Have you seen the acronym “LGBT”? What about “GLBT,” or “LGBTIQ”? It can be even more complicated, have you seen “LGBTIQQA”? When you start to break down what those acronyms stand for, the meanings of each of the words can be equally mystifying. Sexual orientation and gender diversity are spoken about more publicly than in the past and the terms used describing people’s unique biology and experience have multiplied.
Dr. Sarah Burgamy, a psychologist, came to speak to BRC on Friday about sexual orientation, gender diversity and how the conversation has evolved over the last few decades.
A Denver native, Dr. Burgamy, is a graduate of Dartmouth College, and the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver, she’s a licensed clinical psychologist and founded her practice, PhoenixRISE. In addition to her clinical services and serving on the Board of Directors for the Colorado Psychological Association, Dr. Burgamy also speaks to groups and organizations about many topics including what terms like sexual orientation, sexual identity and gender diversity mean.
Dr. Burgamy st
arted by showing Time Magazine’s Ellen DeGeneres 1997 magazine cover. In 2019, a magazine cover declaring that a television star is “gay” is not that remarkable. However, in 1997, this magazine cover had significant consequences for Ellen. The advertisers pulled their commercials from Ellen’s show and the show was cancelled within a year. Now and since 2003, Ellen has her own talk show which is supported by advertisers. Dr. Burgamy uses Ellen’s experience to illustrate how society has evolved it’s reaction to an actor-celebrity being open about being a lesbian.
In contrast to Ellen’s 1997 declaration, it wasn’t until 2013 that Jason Collins became the first openly gay athlete playing in a national level sport. He is in the NBA (National Basketball Association.)
In the past few years, the topic of gender has become more prevalent. Dr. Burgamy showed a National Geographic magazine cover from 2017 describing the “Gender Revolution.” Another Time Magazine cover from 2014, featuring Laverne Cox, a model, an actress and she is transgender. And in 2017, Time had another magazine cover with a non-binary gender identification story up front.
Going a little deeper into the subject, Dr. Burgamy brought up a less famous magazine (the Human Rights Campaign magazine, Equality) with an article called “Hi, I’m Jeydon Loredo.” Dr. Burgamy explained that this article is about Jeydon, a young Texas transgender teenager who was nearly left out of his high school
yearbook because he wanted to appear in a tuxedo rather than a dress. Jeydon is, as Dr. Burgamy describes, someone who was “assigned female [gender] at birth” but as Jeydon said, he wanted his friends to remember him as “he really is.” After the Human Rights Campaign and the Southern Poverty Law Center got involved, Jeydon was allowed to appear in the yearbook dressed in a tuxedo. If you want to read the short article, you can find it by clicking HERE
Many people recognize Dr. Burgamy’s next magazine cover- Bruce Jenner on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1976. Jenner was again on the cover of a magazine in 2015- this time it was Vanity Fair and he had changed his name and his gender, becoming Caitlyn Jenner. Jenner”s physical transition from a gender assigned at birth to the gender she believed herself to be was controversial to some people and inspiring to others. But it brought the idea of transgender identity to people of different generations and a broad swath of people across the country.
Dr. Burgamy brought the LGBT/ GLBT, LGBTIQQA acronym slide up next. She explained that acronyms are supposed to make things more simple for people. However, this acronym (which grows more letters every year) is not simple to understand. It includes terms like, “intersex,” “questioning,” “multisexual,” “pansexual,” and “ally.” Part of the reason it’s not “simple” is because it bunches together complex concepts like gender orientations, sexual orientations, gender identities and sex identities. These are very different concepts to be all grouped together.
One of the biggest issues with trying to talk about the concepts and terms people may find in the LGBT/GLBT context, there is often not a clear path to finding out what the terms mean. Dr. Burgamy “narrowed” the terms by looking at “gender terms” that go beyond “female/male.” The word “narrowed” is in quotes because there are many more than just “female” or “male.” Why is it important that people understand the terms? Because it is no longer a world of female/male gender identification and it won’t go back to that binary system. Facebook gives people 56 options when identifying their gender.
Until recently, Dr. Burgamy explained, scientists and society had two boxes to choose from when talking about gender- female or
male. Everyone must be one or the other, there is no mid-ground, people don’t choose their own box and people can’t change boxes. Dr. Burgamy calls this socio-cultural categorization which is also regulated homogeneity. Dr. Burgamy thinks it is a method that people use to make sense of the world. People often think gender is simple and science based. It is not so simple to categorize.
Gender is made up of three parts; gender, gender identity and gender expression. (see her Ven diagram) Roughly, “gender” is what social category a person falls into (it is also culturally relative), “gender identity” is what gender a person feels, and “gender expression” is how a person expresses their gender.
