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Four in ten social workers say homophobia is ‘problem in the profession’

Almost half of the respondents to Community Care poll feel homophobia is an issue in social work, amid reports of colleagues being "hounded out" by prejudice.

Image: Rex Features/Monkey Business Images
Image: Rex Features/Monkey Business Images

Four in ten social workers believe that homophobia is a problem in the profession with some claiming that colleagues have been “hounded out” due to their sexuality, a Community Care poll has found.

Of 317 respondents to our online poll, 40% believed that homophobia is a problem in social care. Just under a third (30%) admitted they “didn’t know” whether prejudice was an issue, while 30% did not believe it was an issue.

One respondent said: “It’s regrettable that homophobia, racism, prejudice, oppressive and discriminatory practice and bullying is rife in social work…though I would admit that this is not from every social worker.”

“I am speaking as a black male newly qualified social worker,” he said. “There are practitioners who make life hell for others, and unfortunately not a lot is being done to address this.”

Examples flagged up by respondents to the survey include:

• Social workers being “hounded out by attacks on the [office] building because they were gay males.”
• A family complaining that a male social worker, who they were convinced was gay, was “attempting to remove children out of bitterness regarding his inability to biologically reproduce.”
• A homosexual social worker being asked by colleagues if he wanted to be “the fairy on the Christmas tree this year?” and being told “it’s not normal is it though?” in reference to his sexuality. 
• Complaints of staff using the word “gay” derogatorily and not being challenged and colleagues using homophobic language.
• A gay social work student reporting that their coursemates linked “LGBT people as suffering from mental health issues and if a service user identifies as LGBT then they should be treated with suspicion. It absolutely horrified me.”
• A social worker restricting “mentioning my own sexuality” due to being “intimidated” by the attitudes of “militant christian (and to a lesser extent muslim)” colleagues.
• A  homosexual social work student who found themselves unable to continue with a placement at a religious school “that openly aired homophobic views.”

Heterocentric” water cooler chat

In other cases, respondents reported what they described as “more subtle experiences of homophobia.”

“People stereotype you as ‘lovely’ and suddenly all gay people are lovely,” wrote one respondent. “My line manager loves working with gay men but told me ‘ I don’t ‘get’ lesbians’. Like racism, sexism ageism etc homophobia is present and needs to be discussed and tackled head on.”

Another respondent said:

“I’m gay and don’t feel comfortable discussing it with colleagues. The office is very hetero-centric with comments and questions in previous teams always asking “do you have a girlfriend” – never “girlfriend or boyfriend” or partner. The assumption continues to be that everyone is straight unless they look or act what they perceive as stereotypically gay.”

“I do think many of my clients would react very negatively and it’s rarely I feel disclosing would be of any particular benefit – nevertheless I appreciate there is an argument that nothing will change unless these views are challenged somehow,” they added.

Social workers being forced “back into the closet”?

The survey was launched in response to concerns raised on our CareSpace forums that gay social workers were being “forced back into the closet.” One forum user said his social work manager had told him not to disclose his sexuality to clients, but was told it “was OK for heterosexual workers” to disclose “as this is normal.”

Over 80 per cent of social workers polled said managers should not be able to tell a staff member “not to disclose” their sexuality. Fourteen per cent said that the manager should be allowed to make the instruction, while four per cent said they didn’t know.

A number of respondents felt that social workers should not be disclosing their sexuality at all. Concerns were raised the service users requested personal information “more to use against you”, than out of “care or concern.”

“No one should be “declaring” their sexuality, whatever it is,” said one respondent. “They are in a professional environment and their sexuality should be off limits, just as much as their political views, religion and what they had for tea last night. Personal stuff stays at home.”

But others disagreed and said that any discrimination would infringe social work’s ethos and code of practice.

“The manager was completely wrong. In being open about sexuality there is always a risk that service users will have prejudice against you”, said one respondent.

“However, I work with social workers who often face prejudice for being black or Asian, or even their class and have to deal with it. I don’t shout about my sexuality but do not believe in lying, so if asked I would not lie about having a boyfriend when I have a girlfriend.”

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