my third year going. I just love to zoom around the track
Megan: Where is it held?
Sarah: So it’s held at I think it’s called Roller Time on North Memorial.
Megan: Yes I took my son there on Friday. I saw it on my story, my roller skating, I totally hate it I fell but it was awesome.
Sarah: I always fall at least three times.
Megan: Also you can eat really crappy pizza but it was fantastic. It’s a good time.
Sarah: It’s a great time so there’s lots of local resources, there are national organizations like PFLAG and GLAAD and other organizations that provide a wealth of materials and resources. PFLAG it originally stood for Parents and Families of Lesbian and Gay individuals they’ve kept the name but kind of lost the acronym over time because they’re far more inclusive than that. But they put out the best resources. They have these downloadable pdf booklets that they even have a guide for grandparents and parents, how to be a good ally and how to support kids at school.
Megan: That’s so great. I think that’s a huge part of it is that kids just don’t know how to communicate things sometimes and older generations don’t understand how to communicate. I mean it comes down to that it’s like they just they just don’t understand. So anything that can be a bridge to help with that dialogue I think is just so crucial.
Megan: That’s awesome. So what’s got you excited over the next year obviously you’re having your own practice opening up downtown which is very exciting so I don’t know what are you looking forward to over the next couple of months that’s going on in your world?
Sarah: I’m really jazzed for pride month so hoping to go to Nashville Pride because they have an amazing parade and festival, looking forward to going to all of the Huntsville Pride events. June is my favorite time of year. If you’ve never been to a pride event, I highly recommend it’s the purest form of joy and acceptance you will ever see.
Megan: Love it
Sarah: I cry no less than four or five times at every pride event I go to, various reasons.
Megan: What’s the biggest reason?
Sarah: It’s just- I don’t know it’s such a bittersweet experience because you see such an outflowing of love and joy but also knowing that for a lot of people, it exists in such a circumscribed context. I think the example that pops to mind was at Nashville Pride, I saw you know the Free Mom Hugs team coming down the street and this girl from the back of the crowd just sprinted across the street and launched herself into the arms of a total stranger and they just stood in the middle of the parade for 30 seconds yeah just hugging and it was just like wrecked. It was beautiful and really sad and wonderful at the same time.
Megan: It’s a lot of emotion. I mean there’s so much courage and so much strength that comes along with having to just- I don’t know just be you know especially in a world that can be oftentimes very unaccepting which makes things really hard. Well, congratulations to you. Thank you so much for talking about this and thank you for everything that you do.
Sarah: It’s my pleasure.
Megan: I think you’re definitely an individual who is literally changing lives and I don’t mean that to be cliché or be silly but again as a mom and hearing the things that we hear it’s amazing what you do so kudos to you.
Sarah: I appreciate that, thank you.
Megan: You’re really making I think a lot of people just be able to be themselves more so in a way that instills confidence and sets a great example and hopefully is changing a generation of thinking you know what I mean just to be more open.
Sarah: I hope so.
Megan: I think you are, it’s awesome. Celebrate pride month it’s all month long but celebrate it all year long, shouldn’t just be in the month of June.
Megan: The love should be flowing all the time. Cheers to you, thank you so much.
Sarah: Thank you.