Promoting best practice in dealing with sexual orientation issues

In the first in a two-part series looking at sexuality and social work, Joy Trotter and Trish Hafford-Letchfield explore the ideas formulated by a group set up to promote best practice in dealing with sexual orientation issues

Recent developments in social policy and legislation have challenged structural and institutional discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. The Civil Partnership Act 2004 has given rights and responsibilities to lesbian and gay couples which reflect their commitment.

These include:(1)

● Joint treatment for income-related benefits.
● Joint state pension benefits.
● Ability to gain parental responsibility for each other’s children.
● Recognition for immigration purposes.
● Exemption from testifying against each other in court.

Despite these developments, the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual (GLBT) community remains less visible than other groups who are discriminated against. This invisibility leads to assumptions of heterosexuality or, where they are recognised, they are on the receiving end of stereo typical presumptions or crude expectations.

GLBT citizens are often viewed as a homogeneous group, where definition of their needs by social care organisations leads to partial rather than holistic approaches based on heterosexist assumptions.

Models of support
Social workers are not immune to negative attitudes and beliefs towards GLBT citizens prevalent in society. Unless we specifically think through sexuality within the content of social work education and professional development, opportunities to address the precise nature of discrimination in this area will be missed.

Developing models of support which draw on and develop the knowledge from GLBT literature, campaigning groups and researchers allows other issues and viewpoints to be explored. Making these relevant to social work practice requires careful scrutiny, sensitive application and regular updating. However, debate in the social work press remains scant. This is coupled with general silence in social work education and lack of rigorous and consistent research in this area.

Against this backdrop, a group of academics, practitioners, service users and students has formed a national special interest group in sexuality issues in social work. The aim is to extend, strengthen and promote knowledge and understanding of how sexuality affects social work practice and education and how our own and others’ sexuality affects our work and our relationships with colleagues and service users.

Growing virtual network
Through our growing virtual network, we have shared our ideas and aspirations for further developments. A key issue has been to define the term “sexuality”. We see it as the identification or expression of sex through lifestyle, behaviour and appearance, and an important way in which a person expresses their identity, orientation, personal relationships and lifestyle.

Once regarded as a private and personal issue, sexuality is now accepted as a public, political and even fashionable issue to be expressed. Sexuality is also linked to what we do and to the status attributed within publicly visible social structures, including marriage, cohabitation and parenthood. While these are associated with choice and preference, they can also be  misconstrued.

Earlier this year we hosted our first national conference in York, funded by the Association of Teachers in Social Work. Debate inspired collaboration around sexuality in social work education, research and practice and the second national symposium was held in London last month.

Discussions included a review of developments of social work practice with lesbians and gay men over the past 10 years, as many social and political changes have given rise to increased visibility, mobilisation and radicalisation of lesbians and gay men on issues that affect them.(2)

This has had a positive impact particularly through trade unions, local government and the independent sector, although there are contradictions and juxtapositions for social work in practice. For example, it is now possible to advise young people about sexual choices but it is still difficult to support gay men and lesbians with learning difficulties in their relationships, especially relationships defined as “casual”.

Poor practice
In fostering and adoption, good quality guidance is now available and symposium members have disseminated best practice in working positively with foster carers in relation to sexuality. Despite increasing recruitment of lesbian and gay adopters, service users in our symposium have highlighted the distressing consequences of continuing poor practice in this area where lack of understanding from some social workers leads to liberal tolerance rather than working with the strengths of lesbian and gay carers and families.

The chance to discuss sexuality in social work is essential. We have begun to examine current models of anti-discriminatory practice which encourage us to categorise or put people into boxes so “we” then feel comfortable about how to work with “them”, define “their” needs and consequently respond.

Sexual hierarchies emerging from this approach can have detrimental effects on practice. For example, people from the GLBT
community fortunate enough to have their different sexualities acknowledged by social workers can consequently fail to gain
anything because their needs are then just seen as an “inferior variation on the standard” of what is normally assessed and
provided for.(3)

This is dependent in the first place on GLBT people coming out. Evidence from students, tutors and practitioners shows how enormous a challenge this can be. As well as helping information to be exchanged about our identity, the process often redefines the relationship between the person coming out and the person you are coming out to. A positive and negative outcome from this experience connects to assumptions about sexuality and meanings social workers attribute to people’s sexual identities.

Even confident, well-qualified and experienced practitioners may experience difficult and often subtle problems in relation to this process if those involved are not prepared to look at their own (often heterosexist) problems during this process, as the following case study illustrates.

John Wood*, a practice teacher, works with older people in day support and lives openly with his partner of 16 years.

Daniel Gray*, the student on placement with Wood, appears to be achieving his targets and his practice seems competent.

However, Wood is concerned that Gray lacks enthusiasm and commitment (he accepted the placement reluctantly, preferring child protection).

Gray often seems frustrated when working alongside service users and appears to avoid Wood. He recently declined the opportunity to work with a pilot outreach project targeting older lesbians and gay men.

Questions to consider are:

● What key issues should Wood focus on with Gray and how might he approach these?
● Would it make any difference if Wood were heterosexual?
● Is Gray’s sexuality relevant?

*Not their real names

● To join the national special interest group contact Joy Trotter.

TRISH HAFFORD-LETCHFIELD is a senior lecturer in social work at the faculty of health and social care at London South Bank University. She has a background in managing adults’ services. She is interested in widening participation in workforce development and organisational culture in social care.
JOY TROTTER is a reader in social work, at the school of health and social care at the University of Teesside. She is interested in participative qualitative research methods dealing with child sexual abuse and domestic violence. Most of her work now focuses on young people and sexuality.

The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected
training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

This article looks at sexuality in social work and suggests that, despite advances in recent years, many difficulties remain. It highlights lack of attention given to addressing heterosexism, homophobia and discrimination in education and practice. Academics, practitioners, service users and students have formed a national special interest group to address these areas.

(1) Stonewall, 2006
(2) H C Brown, Social Work and Sexuality: Working with Lesbians and Gay Men, Macmillan, 1998
(3) S Hicks, “Sexuality: Social Work Theories and Practice”, in R Adams, L Dominelli, M Payne (eds), Social Work Futures: Crossing Boundaries, Transforming Practice, Palgrave Macmillan, pp141-153, 2005

● J Fish, Heterosexism in Health and Social Care, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006
● J Logan and colleagues, Confronting Prejudice: Lesbian and Gay Issues in Social Work Education, Arena, 1996
Regard: The National Organisation of Disabled Lesbians, Gay Men, Bisexuals and Transgender People

This article appeared in the 9 November issue under the headline “Lets Talk About Sexuality”


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