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LGBTQ Rights at Risk — With Protections Threatened, Advocates Seek Social Work Allies
By Christina Reardon, MSW, LSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 18 No. 3 P. 10

A systematic, coordinated effort to reverse progress on LGBTQ rights is another reason for social workers to advocate on behalf of vulnerable populations.

On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry. It was a historic day for LGBTQ advocates who had fought for decades to make same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

The ruling set off celebrations across the country. Supporters of same-sex marriage cheered, people embraced, and couples rushed to get married. Rainbow-colored lights illuminated the White House.

Three years later, it's hard to find reasons to celebrate. When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, people throughout the LGBTQ community feared that his administration would be hostile to their needs and concerns. Those fears were justified, for the Trump administration has tried repeatedly to enact policies harmful to LGBTQ people. And the antagonistic climate created by those policies has permeated to other levels of government and communities across the country.

For social workers, the plight of LGBTQ people affected by Trump's policies provides another opportunity to speak up for and act on behalf of vulnerable populations. Social workers are in an ideal position to fight for the protection and advancement of LGBTQ rights because they serve on the front lines in many areas where those rights are being attacked, according to LGBTQ advocates speaking with Social Work Today.

"It's about actively fighting oppression and participating in advocacy," says Megan S. Paceley, PhD, MSW, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare. "It's about really getting to your core values as social workers and fighting against these things."

An Erosion of Rights
As President Barack Obama was getting ready to wrap up his second term, the White House released a fact sheet about his administration's record on LGBTQ issues (White House Office of the Press Secretary, 2016). The document listed a multitude of accomplishments, from the repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and the passage of the Affordable Care Act to opposition of the use of conversion therapy with minors and efforts to prevent discrimination against LGBTQ people in housing, education, and the workplace.

Things are different under Trump. According to a report from The Fenway Institute (Cahill, Geffen, & Wang, 2018), examples of anti-LGBTQ actions taken by the Trump administration during his first year in office include the following:

• reversing Obama-era nondiscrimination protections—for example, ordering schools to ignore 2016 guidance from the Obama administration that stated that Title IX prohibits discrimination in schools on the basis of gender identity;

• attempting to ban transgender people from serving in the military;

• halting the addition of questions about sexual orientation and gender identity to federal surveys that collect data used by researchers, activists, and policymakers;

• nominating federal judges who have demonstrated anti-LGBTQ bias;

• removing the equality of LGBTQ people as a major goal of U.S. foreign policy; and

• favoring policies that would allow individuals, businesses, and health care providers to refuse to provide services on religious or moral grounds.

"When you compare [the Obama fact sheet with the Fenway Institute report], it appears as though the current administration has literally worked to overturn each step of progress made by the Obama administration, almost point by point," says Michael P. Dentato, PhD, MSW, an associate professor at Loyola University Chicago's School of Social Work.

The Trump administration's policy attacks on LGBTQ people fall into three general categories, explains Meghan Maury, policy director of the National LGBTQ Task Force. There are the direct attacks on LGBTQ people through rollbacks of protections that are already in place, policies that indirectly attack LGBTQ people by allowing others to refuse to serve them because of religious or moral objections, and policies that limit research on the experiences and needs of the LGBTQ community.

Although the policies advanced by the Trump administration may seem disparate and unrelated to each other, they are all part of a systematic, coordinated effort to reverse progress on LGBTQ rights, says Rebecca Isaacs, executive director of Equality Federation, a network of state-based LGBTQ advocacy organizations. This effort has the potential to negatively affect many areas of LGBTQ people's lives, from housing to jobs to health care, adds Jocelyn Samuels, executive director of the Williams Institute, a public policy research institute based at the UCLA School of Law. "There are huge risks to the LGBTQ community that rise because of this series of actions," Samuels says.

There also are efforts in many states to limit LGBTQ rights. In 2017, lawmakers in 30 states introduced at least 129 anti-LGBTQ bills, according to a report published by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and the Equality Federation Institute (Warbelow & Diaz, 2017). Among the bills that successfully passed were ones in South Dakota and Texas that allow foster care or adoption services to refuse to work with same-sex couples due to religious or moral objections; a similar yet more narrowly focused bill passed in Alabama. Kentucky passed a law that could result in student groups at public high schools, colleges, and universities turning away potential members on religious or moral grounds.

