Think about the unique characteristics of each letter of the alphabet—the various sounds that each letter can make, the straight or sometimes curvy shape of different letters, and the associations of each letter with other letters. Did you know that that L, G, B, T, Q, and I people each face challenges that are similarly unique from one another?
As licensed psychologist Dr. Theodore Burnes explains, it is true that LGBTQI+ people do face many of the same challenges that other people face, as well other pressures such as the challenge of transcending gender roles, workplace harassment, and harassment by large systemic systems like law enforcement and even the medical healthcare system. However, because this is fairly wellknown, LGB people’s challenges are often incorrectly assumed to be the same as those of trans, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary people, among others. In this interview, Dr. Burnes shares the ABCs on the distinct barriers that different groups and individuals face (as well as advice for helping people better understand one another).
“For example,” Dr. Burnes says, “for gay and lesbian people specifically, a lot of challenges often don’t just deal with a person’s gay identity, but with how that identity interacts with their other identities. Increasingly, especially in large urban areas, we find that gay people often face challenges from their racial, ethnic, or cultural community in terms of how that community may value their sexual orientation.” “
However, for bisexual individuals,” he continues, “who are not gay . . . one of the things that they uniquely face is biphobia, which originates from not only the heterosexual community but also from gay and lesbian communities as well. Many gay and lesbian communities may actually consider bisexuality to be invisible, and so this concept of bi-erasure comes up a lot. A lot of the daily struggles are around visibility. And also accurate visibility.”
Some of the unique challenges, especially for transgender people, involve trying to understand themselves, and not just necessarily in terms of their attraction but also who they are in terms of connection to their own bodies. Elaborating, Dr. Burnes says, “Many times, transgender people have challenges with regard to a persistent discomfort with their gender identity, which is the gender that they know themselves to be within their physical bodies. That is very different from challenges with regard to the person who they are attracted to. In other words, although the two challenges are linked, the gender that I know myself to be is distinct from the gender of the person who I’m attracted to.”
A licensed professional clinical counselor in California, Dr. Burnes is an expert in human sexual expression and sex positivity, teaching and training pedagogy in mental health services, and mental health and wellness for LGBTQI+ individuals. He is also the Director of Training and Educational Programs at the Los Angeles Gender Center, where he supervises prelicensed professionals in working with transgender and gender nonconfirming clients.
As he advises these professionals to understand: “Transgender people often have to discover the steps that they need in order to make physical or social transitions . . . which LGB people don’t do. Trans people often have to undergo a series of processes to know their own pronouns and change their names. They may look different in some way—from taking hormones or having a series of surgeries so that their bodies are more congruent with who they know themselves to be. Those kinds of processes, which are inherent for many trans people, are unique processes that LGB people may actually never undergo.”
Steps to a Career Working With LGBTQI+ Clients and Communities
Dr. Burnes’s journey to become a licensed counselor first began when he was an undergraduate studying psychology and Spanish. As a student, he obtained a work study position at a LGBTQ resources office, which served to create a safe space for students and awareness at the campus level. It was through this opportunity that he realized the benefit of thinking about how LGBTQ students need safe spaces and the benefits of good therapy so that they can process some of their own internal structures and external processes.
He pursued a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania. There, he met a series of mentors who he says were instrumental in helping him recognize that therapists need more knowledge about the communities that they serve in order to do great work. At the time, there wasn’t much research out there on either area, and so his instructors basically said to him, “Look, if you want this work to be done, then you’re the one that you’re waiting for to do it. You need to step into a role as a leader.”
Looking back, Dr. Burnes says, “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do that, but the more I started doing it, the more I started realizing that it wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it, but that I was scared. I had thought that I would be rejected and that I wouldn’t get into the schools that I wanted to. But once I really stepped into the mindset that this was my calling, fear changed to my second priority because serving communities was now first.”
Dr. Burnes went on to pursue a doctoral degree at the University of California Santa Barbara, which he loved every minute of. “I worked with a mentor who was really passionate about LGBT-related discrimination processes in the field of psychology. I also got involved in research, and through my doctoral studies, I really realized that I wanted to go on and do more training work. Obviously clinical practice was important to me, but of equal importance was training clinicians. I currently work in a master’s program where I get to do what I love. I feel really fortunate to have a career that continues to nourish me.”
