ChangeMakers

ChangeMakers: Seal Dwyer heals trauma, connects LGBTQ+ community in St. Cloud

A person sits for a photo in a cozy office
Seal Dwyer, a counselor who specializes in trauma therapy and working with the LGBTQ+ community, poses for a photo in their St. Cloud, Minn. office on May 16.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

In celebration of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, throughout June MPR News is featuring stories about transgender and nonbinary Minnesotans making an impact. See more at mprnews.org/changemakers.

Seal Dwyer, 42, is a nonbinary licensed marriage and family therapist who focuses on helping people heal from trauma that can impact every part of their life. Dwyer uses she/they pronouns.

Born and raised in St. Cloud, Minn., Dwyer is a passionate advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, especially teens and young adults. They are helping start a queer community center in downtown St. Cloud to provide a safe space for resources, movement and connection. 

Dwyer serves on a local housing board, and ran for St. Cloud City Council in 2022. They also teach dance and yoga classes that focus on body positivity. 

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about your background. 

I'm actually fifth-generation Stearns County, which is both good and bad. I went to St. Cloud Tech for high school, and St. Cloud State [University] for my undergrad and a graduate degree.

I love St. Cloud, and St. Cloud has a huge queer community. A lot of people like to say nasty things about St. Cloud, but it's a cool town. There's a lot of history, and a lot of just wonderful diversity. 

St. Cloud, over the entire history of the town, has been having hard conversations on race and gender and all of those things since the very beginning. So I think that's just kind of a neat history, and we're continuing to have these conversations today.

How did you get interested in counseling as a career?

My dad was a Stearns County deputy when I was a child. When I was 9, he decided to go back to school and become a counselor, because he wanted to actually help people, he said, before the problem started. 

So he went back to St. Cloud State, and he got his master's in community counseling. He actually died halfway through his Ph.D in psychology at the University of St. Thomas. 

I was a really annoying child who could not be put in daycare. So he took me to his college classes, and so I got to play with Rorschach tests and stuff like that as a 10 year old. I don’t know that I recommend that, but that’s what happened.

I spent almost 20 years being a book publisher. But then that ended — the book industry was struggling for a while. I looked around for a new career and realized that in my head, I'd been like, “I don't want to be a therapist,” and realized that it was my own voice that I was arguing against. 

So I applied to St. Cloud State, and I was like, “Alright universe, if this is meant to be.” I was accepted almost immediately.

Your work has focused on trauma therapy. What is it, and why is it important?

Trauma is, I think, the epidemic that's driving all the other epidemics we're concerned about. 

I define it as an overwhelming experience. What is overwhelming to a 5 year old is different than what's overwhelming to a 35 year old. And what is overwhelming to someone with resources is different than what's overwhelming to someone without resources. 

When we as a society and when individual people have a lot of trauma, it impacts absolutely every part of our daily lives. It impacts relationships, our ability to work, it impacts our ability to connect with other humans. It causes addiction, it causes all sorts of physical ailments and long-term conditions. 

So if we can deal with the trauma, we stop cycles that are generations long. 

You've done a lot of advocacy work with the LGBTQ+ community, especially young people. How do your career and advocacy intersect?

Back when I was in grad school, one of my first professors said that therapists aren't supposed to be political — that our offices should be welcoming to all, that we need to make ourselves as bland as possible. And I just disagreed. 

If I make my office bland, I make cis[gender] white people comfortable. I don't make queer people comfortable. I don't make POC comfortable. The people with the privilege, they don't need help. They’ve got the privilege already. 

My body is a political body. My undergrad degree was in women's studies. It's impossible to exist in a queer body in our society and not be politicized. It's impossible to exist in a fat body in our society and not be politicized. There are so many intersections of identity where my body is political. Why would I not use that to help everybody else? 

I have no problem being big and loud. If it lets other people kind of hide in the shadows behind me and feel safer, that's fine. I'm cool with that. 

You focus on body positivity, including teaching dance and yoga. Why is that important?

I've never existed in a small body. And fatness is one of the still completely accepted places where people can abuse, bully and be discriminatory. 

So my journey [has been] to take back my body from the diet culture of my childhood and develop a relationship and a friendship with my body. Because it's the only one I've got. I should be able to exist in my body comfortably. 

I had been in many, many yoga classes, and I'd never seen a teacher that looked like me. Small-bodied people teach yoga all the time, but they don't have flesh to get in the way. 

So in my journey through yoga and through dance and through burlesque and through all of these ways of showing up in my body, I was able to create the representation that I had needed that wasn't there. 

My classes are not silent. We sing along to the Grateful Dead and “The Rainbow Connection.” We're chilling out and goofing off. It’s the most glorious display of community, just a bunch of people who hang out together and care about each other, and are all on this journey together. 

