Social work is a profession that works with many different populations and communities. You might be considering taking social work classes to learn more about the field, or you may be a current social work student, trying to figure out the type of social work you want to practice after graduation.
One population social workers can work with is the LGBTQIAP community. This doesn’t just mean working at a local organization that only serves those who identify as LGBTQIAP. No matter what field of social work you end up practicing, you will meet and serve members of the LGBTQIAP community. Not all will be out, nor vocal about their sexual orientation and/or gender identities, but regardless, there are ways in which social workers need to support those who identify as LGBTQIAP, whether their identity is known or not.
This guide provides a basic overview of the LGBTQIAP acronyms, describes the history of discrimination, marginalization, and erasure community members have endured, social work values and responsibilities to this community, and how you can learn about LGBTQIAP issues and resources. This guide will be a handy reference throughout your career.In this guide
- Breaking down acronyms
- Understanding the issues
- Statistics for context
- History, marginalization, erasure
- Social worker responsibilities
- Supporting the LGBTQIAP community
- Learn more
- Stay current
- Additional resources
Breaking down the acronyms and terms
There are some terms in addition to the LGBTQIAP acronym that should be clarified before diving into this guide. LGBTQIAP is an acronym collectively referring to different members of the community:
- Lesbian – a woman who is attracted to members of the same gender
- Gay – typically associated with men, this is an individual attracted to members of the same gender or sex
- Bisexual – being attracted to people of more than one sex and/or gender
- Transgender – this is an umbrella term for those whose gender identity or expression is not congruent with the sex assigned at birth, or whose gender is not validated by the dominant culture
- Queer – this formerly derogatory slang word has been reclaimed to refer to those who reject sexual and gender binaries
- Intersex – an individual born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not fit into the sex binary
- Asexual – one who does not tend to have a sexual desire towards others, though they may experience romantic attraction and engage in sexual behaviors
- Pansexual – one who is attracted to members of all gender identities and expressions, not just those who fit into the standard gender binary
Sexual orientation is to whom one is physically or romantically attracted.
Gender identity is the sense of being male, female, both or neither, which is separate from your biological sex.
Gender identity is separate from sexual orientation.
Why are LGBTQIAP issues important to understand within social work?
Social work is a profession rooted in social justice, equity and compassion. We work with diverse populations and advocate for inclusion and equal rights for all. We speak out against injustice and join or lead the charge in dismantling oppressive systems to create safe spaces for all. This includes the LGBTQIAP community, one which faces oppression from many directions.
Social workers need to consider the complex challenges that LGBTQIAP people face each day, particularly for those who are part of other marginalized groups, such as those with physical disabilities, low socioeconomic status, and/or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, or People of Color). These challenges are compounded and must be addressed simultaneously.
We realize that social support is crucial for optimal well-being, and that many remain closeted in order to avoid fracturing familial ties. Yet by hiding a part of their true selves, their mental health declines and can lead to serious consequences, as will be discussed in the next section of this article.
Those who have come out and lost their support networks need additional assistance, support and resources to ensure safety and optimal health.
We are called to practice inclusivity, cultural humility, and cultural competence. Inclusion ensures everyone has the same access to benefits and resources.
Cultural humility is admitting you do not know everything about another culture and being willing and taking steps to learn more in order to improve your practice.
Cultural competence is understanding differences related to gender identity, race, religion, etc, and responding to these differences in a respectful way.
Our efforts both in professional and personal capacities can go a long way in demonstrating to someone in the LGBTQIAP community that they’re not alone, that they matter, are valued, and respected.
Our actions can influence and encourage others in our circles to do the same, leading to more supportive and inclusive environments for all.
Statistics for more context
Below are some statistics that shine a light on some of the experiences of LGBTQIAP individuals.