The most alarming impact of the Trump administration's policies may be the inhospitable climate they foster in the day-to-day lives of LGBTQ people, says Elizabeth G. Holman, PhD, LSW, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Bowling Green State University. The political atmosphere is a major component of the community climate in which a person lives and can set a tone that makes people feel supported or stigmatized. LGBTQ people living in unfriendly environments feel like they are managing a constant sense of fear and danger, Holman says.

Research has demonstrated that LGBTQ people living in a hostile community climate face higher rates of mental health problems and other negative outcomes. For example, Hatzenbuehler, Keyes, and Hasin (2009) found that lesbian, gay, or bisexual people were more likely to have experienced problems such as generalized anxiety disorder and PTSD during the past 12 months if they lived in states that did not offer protections against hate crimes and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Another study found that young adults who identified as lesbian, gay, or queer reported increased anxiety and perceived stress when exposed to environmental microaggressions such as hearing politicians oppose equal rights and protections for sexual minorities (Woodford, Paceley, Kulick, & Hong, 2015).

The tone set by the Trump administration has emboldened people with prejudices to express them more openly through bullying and harassment of LGBTQ people, says Megan E. Gandy-Guedes, PhD, LCSW, an assistant professor at the Anne and Henry Zarrow School of Social Work at the University of Oklahoma. "A lot of kids, and a lot of people, are going back in the closet, and that's only going to happen more," Gandy-Guedes says.

An Opportunity for Social Work
Representatives of several LGBTQ advocacy groups say the current political climate has forced them to take a more defensive posture. Instead of focusing their efforts on pushing new policies and laws to advance the rights of LGBTQ people, they have to use more time and resources fighting initiatives that would rescind those rights.

But the change in posture has not been all negative. For example, Maury says the National LGBTQ Task Force has become more connected with advocates representing other groups in the progressive movement. This increased cohesiveness makes it easier to work together on issues such as gun control and immigration that affect multiple groups of people. "That solidarity has been so heartening for us," Maury says. "It's been heartening to be able to activate that network."

Isaacs says there are still many opportunities for positive policy change, particularly at the state and local levels. For example, several states passed pro-LGBTQ bills in the past year, including bans on the use of conversion therapy with minors, and many municipalities in even the most conservative states have passed ordinances protecting LGBTQ rights.

Social workers at all levels of practice and in a variety of settings can get involved in promoting LGBTQ rights, advocates say. Holman says advocacy can start by recognizing how the political environment and other aspects of community climate affect LGBTQ clients and educating others in the profession about those effects. Social workers need to listen to and trust the stories clients have to offer about the discrimination and harassment they face on a daily basis, Gandy-Guedes adds.

The political climate also provides an opportunity for social workers to learn more about the LGBTQ community's diverse history and culture and to become more self-aware about how their own biases and assumptions affect their practice with LGBTQ clients, Dentato says. "If you're going to work with these communities, you need to do your homework to prepare to provide affirming services and be a better ally and practitioner," says Dentato, who recently edited a book titled Social Work Practice With the LGBTQ Community: The Intersection of History, Health, Mental Health and Policy Factors.

Paceley says social workers can take simple steps to create a more welcoming environment in their organizations, such as using inclusive forms, having inclusive restrooms, and not assuming that clients are heterosexual or cisgender. At a time when more organizations may be tempted to refuse services on religious or moral grounds, it is especially important for social workers in those organizations to fight to ensure that the organizations remain open to everyone, Maury says.

Finally, social workers can get involved at the policy level by participating in advocacy efforts such as contacting legislators and building coalitions across different groups that face oppression, says Anthony P. Natale, MSW, PhD, an associate professor of social work and Graduate College Fellow for Inclusive Excellence at the University of Oklahoma. "Laws are macro interventions, and one law can have an impact far greater than a lifetime of individual interventions," Natale says.

Social workers are so valuable to policy-level discussions because they see firsthand how policy affects the everyday lives of their clients, Isaacs explains. "That's what social workers can do; they can impart those stories and show that the people affected are real people," Isaacs says.

Moving Forward
LGBTQ advocates admit they feel a mixture of despair and optimism as they consider what the remainder of President Trump's first term will hold for them and their constituents. It's inevitable that there will additional anti-LGBTQ efforts to contend with at all levels of government. Yet, the increased energy among supporters of LGBTQ rights provides hope that policies and proposals that deny those rights can be defeated.

"I'm pinning my hope on the level of civic engagement I've seen," Maury says. "I have to believe that the voice of the people will win out."

Another bright spot on the horizon are the upcoming midterm elections, Isaacs says. The election defeats Trump has already suffered in several states may be a sign that a major shift will occur in November.