So in creating a safe space for myself, I created a safe space for other people. 

You use the word ‘community’ a lot. How do you define it?

Community is an active word, like love. It's a word that you have to show up. You have to have hard conversations. You have to contribute, you have to allow yourself to be supported when you need it. 

Humans are a communal species, we absolutely need each other. Half of the people that I work with as clients are just starved for community. They're isolated, they're alone, they don't feel safe, they don't feel like anybody sees them, especially when they're queer folks and their families rejected them.

Finding places where people have space, and where when they go there they're welcomed, is everything. Watching someone walk into a space and be like, “I'm having a bad day,” and have three people come up and give them a hug, is everything. That will turn that day right around. 

What made you decide to run for public office?

When I was 7, I was a volunteer at the Stearns History Museum. And my childhood hero was Jane Grey Swisshelm, a newspaper editor and abolitionist who came to St. Cloud from Pennsylvania [in 1857]. 

She was publishing an abolitionist newspaper, and women didn't have rights. They couldn't own property. And so she was hauled before a judge by Sylvanus B. Lowry, the first mayor of St. Cloud. Lowry's thugs threw her printing press in the river.

So she went and opened a new newspaper the next day. It took a long time, but she won.

She was my hero as a child. And I was like, “OK, so our first mayor was a slave owner. I'm gonna become mayor and fix that,” because I was 7. Ever since then, I was like, “I want to be mayor.”

I ran a campaign [for St. Cloud City Council] focused on affordable housing, because we don't have enough. We have a housing crisis going on in St. Cloud. A lot of my folks are facing being homeless. I focused on queer folks and working on accessibility. Our most accessible playground is in our least accessible park and that doesn’t make any sense. 

I'm really proud of how I did. I did not win. I didn't make it through the primary. But like 338 folks were like, “This makes sense. Let's do that.” And that's cool. So I'll be running again. I still want to be mayor.

Who are your trans or nonbinary heroes?

The person that I would call my hero was my kind-of brother-in-law. Because in a lot of ways, he's why I started advocating so strongly for trans folks. 

He lived in Wisconsin. He came to Minnesota when he was [in his] late teens. Watching him go through the process of trying to get top surgery and trying to get hormones in the early 2000s, and how brutal that was. He had to go to Kansas for top surgery, because there wasn't anybody doing it in the state and he had to pay for it out of pocket. We've come so far in 20 years. 

Watching him grow and become the man that he is, and the man that he was always meant to become, and watching him go through all of that struggle, I was like, “I want to fix that.” And that was before I was even able to verbalize my gender. 

So watching him do all of that and learn all of that before it was widely discussed and not part of the zeitgeist yet — he's why I'm here.

Are there any trans or nonbinary rising stars in Minnesota?

Obviously, [Minnesota state Rep.] Leigh Finke. She's incredible. We are so lucky to have such an incredible advocate. She's such a powerful speaker. She's gotten so much done, leading the queer caucus — those folks who are literally writing the laws that are going to make things better. 

I'm on the board of OutFront Minnesota, and I was part of the team that hired Kat Rohn, our new director. Wow, did we choose the right person. Kat is really taking OutFront to new levels of advocacy.

Is there something you'd like people to know about transgender or nonbinary people?

We just want to live. We're not trying to force hormones on people who don't want hormones. We're not trying to mutilate children. We're not pedophiles. We're not any of the things that are being talked about. 

[Research shows] gender-affirming care reduces suicidality by 73 percent. So If you want to save the children, giving them the medical care that they need literally saves them. Calling somebody by the proper pronouns and by their name literally saves lives. 

If you're against gender-affirming care, don't get it. It's fine. Just let us have it if we need it.

You are helping start a queer community center in St. Cloud. What's your vision for it?

My practice is growing, and we needed a new space. There's this community that's been building around the dance and yoga classes. So when I started looking for a new space for my practice, I was like, “OK, we're going to include this.”

We actually formed a nonprofit called the Rainbow Wellness Collective. It's a group of a bunch of small businesses and organizations. My practice will be there. Other organizations, such as QUEERSPACE Collective, are talking to us about joining and hanging out. 

People can just chill out and feel safe. Also, we're going to have a food pantry, and we're going to have a clothing exchange, and we're going to have a little library, and our receptionist is going to have case management skills. Because we need a place that's safe, that understands, that is able to be the connection. 

We wanted to be downtown. The visibility was important. People need to see that we're here. So we wanted this visible presence, we wanted a safe place, we wanted a place that was accessible. 

We found a space. We’ll be moving in this fall — super excited. 

Watching all of this grow and the excitement in the community — I have a feeling we're going to outgrow it quickly.

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