Every Person Is Different
Dr. Burnes drives east with the Hollywood Sign ahead in the distance as he speaks with us today. Prefacing how he has become less focused with categorizing people’s genders, he declares, “All good scholars are open to change and feedback, and as their work and constructs evolve, their thought will evolve, too. Because the human existence and experience is wrought with change, the work that we do maybe won’t radically change, but it will shift.”
When Dr. Burnes first started focusing on LGBTQI+, he was very intent on thinking about sexuality in terms of labels and identity. But during his work, he has become increasingly interested in not just identities and labels but also in thinking about process. “What I mean by that is— it’s not just important to understand the label that someone comes to know themselves by, but also the processes of who they are and how they came to know who they are. That process can look different for so many different people. For me, that feels really important to acknowledge.”
Although Dr. Burnes was initially involved in the LGB focus, he has found through his work that people are not just LGB or T. He says, “They also have families and cultural communities. They also have jobs. And they also have political aspirations. So, if you do LGB rights work or any type of social justice work, you are committed to multi-issue organizing.”
During a Psi Chi talk last year in Oregon, Dr. Burnes spoke about how “social just-us” does not work because social justice should actually be about people who are “not just us.” In other words, although a person may identify as a member of the gay community, the gay community may not all look like that particular person. Therefore, he says, it is important to think about the ways that you can advocate for individuals who may share some of your identities . . . but not all of them.
So, what can be done to help LGBTQI+ and heterosexual people become more accepting of one another?
Dr. Burnes thinks that talks like his upcoming Psi Chi Distinguished Lecture at WPA 2019 are a huge start. Further, he believes that it is especially important for individuals who are involved in the social sciences field of any kind—whether that be psychology, sociology, or anthropology— to understand the distinct ways that individuals are different. “Knowledge and awareness of differences will often lead to empathy for difference,” he says, “So, part of the solution is not just providing spaces for education for individuals in those communities but also for people who serve those communities.” As readers might be able to guess, creating safe spaces to create further awareness is one of Dr. Burnes’s specific life callings.
A second strategy to bring people together, he says, is trying to look at things through the lens of social justice. About this, he elaborates, “No matter what group that you might be a part of or working with, whether it is a family system, a cultural group, or even a community, try to understand who might be on the margins of that group and if there are ways that individuals within that group might feel marginalized as a result of who they are.”
For example, in the LGBTQI+ community, trans people often feel marginalized by LGB people. Therefore, Dr. Burnes encourages this community to have larger conversations to ask questions like this: “As a community, are we practicing what we preach, not just externally in terms of having people’s awareness raised, but also internally in terms of the in-group work needed in order to create the socially just spaces that we want?”
No matter what group that you might be a part of or working with, whether it is a family system, a cultural group, or even a community, try to understand who might be on the margins of that group and if there are ways that individuals within that group might feel marginalized as a result of who they are.
Another area where change is needed is within the media and entertainment industry. Dr. Burnes says, “The media continues to spurn, not only individuals who are LGB identified, but also individuals in a variety of subpopulations such as heterosexual and cisgender communities of color and folks who may actually have diverse relational categories such as people who are in polyamorous relationships or who identify in the kink community. There are media depictions that are grossly inaccurate about how individuals function.”
A solution to this issue, Dr. Burnes advises, is for more individuals within the social sciences, and especially within psychology, to advocate and consult with media groups. These professionals can and should help the media and entertainment industries to develop a better awareness and a diversity tolerance to think about the ways in which popular media is depicting and using art to portray individuals’ experiences.
Further, Dr. Burnes urges Psi Chi students to get involved in this conversation too. He says, “If members of Psi Chi are seeing inaccurate portrayals—which I’m sure they are because we’re all seeing them—then it’s not enough to just stop watching a media or unsubscribe from a YouTube channel. Send a letter or an e-mail to a producer. Tell them, ‘I’m going to stop watching your content because of your inadequate depiction of a particular character.’ I think more and more producers are becoming desensitized to the fact that their inaccurate depictions are going to result in less viewership or less consumption.”
Some Counsel for Counselors
Fifteen years ago, Dr. Burnes believed that the most important things for counselors to do in order to better support LGBTQI+ people was to learn more basic knowledge in terms of historical understanding, terminology, and current laws and policies that impact LGBTQI+ people. Now, he says, learning basic knowledge is still important, but his advice to counselors is also somewhat different.
“There’s so much more that individuals need to know about building individuals’ resilience as LGBTQI+ people. That can be accomplished through advocating for social support, knowing the various kinds of cultural communities and people’s understanding of sexuality, and knowing the diverse ways that individuals are consistently understanding their own intimate partnerships and making families.” About that final point, he says, “I think it has become a much more visible trend because fewer people openly made families in the past.”