Many organizations that serve LGBTQ people are moving forward despite an uncertain future. The Los Angeles LGBT Center, for example, is continuing with the construction of its new Anita May Rosenstein Campus to provide housing and other services for older adults and youth. The estimated cost of the project is around $130 million, and the campus is expected to open in 2019.

While the future of federal funding to community centers that serve LGBTQ people is unclear under Trump, the center cannot let that stop it from helping its clients, says Dave Garcia, the center's director of policy and community building. "While you have this real threat, you still see us saying it's not going to stop us," Garcia says. "We can't stop because the need is there, and the demand continues to increase." (See sidebar for more about how community centers are responding to the Trump administration.)

Especially heartening for Dentato is the way young people, such as the students affected by the school shooting in Parkland, FL, are stepping up and becoming more politically involved. Perhaps the young people's activism can inspire social workers to help the LGBTQ movement regain the ground lost during the Trump administration and gain new ground.

"I think there is great potential," Dentato says. "[Social workers] need to go back to our roots and the history of our profession. I am hopeful we can recoup the steps, carry on, and move forward. The work is never done."

— Christina Reardon, MSW, LSW, is a freelance writer based in Harrisburg, PA, and an editorial advisor at Social Work Today.


As the Trump administration continues to pursue anti-LGBTQ policies, community centers serving LGBTQ populations find themselves both especially vulnerable to oppression and particularly powerful to stop it.

More than 250 community centers around the country serve hundreds of thousands of clients each year with wide-ranging services that can include medical care, behavioral health care, housing, and legal assistance. Because community centers provide a variety of services, they can be deeply affected by fluctuations in government funding. Funding that grew significantly under the Obama administration is now threatened by the Trump administration's efforts to eliminate protections for vulnerable populations and gut social programs, says Lora L. Tucker, CEO of CenterLink. The organization provides technical assistance, training, and other capacity-building services to centers nationwide, as well as centers in Canada, China, and Australia.

"Centers—and the communities they work within—have more to lose than any other segment of the movement," Tucker wrote in an e-mail to Social Work Today.

Yet, since centers also provide a much-needed source of social support and information, they are in a unique position to mobilize their staff and clients to educate the public about policy changes that harm LGBTQ people. In early 2017, CenterLink started a program to organize and mobilize centers. The Center Action Network works to increase centers' ability to develop grassroots policy education initiatives, protect government funding streams, and support national advocacy efforts.

The Los Angeles LGBT Center, one of the centers involved in the Center Action Network, has shifted more of its efforts toward mobilization and outreach in response to the Trump administration, says Dave Garcia, the center's director of policy and community building. For example, the center's clients and supporters have made phone calls to increase public support for the protection of the Affordable Care Act and immigrants covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.

Garcia says many centers have been reluctant to get involved in policy because they believed it was best handled by policy-centric organizations or feared that such activity would threaten their status as nonprofit organizations. However, centers now are realizing that advocacy is vital to their survival. "Everyone walking through those doors [of a center] are affected by those policies, and if you want to serve your clients more fully, you need to get more involved," Garcia says.

Community centers see social workers as valuable allies in advocacy not only because so many social workers are employed at centers but because social workers understand why it is so important for people to have access to jobs, health care, housing, and other things that are under threat from the Trump administration, says Terry Stone, director of the Center Action Network. "[Social workers] could be the greatest force we have to speak up and challenge things when things are wrong," Stone says.

— CR

Cahill, S., Geffen, S., & Wang, T. (2018). One year in, Trump administration amasses striking anti-LGBT record. Retrieved from http://fenwayhealth.org/wp-content/uploads/The-Fenway-Institute-Trump-Pence-Administration-One-Year-Report.pdf.

Hatzenbuehler, M.L., Keyes, K.M., & Hasin, D.S. (2009). State-level policies and psychiatric morbidity in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations. American Journal of Public Health, 99(12), 2275-2281.

Warbelow, S., & Diaz, B. (2017). 2017 State Equality Index: A review of state legislation affecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community and look ahead in 2018. Retrieved from https://www.hrc.org/campaigns/state-equality-index.

White House Office of the Press Secretary. (2016, June 9). Fact sheet: Obama administration's record and the LGBT community. Retrieved from https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/06/09/fact-sheet-obama-administrations-record-and-lgbt-community.

Woodford, M.R., Paceley, M.S., Kulick, A., & Hong, J.S. (2015). The LGBQ social climate matters: Policies, protests, and placards and psychological well-being among LGBQ emerging adults. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, 27(1), 116-141.