Should social workers reveal their sexual identity to clients?

My first reaction to the question I’ve posed in the title of this piece 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…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?

This piece originally posted at GenderJill Goes West

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3 Comments

  1. Posted July 18, 2011 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    I think that the problem is that this:

    It seems much more beneficial to the kids to talk about it openly

    is not entirely consistent with this:

    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.

    It kind of sounds like what this boils down to is your supervisor making a judgment call that the potential benefits of staff members discussing their sexual identities with the kids are outweighed by the possibility of parental complaints.

    Not being privy to the demographic you are working with, I can’t hazard a guess as to whether that judgment call is reasonable or not. If coming out to your clients results in a dozen kids feeling more comfortable and supported in their identities and results in one teen being pulled from the program, that could probably be considered acceptable collateral damage, I guess. If, on the other hand, it results in many parents pulling their children from the program, maybe not so much.

    I think that the relevant point when considering this though is that, in the eyes of your supervisor, the situation has to be framed in terms of cost/benefit, rather than simply as a matter of her not caring about equality.

  2. Posted July 19, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    I think it’s a barbaric and definitely oppressive step back to tell employees to EVER closet themselves in ANY situation, for ANY job.

    That said, there’s definitely no place for sexuality in the workplace. Ask your supervisor if she would be okay with an employee sharing that fact that he/she is an assault survivor with a client who brought up their own story. If they reply in the positive, then she has no place to say that you can’t act in a similarly supporting manner to any client going through anything whatsoever. Your mom is an alcoholic? I know what that’s like, I can sympathize. You’ve discovered you’re LGBTQ in any capacity? Hell, I know what that’s like. Failed in English class this year? Yeah, I did that in grade 9 but all it takes is a little extra push and you’ll make it.

    I guess it’s important to question what the boundaries are, but in my experience there aren’t many discussion boundaries in social work ’cause the kids have already been through hell and are trying to make it back. Making yourself at all relate-able helps them learn they’re not alone, and that they have a future. It seems a bit counter-productive to me to be limiting the topics on which you can relate.

  3. Posted July 20, 2011 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    From my knowledge of emotion work/support work a crucial part of it is congruence: being yourself, being fully open and genuine, not trying to hide any thoughts or feelings. So that the person/people you’re working with feel safe and trusted enough to be fully open in return, and don’t have to worry what else you might be hiding (e.g. you might be judging them) or what you’re ‘really like’. Since they’ve probably had to deal with all sorts of people whom they had to try to read or second guess in order to keep themselves safe, they might have a heightened capacity to tell if you’re uncomfortable/hiding something. The idea that you should have to closet yourself, and change yourself (for anyone who’s visibly queer) goes against that so deeply. How can you expect them to be open and honest if the worker can’t be?

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