Questions and Answers: Informed youth, optimism is the best defense against emerging threats to LGTBQ+ rights

Honors of LGBTQ+ History Month 31 pioneering and historic personalities, one for each day of October. The award winners influenced the arts, law, sports, banking and politics and gave educators the opportunity to speak about issues and events related to the LGBTQ+ experience.

Theodore Burnes, Professor of Clinical Education at the USC Rossier School of Education, has been a practicing psychotherapist for over two decades. He earned his bachelor’s degree from a small liberal arts college where the resource center for gay students was a single room in the basement of a building on the edge of campus. Since then he has seen and supported many positive changes. As LGBTQ+ groups face new difficulties, Burnes is optimistic, holding a banner in his office that reads “Youth Will Save Us”.

If you could pick one thing for everyone to understand during LGBTQ+ History Month, what would it be?

Theodore Burnes has been a practicing psychotherapist for over two decades.

“It’s important for people to see the real story surrounding the LGBT community. Sex and gender have been diverse for centuries. It was white supremacy and religiosity that erased some of these narratives.

“I hear a lot these days, ‘Given that marriage equality is over, there are so many ways that LGBT+ people can have it easier.’ That makes a lot of assumptions. If a queer person knows, is male, has a certain body type, then they can have certain privileges. But there are many black people with gay identities who have to fear being shot by the police. You also have gender reassigned people who have major challenges in certain states that don’t allow them to get the medical care they need.

“There are real challenges for people living in small, rural, religious communities. Your only connection to the community and validation is the Internet. At some point they have to turn off that computer and return to a world that doesn’t love and accept them.”

Governors, lawmakers and a conservative majority on the Supreme Court have threatened to roll back the gains made over the past half-century. How do you see elections?

“Research has revealed several trends. The political climate surrounding gay rights is one in which individuals vote by context. Who do you know? What are your experiences? Most of the psychological literature tells us that people are more likely to vote LGBTQ+ positive after meeting gay people, working with gay people, or going to the movies with gay people.

“It’s not just about passing laws. It’s also about passing laws in an environment that celebrates and supports those laws. Where are the political, economic and social resources for the people involved?”

What are the ongoing issues for LGBTQ+ students and youth?

“Representation. I constantly work with students who say, ‘I don’t know anyone who looks like me, or uses my pronouns, or has a partner who looks like my partner.’

“Young queer/gay people are still being guided into specific careers in high school and college. We tell people, ‘You can be whatever you want.’ But let’s say someone wants to go into investment banking or academia. Those are areas where we don’t always see examples of LGBTQ+ people.”

What changes need to be made in education to better support LGBTQ+ students?

“The curriculum can sometimes be too narrow. Take sex education, for example, which is often based on specific types of sex, such as birth control. This is not providing young LGBTQ+ people with the education they need to lead fun, healthy lives. These students need to be able to ask questions about what their identity means in practice.”

What films do you recommend for younger people to better understand the queer experience?

“I like to think about movies like Paris is burning, Guess who’s coming to dinner and memories of a geisha. They play with gender, race and assumptions. Pedro Almoldóvar’s films realistically deal with same-sex attraction and arousal without necessarily labeling it.”

How do you encourage open conversations about gender identity and gay issues?

“Have no fear. As we grow, change and evolve, there will always be a point where we make a mistake. We can use the wrong pronoun. We’re misprinting someone’s name. We can call someone with the wrong name. In moments like this, it’s important to remember that mistakes happen and we can be compassionately held accountable. We correct ourselves and move on.

“These moments of correction mean so much to people who themselves are genuinely afraid to share pronouns, especially for the first time. Just like there are so many gay people who might be really afraid to talk about their partner’s pronoun for the first time. There is a lot of risk involved in meeting people, but those risks lead to deeper connections.”

What drives your optimism?

“There is a generation of young people who understand equality and access to resources differently than previous generations. There is an understanding of fluidity, attraction and pleasure that we have never seen before. The younger generation knows better how to take care of themselves.”

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