Homophobia in the social care sector

How was your weekend?” An ordinary Monday morning question and one most social care professionals would have no problem answering. Telling your colleagues you went to the cinema with your husband or wife is no big deal. But, if your colleagues do not know you are lesbian, gay or ­bisexual, it may be more of a struggle to find an answer that does not reveal your sexual orientation.

Social care is built on anti-discriminatory practice. Its core values are to treat people equally and empower socially excluded groups. It is easy to believe, therefore, that it embraces all differences, including sexuality.

But a recent report commissioned by the Department of Health from lesbian, gay and bisexual equality campaigning charity Stonewall found “stark evidence that discrimination is taking place in the health and social care sector” in relation to lesbian, gay and bisexual staff.

Homophobia, like any other discrimination, manifests itself in many different ways. One of the most insidious is the presumption all employees are heterosexual and sexuality issues do not affect staff in the workplace. This was apparent while I was researching this article: I struggled to find local authority representatives willing to speak about the subject. By contrast, this has never been a problem when researching articles on other forms of discrimination.

More direct forms of homophobia uncovered by Stonewall include lesbian, gay and bisexual staff being excluded from workplace activities by colleagues career development being hindered and, in extreme cases, verbal abuse and harassment from both colleagues and clients.

Stonewall’s head of policy and research, Ruth Hunt, describes the findings as disappointing. She says those in management and training positions fail to make the link between equality issues on race, gender and disability and equality issues on sexuality.

“Why is the social care sector, when it’s so good about other equality issues, struggling with sexual orientation equality issues?” she asks. “There is an inability to recognise sexuality as an equality issue, so it is hard to put it in the same category as race even though strategies put in place for black and minority ethnic staff can apply to lesbian, gay and bisexual staff.”

The report reveals that one of the most common reactions to staff telling their colleagues or manager they are lesbian, gay or bisexual, is a warning not to tell anyone else because it should not impact their work life.

Carola Towle, national officer for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality at public sector union Unison, has anecdotal evidence of its members being pressured not to come out. She says: “It’s fine if straight people are expected to keep their home life private too, but this approach is not being applied equally. Being told that because you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, you have to keep it secret, can place a tremendous burden on people.”

The impact of homophobia can be devastating on gay staff, regardless of whether they are out in their workplace or not. Listening to, or overhearing, homophobic language and the derision of lesbian, gay and bisexual people leads to poor morale, increased stress levels and higher absenteeism. Ultimately, it can also lead to a poorer service for clients because practitioners are not able to be themselves, which can result in them not interacting comfortably and may lead to clients’ needs not being met.

When staff do make complaints about homophobia, many managers do not know how the law works and do not recognise it as an equality issue. “Managers don’t feel confident enough about dealing with the issue because of a lack of knowledge and training,” explains Hunt.

David Pennells has taken affirmative action to address homophobia. Openly gay, he is a regulation inspector for the Commission for Social Care Inspection (CSCI) and, 18 months ago, launched its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group to fairly represent its staff. He qualified as a social worker in 1980 and moved into inspection in 1992. During his career he heard previous colleagues use the word “queers” to describe gay people, and heard them make assumptions about paedophilia and gay men. Although times have moved on, he says not all of CSCI’s gay staff have joined the group because they are still wary of publicly coming out.

Unison favours the drawing up of an agreed policy statement between staff, management, and the unions as a way of ensuring sexual orientation is respected and treated appropriately in the workplace. Towle says this means all staff know where they stand, adding that it is also important employers ensure line managers do not use their discretion when applying policies, such as flexible working hours, because that leaves such rights to chance.

Improvement and Development Agency head of equality and diversity Jane Wren admits more work needs to be done to tackle homophobia against local government staff. She believes the introduction of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 (see “Management tips”, above) is providing “fresh impetus” for local authorities to review policy in relation to lesbian, gay and bisexual staff.

She recommends one way to help councils comply with the legislation is to expressly include sexual orientation in their equality commitments.

According to London Councils head of equality and diversity Sylvia Kelcher, such change needs to be led from the top. She says chief executives, senior managers, council leaders and all staff should undertake lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality training.

Just as they lobby for equal rights for service users, social care has a duty to ensure all staff are afforded the same level of respect and dignity regardless of their background. They cannot afford to let addressing homophobia fall off the agenda.

Further information
Being the Gay One: Experiences of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual People Working in the Health and Social Care Sector
Drawing up an agreed policy

Related articles
What the law says
Case Study – Placement student told to ‘tone down’ sexuality
Management tips – Preventing homophobia

Contact the author
 Anabel Unity Sale

This article appeared in the 9 August issue under the headline “Secrets in the care sector”


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