Abstract: Gay and lesbian youth struggle to find their place in society, and this applies even more so to children in care. In addition to the range of problems that all youth in care face, youth in care’s sexual preference can greatly affect the quality of care that they receive. It may even affect their admission to and discharge from a residential program. The lack of quality care, moreover, may transcend into active discrimination by residents and staff. It is essential for youth care workers and administrators to be aware of their own biases and work to develop policies and training to deal with the needs of this group of youth. This article briefly describes the history of oppression experienced by gay and lesbian members of society. More specifically, it identifies associated issues experienced by gay and lesbians in care. It also provides suggestions to assist management and staff in overcoming these issues.
Homosexuals have experienced a long history of oppression. Many biblical scholars cite Genesis 19:4, saying that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was due to the sin of homosexuality. In Northern Europe during the mid 1600s, there was generally less tolerance of homosexual behaviour and even successful and famed artists were persecuted with the full force of the strict law. Closer to modem times, we witnessed the mass murder of homosexuals in Nazi-era Germany. It is not only within the areas of politics, art, and religion that we find such examples, but also in the medical profession. A World Health Organization publication in 1978 listed homosexuality under the heading of “Sexual deviations and disorders” (World Health Organization, 1978).
Many of these biases were based on the homophobic attitudes of society. These attitudes carry over to helping professions such as social work and also into youth care. This is not surprising since the early tenets of so cial work were well grounded in moral concepts and were largely “atheoretical” (Turner, 1999). Wisniewski and Toomey (1987) undertook a study that revealed a substantial percentage of social workers manifest signs of homophobia. Furthermore, another study revealed that one-third of a group of social workers in the United States earned scores on the Index of Attitudes Toward Homosexuals that classed them as homophobic (Hudson and Ricketts, 1980). More recent findings (Gillman, 1991) have reported more encouraging results and suggest that education and exposure to information has improved attitudes.
Despite the improvement in social attitudes, there is still great risk in “coming out” for a gay or lesbian. For adults, it may mean loss of friends, employment, and status and subjecting themselves to ostracism and abuse – both mental and physical. These issues are compounded for youth. Typically, individuals struggle with the recognition that they are gay, often devaluing themselves in line with the cultural stigma associated with homosexuality (Franke and Leary, 1991). Support systems such as families often fear the cultural stigma attached to having a homosexual member. This adds to the lack of support that the gay or lesbian family member receives. “I knew when I was nine ... I got no help from my parents in understanding the world as I grew up, so I took it as a given that I was not to tell my truths to others or ask my questions since I had this secret that made me different: I was lesbian” (Penelope and Wolfe, 1989).
It is estimated that homosexual youth are two to six times more likely to attempt suicide than other youth, and although they account for only 10% of all youth, they represent about 30% of all completed suicides (Cook, 1991). Although the losses for adult gays and lesbians are great, the youth have much more to lose. In coming out and being out, adolescents face the potential of rejection from their families, on whom they depend financially, emotionally, and legally. With few adult role models and fewer peer groups to offer support, young homosexuals can experience extreme isolation (Gutierrez, Parsons, and Cox, 1998). Other risks faced by this young population include low self-esteem, identity conflicts, increased frequency of substance abuse, dropping out of school, and the risk of becoming homeless. It is estimated that 25% of all street kids are lesbian or gay (Gibson, 1993). While coming out is a difficult process for any adolescent, it is more difficult for those without supportive networks, such as those found in residential care.
Being “out” and “in” care
For a number of youth who are not able to remain in their homes, residential care is often the only safe environment that is available for them. However, many gay and lesbian youth have been placed in centres that have not always provided the kind of service, understanding, and support that they truly needed (Mallon, 1992). This lack of support comes from the other residents in care and also from the staff who work at the centres. At times, this transcends the boundaries from non-support into active discrimination. It may come in the form of name calling or physical or sexual abuse. It may also surface in the hesitation by residents and staff to include the homosexual resident in group activities and sports. It transcends decisions on what bedroom the homosexual youth should be placed in or even if the youth should have a roommate. It certainly affects the willingness of someone with homophobic attitudes to allow a helping relationship to develop.
When these events occur, it is the homosexual resident who is often discharged as the one who doesn’t fit the profile of the ideal resident. This discharge often limits the chance for the youth to be considered for another facility (Mallon, 1992). Gay and lesbian youth in residential care do not necessarily need to be treated specially; they need to be provided with equal opportunities for growth, self-actualization, and quality care (Mallon, 1992). What inhibits these growth opportunities, and encourages decisions to discharge, relates back to the premise of phobias in general – to fear something that is not understood. Many homosexuals will report that their being gay or lesbian was not a choice, just as being a heterosexual is not a choice for others. It can be defined in the same multi-dimensional terms as society defines a heterosexual. However, most people focus on only the “sexual” aspect of homosexual, and thus do not look at the person as a whole.
Most residential centres have policies in place to deal with residents having sex while residing at the centre. In our experience, although staff do not encourage sexual relationships between a residential male and female, they do perceive it as normal. The same attitude toward two consenting same-sex partners would not hold true. In fact, potential residents who are openly gay are often not accepted, and when they are, their sexuality is looked upon as a problem area.