If these were three categories that neatly and completely overlapped into one shape, that would be simple. However, it often does not fit neatly within one shape. It can often look more like the Ven diagram, where the “gendered self” is what shows up when all the components of gender overlap. The categories may broadly overlap or narrowly overlap- that is where the complications arise. This is especially true when it is not the individual who is making the assessment but rather other people, looking at a person and making a decision about that person’s gender based on their understanding of gender and their culture’s gender expectations.
Dr. Burgamy gave an example: what if you saw someone standing in front of you. This person had a “Santa Clause” level beard- big, bushy and prominent. The person also was wearing an amazing “prom” dress. How do we assess that person’s gender? Most people will think the person in front of them is “male” because of the beard. Even though there are two very strong gender identifiers, (beard- male, dress-female) most people will give more weight to the beard than the dress. (Facial hair is more difficult to change than clothing.) This process of identification is how human’s brains make sense of the world. Reductive classification makes it easier for people to understand what is going on in their world (generally.)
The process of “gendering” or identifying gender is also complicated because we assign gender at or before birth. That’s fine so long as the assigned gender, the socialization and effects of parental nurturing all align with that person’s gender identity. If it doesn’t all align, then it can lead to confusion for the person assigned a gender they don’t fit into and those in their culture who have expectations about a person’s behavior or identity based on gender assignment.
Our culture has very strong gender assumptions and expectations about people from before the time they are born. What is the first question that is nearly always asked to new parents? Usually, it is, “is it a girl or a boy?” The babies usually come home to a blue or pink room and their toys, clothes and activities all break down along gendered lines. We base these decisions about gender on the genitalia of the infant and do not give any thought to gender identity or gender expression let alone an individual’s chromosomes or relative hormone levels.
Dr. Burgamy said, “if there is nothing else you walk away from with this talk, it is this- Sex ≠ Gender
.” She went on to say that even people who feel very comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth have at some point in their lives felt constrained by the box they were assigned. She said she means that at different points in life, people are told how to dress, what behaviors are expected or acceptable, what interests are appropriate to pursue and how a person should “pair” when it came to relationships. These are the “rules.”
Dr. Burgamy pointed out that when a child does not conform with the gender assigned to them or is unable to follow “the rules,” it can be very difficult for that child. Children are generally very concerned about being rejected or shamed. If a child doesn’t conform with their culture’s gender expectations, the child may have depression, anxiety and confusion. Children may not disclose these concerns early because it is so risky for them. Children may have to work through the idea of their gender identity over time. Dr. Burgamy said that gender can be thought of as a web, or a grid with four components for people; nature, culture, nurture and time. And of these components, the only thing we have any type of control over is “nurture.” Nurture is the opportunity to assist children with finding their gender identity in a safer environment than they might find in the broader culture.
Dr. Burgamy gave an example of how badly things can go for children when assigned gender does not match with a person’s gender identity. Doctors at Johns Hopkins studied a set of identical twin boys in 1966. During a circumcision procedure the doctor used the wrong tool and removed the penis of one of the twins. Doctors told the parents to raise that boy as a girl. The doctors reassured the parents that science told them that if they raised the child as a girl, he would become a girl. This is David Reimer’s story also known as The Case of John/Joan (1966.) The child did not ever feel like a “girl” and eventually found out he was not a girl and did his best to become a man. Both brothers eventually committed suicide (for different reasons.)
Dr. Burgamy said this was an extreme example of the harm that can happen when there is an attempt to impose a gender on an individual but it shows that it should not be done.
As she was wrapping up, Dr. Burgamy invited the audience to take a guess at her sexual orientation. Using herself as an example, Dr. Burgamy noted that when the audience sees her gender nonconformity, their thought process interprets that nonconformity as “gay.” And because that guess is correct, the audience will use that gender nonconformity signal as a tool when making that assessment for someone else. She noted that tool is imperfect. When she was younger, Dr. Burgamy did not have any outward gender nonconformity. She had long hair, she wore dresses, she conformed to gender norms or cultural expectations. It did not change her sexual orientation, she just had no outward signal to other people to indicate she may not conform to the cultural expectation of heterosexual orientation. It’s important, she noted, that we understand gender and sexual orientation are not the same thing and if we use that imperfect reasoning as a way to categorize people we will fail to see those people as they are.
The world is set up to make us categorize people into these roles. Since that categorization does not work for everyone, we may want to keep in mind that it is usually more complicated than that and everyone benefits if we remember the diversity of humanity.
If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Sarah Burgamy’s psychology practice, PhoenixRISE, you can find it by clicking HERE
If you'd like to see Dr. Burgamy's program again or pass it along to your friends, you can find it by clicking HERE
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