It is in these areas that Dr. Burnes sometimes sees counselors entering the field without a lot of information. He says, “I think building resilience is important for a lot of groups. When we train counselors to work with individuals with various ability statuses and class backgrounds, we really try to help them build their clients’ resilience that they might need to sort of combat their daily oppressions.
In addition to building resilience, he has also found that teaching rogue knowledge creates stereotypes, which can cause counselors to inadvertently ask their clients to conform to a certain knowledge base that may or may not fit for that client. So instead of counselors going into a room and saying, “In my class, I learned that all gay people do bla bla bla” or “all Mexican Americans do such and such,” he wants them to have a working knowledge and to build skills of curiosity and humility when they work with individuals who may in some way be culturally different than they are.
Psi Chi Chapters Can Help Too!
Dr. Burnes encourages local chapters to collaborate and build partnerships with other campus or community organizations. Ask yourself, “Are there student groups on campus that are fighting for rights for a certain cultural group?” Or “Are there community organization representatives that my chapter could invite to come in and speak at a meeting?” This will create an awareness for the entire chapter as well as a partnership so that your chapter can get involved in some advocacy work without necessarily having to “recreate the wheel” or deplete resources.
The second way that chapters can make a difference is to think about the ways in which a department, community, or university can recommit itself to inclusion and diversity. He says, “In California, one of the things that we’re seeing right now is that many chapters are thinking really specifically about the recent passing of the Gender Recognition Act, which is related to nonbinary gender identities on driver’s licenses. Because of this, college campuses throughout the state are really beginning to partner with LGBT resource centers and community agencies to determine ways to make nonbinary individuals feel welcome and accepted into the university community.”
He adds, “And I know Psi Chi is no exception to that. After a presentation I gave recently, three Psi Chi members came up to me and said, ‘Oh, my gosh! We’re so glad that you’re here, and that you’re a psychologist. It shows us that we can do different things!’ ”
In response, Dr. Burnes asked them a simple question. Reader, he asks you the same question now: “Great! So, how are you supporting existing efforts in your community?”
|The Value of Mentorship
At the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Jeanne Stanley was Dr. Burnes’s master’s degree advisor. He says, “She continues to be a mentor. And I think I didn’t know how important it was for me to actually have a mentor who really valued the intersections between gender and psychology. Having someone role model that for me was really important—and not just someone who I thought was really supportive but who was also doing the actual work.”
At the University of California Santa Barbara, Dr. Tania Israel was Dr. Burnes’s doctoral advisor. She was phenomenal, he says, and through his work at UCSB, he also completed a couple teaching assistantships. One was in the Department of Black Studies with Dr. Ingrid Banks. He also took a college and university teaching course with Dr. Shirley Jackson who really helped him with the way that he thinks about knowledge.
|Advice for Students
A Cross-Cultural Psychology class was one of the first classes that Dr. Burnes took as an undergraduate student that was really helpful to him; he highly encourages students interested in working with LGBTQI+ to take this course. Although the course is usually geared toward diversity more broadly, he feels that this kind of knowledge can be really helpful!
Likewise, any type of women’s or gender study class can also be useful for thinking about gender roles. He says, “If your campus is lucky enough to have a sexualities studies class, then obviously take that as well. If your college doesn’t have a department of sexuality and gender studies, then these classes are usually held in either psychology, sociology, or anthropology departments.”
He also recommends for students to consider opportunities to infuse topics related to gender and sex in the final papers of their more traditional undergraduate courses. Fondly, he recalls, “One of my favorite papers was for Abnormal Psychology, in which I deconstructed gender identity disorder. My professor told me that it was an amazing paper, and we had a great debate as a result of my writing. There are so many ways that the field of human behavior impacts sexuality and gender. You can apply sex and gender in most of the coursework within our discipline.”
|Theodore Burnes, PhD, of Antioch University Los Angeles (CA), is a licensed psychologist and a licensed professional clinical counselor in the state of California. His interests include the psychology of human sexual expression and sex-positivity; teaching and training pedagogy in mental health services; clinical supervision; social justice and advocacy; mental health and wellness for LGBTIQ individuals; qualitative research epistemologies and ontologies. Dr. Burnes is also the Director of Training and Educational Programs at the Los Angeles Gender Center.
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