Suggestions for change
As indicated in the research of Gillman (1991), staff development helps improve attitudes and the subsequent interventions of staff. It is incumbent upon caregivers to advocate for more education for both residents and staff, and to move forward to policies and practices that provide a more safe, caring, and supportive environment for youth dealing with issues of sexuality.
Sullivan (1994) identifies several obstacles to effective service. Foremost is the failure to incorporate current research into policies and practices that affect sexual minority youth. The integration of this information is often slowed down due to the policy maker’s discomfort with the subject matter. Even when staff training is undertaken, long-standing staff attitudes about homosexuals remain and impact upon the presentation of this information. Information can help change attitudes, but it is more difficult to change behaviour. Educating child welfare professionals about the needs of gay and lesbian youth can have little effect where conditions of pervasive prejudice and hostility make it impossible for them to use their knowledge (Sullivan, 1994).
The Code of Ethics of the Canadian Association of Social Workers dictates that a primary professional obligation is to support goals that are in the best interest of the client, ensuring we do not discriminate on the basis of issues such as sexual orientation (CASW, 1994). Youth workers in residential centres also practice under a code of ethics. The Ethics of Child and Youth Care Professionals indicates that the worker shall ensure the services are sensitive to and non-discriminatory of clients regardless of sexual orientation (NOYCWA,1992). Despite these codes, many social workers and youth care workers still maintain a homophobic attitude toward gay and lesbian clients, and this is put forward in their relationships and interventions with this group. What is needed is extensive agency-wide training, starting with policy makers and administrators, to dispel some of the myths and attitudes about homosexual youth.
To some extent, this goal has already been addressed by the Canadian Association of Schools of Social Work, which has adopted a resolution to build sexual diversity content into social work courses thus educating future social workers in this area. New social work graduates will have been exposed to some of the issues of sexual diversity, which they can bring into the workplace. In addition, some youth care programs have also included these issues in their curriculum. This will bring new attitudes and information into residential care centres. However, more work is needed as some of the long-term attitudes remain unchanged.
Policy makers must adopt an “orientation-free” approach to their practices and policies. Residents should not be excluded from care or discharged from care based on their sexual orientation. Often residents are discharged “for their own good and protection,” when in truth they are discharged for reasons more to do with staff bias than anything else. When residents are gay or lesbian, it is all too easy to say that it would be better for them to be out of the centre so they do not have to put up with the ridicule and abuse of the other residents. Instead, it is often the other residents who are responsible for the ridicule. One does not have to look too deeply to find a dismal success record when society attempts to separate people “for their own good”!
Although the bulk of training in residential care goes to the front-line workers, it is also essential to include the management and boards in this process. Without an understanding and commitment from upper management, policies and practices will not change. Staff attitudes must also change, and staff training by gay and lesbian groups could be helpful in this regard. Accepting the trainers in their midst may ease the workers' feelings and attitudes to the residents in our care. Providing opportunities to meet with gay or lesbian community leaders in an informal setting along with the provisions of funds for workshops, lectures, and library material on the subject would also help in the education process.
Training should also include dispelling the myths and misconceptions concerning homosexual stereotypes. An attitude that every homosexual is an uncontrolled threat to other residents is prevalent with some workers in residential care. These workers fear that the gay or lesbian resident may try to initiate sex with every same-sex resident or staff member. One gay trainer put it best by saying, “Don’t flatter yourself!” It is a fallacy to think this way of gays or lesbians, just as it would to think that all heterosexuals are preoccupied with all opposite-sex partners. It is interesting to note, however, that many workers have fewer problems with the latter premise.
It is also important to foster an atmosphere in residential care that would encourage a feeling of security for open discussions about sexuality. Things such as posters from teen health centres promoting safe sex without identifying homosexual or heterosexual partners would be an asset. Furthermore, providing phone numbers for teen help lines may give the resident a feeling of security in talking first with a safe stranger before approaching a youth worker. Life skills sessions that incorporate relationship building in a nongender way, focusing on relationships and safe sex, may promote a stronger relationship despite preference in orientation. Finally, staff could provide opportunities for gay/lesbian residents to meet other gays and lesbians by identifying gay/lesbian support groups in their local area.
As youth care workers, we must constantly examine our own biases. Regardless of how open-minded we think we are, we still have some prejudices about certain things. If we are well informed, comfortable with our own sexuality, and willing to look at these prejudices, we will be better prepared to serve our residents (Wirth, 1978). We must also move away from the perpetuation of gender stereotypes which further exacerbate the problems for the gay and lesbian youth.
If we are going to create a healthier environment,
we must be able to discuss all issues of sexuality – including
homosexuality (Mallon, 1992). Society in general must move away from the
traditional notions of homosexuals based on religious or social norms.
This should be also true of staff who work with the sexual minority
youth in residential care. We must learn and teach that being homosexual
or heterosexual is not a choice, it is a given. We must come up with
ways to teach residents and colleagues to accept the youth and to
practice the tenets of the Code of Ethics. We must also initiate and
practice policies that are based on the Code of Ethics. Finally,
although the focus of this discussion is on residents in care, the same
considerations must be extended to our workers and colleagues who are
gay or lesbian. Without those residents and workers, we are losing our
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This feature: Moore, P. and Moore, B. (2000). “Out” and “in”: Homphobic issues in residential care. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 13, 4. pp. 29-34.