From The Trevor Project’s 2021 Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health:
- 72% report symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (75% for transgender and nonbinary youth)
- 62% report symptoms of major depressive disorder (67% for transgender and nonbinary youth)
- Only 1 in 3 LGBTQ youth report their home as being LGBTQ-affirming
- 42% seriously considered attempting suicide in the last year
Other statistics from The Trevor Project’s extensive research over the years:
- LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the population of youth experiencing homelessness, often after being kicked out of the house by family due to cultural or religious differences
- Youth reporting higher levels of family rejection are almost six times more likely to suffer from depression, three times more likely to use illegal drugs and at least eight times more likely to attempt suicide compared to those who are not rejected by their family
- Affirming transgender and nonbinary youth by respecting pronouns and allowing them to change legal documents such as birth certificates and driver’s licenses is associated with lower rates of attempting suicide
From Mental Health America:
- 22% of transgender individuals have reported avoiding doctors or health care out of concern they’d be discriminated against
- More than half of LGBTQ+ people report experiencing providers denying care, using harsh language, or blaming their sexual orientation or gender identity as the cause for an illness
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center:
- LGBT people are 4 times as likely to be victims of violent crime in their life than non-LGBT people
- 90% of transgender people have experienced harrassment, mistreatment or discrimination at their jobs
- 53% of transgender people report harassment in public, such as in a bathroom
- 70% LGBTQIA+ members have been sexually harassed at work, and 66% of these individuals were afraid to report the harassment for fear of being outed.
- Suicide is a leading cause of death for LGBTQIA+ people 10-24 and they attempt suicide at a disproportional rate across their lifespan
- 46% of homeless LGBTQIA+ youth ran away because they were disowned by their family, 43% were kicked out of the house by their parents and 32% experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse at home
- 33% of transgender patients had to teach their doctor about transgender issues in order to receive appropriate care
History of discrimination, marginalization, and erasure
Members of the LGBTQIAP community have and continue to suffer from both covert and blatant discrimination, marginalization, and erasure. This comes from both inside and outside of their community.
From being labeled as having a “sociopathic personality disturbance” in the American Psychological Association’s diagnostic manual from 1952-1973, being refused employment in the federal government by President Eisenhower, to harmful ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policies in the military and the recent “Don’t Say Gay” law that prohibits public school teachers in Florida from teaching about gender identity or sexual orientation in kindergarten through 3rd grade, members of the LGBTQIAP community have been discriminated against and marginalized.
U.S. laws in many states do not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. This leads to discrimination in employment and housing, one of the reasons LGBTQIAP people report higher levels of poverty than the cisgender straight population. Even the process of adopting a child is fraught with institutional discrimination. The refusal of access to adequate health and mental health care by this community is well documented. A glaring example was the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, when the government and medical facilities largely ignored the issue until the disease began to affect larger numbers of the mainstream community.
Within the community, there is discrimination in representation. People of color are grossly underrepresented, with many narratives led by white middle and upper class members. Bisexual individuals report discrimination as not being considered “true” community members.
There is an extensive history of deliberate efforts to hide queer references in historical documents, publications, and in biographies of the famous. These attempts to squash any references to gender and sexual nonconformity also led to authors to write cryptically about their true meanings in order to not be outed and subsequently punished or ostracized. Erasure wasn’t limited to written works. The Hays Code was a voluntary self-censorship of the American film industry that from around 1930-1961 forbid any representations of queerness. This essay provides an interesting look at erasure since ancient times.
Even many historical accounts of Stonewall, which was pivotal in organizing activism and the development of Pride parades and Pride Month activities have erased the involvement of lesbians, drag queens and queer youth. An inclusive firsthand account can be read in “Queen Power” that repeatedly describes those fighting back against oppression that night.
Social work responsibilities to the LGBTQIAP community
The National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics outlines the ethical standards we as a profession are required to follow. It guides us in the words we use and actions we take. Every social worker should be familiar with the Code of Ethics and keep abreast of any new guidelines that are released by NASW. NASW’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity page is regularly updated with research results and advocacy highlights, so this can also be a helpful resource to practitioners.
Particular guidance referencing LGBTQIAP individuals can be found in the following sections of the Code of Ethics:
1.05 Cultural Competence
Social workers should obtain education about and demonstrate understanding of the nature of social diversity and oppression with respect to race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, and mental or physical ability.
Social workers should not practice, condone, facilitate, or collaborate with any form of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical ability.
Section 6 covers social workers’ ethical responsibilities to the broader society, and addresses the systemic work that needs to be done to promote equality.
6.01 Social Welfare
Social workers should promote the general welfare of society, from local to global levels, and the development of people, their communities, and their environments. Social workers should advocate for living conditions conducive to the fulfillment of basic human needs and should promote social, economic, political, and cultural values and institutions that are compatible with the realization of social justice.
6.04 Social and Political Action
(a) Social workers should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions to meet basic human needs and promote social justice.
(b) Social workers should act to expand choice and opportunity for all people, with special regard for vulnerable, disadvantaged, oppressed, and exploited people and groups.
