Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Teachable Moments: Should Social Workers Reveal Their Sexuality to Clients?

My first reaction to the question I've posed in the title of this post is that it's a ridiculous question. It's based on completely heteronormative thinking, to say that LGBTQ social workers have to even consider this question, when straight social workers clearly don't have to consider whether they should "reveal" their sexuality to clients. My straight coworkers are open with their clients about the fact that they are married or living with an opposite sex partner. Personally I live with an opposite sex partner, though I identify as bisexual. Most of my teen clients know I have a boyfriend, and no one has ever, ever mentioned that that "revelation" might be inappropriate.

To propose that LGBTQ social workers should have to be more secretive about their personal lives and relationships than straight social workers sends a message that our relationships are not equally as legitimate as those of our straight coworkers. If an organization is fine with the fact that clients know a straight female worker is married to a man, but discourage a bisexual female worker from letting her clients know about her same-sex relationship, especially while purporting to be an organization that supports social equality, well, I think that's fucked.

Here's what happened this morning- I work as a life skills trainer for kids with behavioral health diagnoses at a Social Work Nonprofit That Shall Not Be Named. I was on vacation this past week and my coordinator was catching me up on what I missed while I was away. Apparently one of our teenage boys came out to his group as bisexual (awesome!!!!!!!). When this happened, one of my amazing and hardworking coworkers, who happens to be female and bisexual, came out to the group as well. She was  being supportive to her client, by saying to the group, that's awesome and an okay way to be, and I'm that way too! Yay for us! She wasn't talking about the details of her sex life (she actually has a boyfriend but that is totally irrelevant), just giving a simple fact about her identity in the same way the client was. According to my coordinator, this was wildly inappropriate and she told me she would encourage us not to give any such information about our sexualities to our clients, to prevent calls from parents and parents possibly pulling their children from the program. She doesn't want clients to go home and say to their parents "so-and so kisses girls!" (her words. really.)

I didn't really know how to respond to this on the spot, but it broke my heart. It shook my impression of the program I work for as one that stands for social equality. It shook my impression of my coordinator as someone who has always been very supportive of her staff in every way and someone who would value what is right over what is convenient. I understand her concerns about getting phone calls from parents. That is never pleasant, and this is Arizona- there are plenty of closed-minded folks around. But I would have expected better from this program, and from this supervisor.

A few weeks ago, I personally came out to a group I was working with one day during a discussion of whether it's ok to use the word "gay" as an insult, because I viewed it as a teachable moment. I explained to the group that even if the person you're speaking to isn't offended by your language, you don't know who else around you might hear you and be hurt by it. There could be other people who have LGBTQ family members, friends, or might be LGBTQ identified themselves and just not feel comfortable sharing that with you. I didn't give any details about my sex life or preferences, but I said "I'm not straight, and hearing that offends and hurts me." My goal was to teach tolerance and open minds by showing my clients that someone they already like and respect (ok that might be overstating it, but at least respect) isn't straight, and is hurt by their language.

[Totally irrelevant but awesome aside: during a minute alone with one of my clients later that day, a 12 year old boy, he said to me, really timidly, "so.. are you really not straight?" My response was, "I have a boyfriend now but I've also had girlfriends, yes." And he was all, "Wow! That's cool! I'm glad you're not ashamed about it." I was pretty stoked.]

Honestly, the confession just kind of came out of my mouth, there wasn't a lot of forethought to it, and after work I was pretty terrified that my supervisors were going to get a parental call. But what reassured me was thinking, you know what, the three people that could be in the office to receive that call are three people that I know are like-minded, socially progressive, consistently supportive and respect me as a coworker. They are all great supervisors, and also my friends. I trust them to handle that call the way I would- by saying that this is an organization that hires diverse, qualified staff, and stands behind them. This is an organization that will not be bullied by bigotry from parents. This is an organization that values having a program that teaches tolerance over having a program that keeps as many kids as possible by not letting parents who could potentially be intolerant know what kind of people are really spending time with their children. I understand the fear that parents could pull kids if they knew there are LGBTQ staff working with their children. But I feel like the values of the organization have to take priority over the possibility of losing a client or upsetting a parent. What do you really want the program you've work so hard to create and maintain to stand for? What message do you really want to send to the clients?

I understand my supervisors point that "it's none of their business," and even what she means when she says that we aren't a "proselytizing" organization. Meaning that we don't support one side or another of "controversial" issues. She advised that no controversial issue be discussed, but instead that we just teach a general "tolerance" approach without specifying any particular group or difference to be "tolerant" of. But when you have kids coming out in group, (we have one more than one that has) and multiple staff that are LGBTQ identified, it seems a little ridiculous- and simplistic- to ask that we just avoid the topic completely. It seems much more beneficial to the kids to talk about it openly, and to teach that even if you disagree with someone, heck even if you think their life choices (or what you consider to be choices) are an abomination, you still have to treat them with respect and dignity, because they're human. And if one nutty parent finds out and thinks that teh gayz (zomg!) are recruiting their baby for satanic sex acts and pulls them from the program- so be it. Even being in Arizona, I think most of our parents can see the difference our program makes in their children's lives and wouldn't deny them that opportunity regardless of their beliefs about homosexuality.

What do you think? How much of one's personal life is it ok to discuss with clients, especially teens? Does the context you do it in matter? Does revealing personal information help to build rapport, or is it detrimental to a therapeutic relationship?

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