(c) Social workers should promote conditions that encourage respect for cultural and social diversity within the United States and globally. Social workers should promote policies and practices that demonstrate respect for difference, support the expansion of cultural knowledge and resources, advocate for programs and institutions that demonstrate cultural competence, and promote policies that safeguard the rights of and confirm equity and social justice for all people.
(d) Social workers should act to prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person, group, or class on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical ability.
Supporting the LGBTQIAP community
There are numerous ways in which you can show respect and support to the LGBTQIAP community, regardless of if their identity is known. Incorporate the following tips into your daily life and professional duties to demonstrate inclusion:
- When introducing yourself, share your pronouns and ask the other person for their pronouns
- Replace gendered words and phrases like “Hey, guys” to inclusive ones, such as “Hi, how’s everyone today?”
- If your agency or organization has gendered intake or other client forms, advocate to change these to be more inclusive by offering additional options to select (or write in) their identity and pronouns
- Employ respectful, nonverbal body language, such as maintaining eye contact and keeping your posture and stance open and welcoming. This demonstrates that you aren’t merely tolerating the individual, but instead respecting and validating them.
- Remain open minded and curious about learning more, and be willing to accept corrections for missteps.
How to learn about LGBTQIAP issues
It is not the responsibility of someone who identifies as LGBTQIAP to educate you on common issues they may face or about generalities surrounding societal backlash they may have experienced. As a social worker (daresay just a caring human being), it is your responsibility to take the initiative to learn as much as you can on your own. Then you can approach an identifying friend or family member to ask for clarification rather than expecting them to take it upon themselves to educate you. Below are some recommended resources for you to begin learning.
- This report by National Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard School of Public Health: Discrimination in America: Experiences and Views of LGBTQ Americans
- The Safe Zone Project is a free online resource for powerful, effective LGBTQ awareness and ally trainings.
- Transwhat? has sections on first steps to allyship and how to combat transphobia
- The Representation Project uses media to challenge harmful gender norms and stereotypes. Films include Miss Representation and The Mask You Live In.
- Watch the documentary Do I Sound Gay?
- Read through and visit this extensive list of resources
- Sign up for Better Allies email list and receive 5 tips each week on easy ways to create inclusive workplaces (these tips also apply to outside the office!)
- Attend PFLAG’s free monthly webinars through their online academy. They also have an extensive glossary
- Read accounts of the Stonewall,
Staying current on LGBTQIAP issues
In order to move towards greater equality and affirmation for the LGBTQIAP community, societal change needs to take place on multiple levels. This is why it is important to stay up to date on laws, trends and current events that may affect this population. For instance, if a same-sex marriage ban law is proposed, imagine and be sensitive to how this might affect someone who is married or who wants to marry whomever they love. Then do what you can to prevent this type of law from being passed.
When a hate crime is committed, even if it occurs on the other side of the country or the world, understand how that can terrify someone who identifies as LGBTQIAP, fearing even leaving their home and living their life. Recognize how traumatic this can be for someone, and provide affirming support to them.
You can follow affirming news outlets, volunteer with local organizations, sign up for legislative alerts and/or simply be aware of what is happening in your area. Read the newsletters and emails from LGBTQIAP-supporting organizations to keep your finger on the pulse of issues, and get involved to drive systemic change.
Some resources that might be helpful for those identifying as LGBTQIAP include:
- The Trevor Project is an organization for LGBTQIAP youth, providing 24/7 free and confidential access to a crisis counselor, resources and a place to connect with other youths in a safe and affirming online space
- Trans Lifeline is a trans-led organization providing support, resources and financial grants
- Human Rights Campaign is the largest civil rights organization in the U.S. working to achieve LGBTQ equality. An extremely beneficial resource is a list of questions to ask to help find affirming mental health providers.
- The Safe Zone Project has an extensive list of resources, as does GLAAD and this list of 50+ resources
It is critical to understand the history of discrimination, marginalization and hate that those in the LGBTQIAP community face, sometimes on a regular basis, and how that can affect them.
As social workers, we are to meet our clients where they are and provide supportive, affirming care. We are also called to speak out against and work to dismantle oppressive systems in our own lives, in our communities and around the world.
Every social worker will interact with someone who identifies as LGBTQIAP, and it is our responsibility to treat them with the same level of respect, attention and affirming care that we would like to receive.