Interview with Renee Reopell, LMSW on LGBT Social Work

[About Renee Reopell, LMSW]: Renee Reopell completed her undergraduate work at Penn State University where she studied Human Development and Family Studies, minored in Psychology and completed one of the university’s first minors in Sexuality and Gender Studies. The majority of her undergraduate work focused on the LGBT community, including her capstone internship at the DC Center for the LGBT Community. Renee completed her master’s degree at New York University where she trained at Live Out Loud and at the Hetrick Martin Institute. She is currently working as the program manager and LGBT social worker for the Umbrella Program where she provides medical care, mental health care, and support services to LGBT youth and their families. Renee Reopell was compensated to participate in this interview.

[] Social workers have the capacity to play a large role in advocating for and ensuring the well-being of the LGBT community. What are some of the key issues facing the LGBT community that you believe the practice of social work can help support?

[Renee Reopell, LMSW] The role of a social worker is to see the client from an interdisciplinary and multi-systems perspective. We take into account everything in a client’s life that may have contributed to their current circumstance and try to see the world from their perspective.

When working with the LGBT community, there are many variables that contribute to my clients’ well-being. I advocate for affordable housing, am a part of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, speak out around gender liberation, openly argue for choices around contraception options, am an ally for comprehensive immigration reform, encourage rights for sex workers, and the list goes on. There are plenty of issues that affect our community and the individuals I work for, and therefore I diligently and consistently work to be an advocate in all of those areas.

[OnlineMSWPrograms] What are the barriers that social workers conducting LGBT research will face?

[Renee Reopell, LMSW] The biggest barrier I note with LGBT researchers is the conflation between behavior and identity. I think researchers need to tease out what they’re looking for in order to obtain results that are reflective and accurate. If you’re looking for HIV transmission rates, for example, examining behavior and identity may be necessary and vital to your data.

This goes not only for labels like bisexual, pansexual, gay, or straight, but I think this also includes labels like man and woman. Let’s say a researcher contacts me about a study examining “men who have sex with men.” If I send along a couple of men of transgender experience who have sex with men, they’re not pleased with me. Why? You asked for men, here are some men! I don’t say this to be facetious, but to make the point that we are intentionally leaving transgender individuals out of research conversations. And this is literally killing the community. Without data to back up funding, it is rarely granted. Funding is necessary for life-saving policy changes, community centers, medications, services, and so much more. I think when researchers tell me they don’t want to include transgender men in a study, they need to ask themselves why. We need to ensure transgender, gender queer, and nonbinary individuals are being examined in research moving forward.

[OnlineMSWPrograms] How can social work practitioners use community-based research in order to better meet the needs of the LGBT community?

[Renee Reopell, LMSW] The short answer? Do community-based research!

It sounds silly but there are too many folks starting new programs, services, or groups at their agency or community site without actually speaking to the population they’re aiming to serve. Oftentimes the best, most creative, and most innovative solutions come directly from the youth I serve. Simple focus groups solve a lot more issues and concerns than I would have ever thought possible.

[OnlineMSWPrograms] Can you highlight how working with the LGBT community has impacted your career as a social worker? How has working with the LGBT community inspired your career as a social worker? How have you seen your work in LGBT social work impact society?

[Renee Reopell, LMSW] My hope is that I am able to teach as much to my young people as they have taught to me. My constructs —everything from race and gender to age and ableism — are challenged each and every day because I set an intention of putting my clients at the center of my practice. I work to remove as much of my lens as possible in order to better observe the world through their lived experience. This has made me a better person and I am able to pause and reflect on others’ experiences with less judgment.

I remember setting out in social work school wanting to work with young transgender children and their families. Within a year, I began to recognize that this wasn’t the biggest need. This is in no way to suggest that these families don’t need love, care, and attention. I absolutely enjoy working with little kiddos, but I had a defining moment when I realized that my job description should include providing a shower to a young person so they have a safe space to not only clean themselves while homeless, but also express their authentic gender by belting Rihanna while showering — and discuss afterward how Rihanna shaped their gender as they pick out pants from the community closet. Social work is a dynamic practice and cannot be confined to the walls of a mental health office. It is something much more interdisciplinary and hands on. Gritty, hands-on, trench work — which includes from my experience, escorting young people to doctor’s appointments, sitting in court rooms, and helping buy groceries — is what my clients have taught me differentiates social work and makes the work necessary.

[OnlineMSWPrograms] For social work students who are interested in a career in LGBT social work, how would you recommend they gain the knowledge and develop the skills to provide more effective services to LGBT people and organizations? Based off of your own experiences, what have you learned over the years?

[Renee Reopell, LMSW] While research, textbooks, and courses can be helpful tools to create a framework for clinical practice or learn terminology, the best way to gain knowledge is to speak with the community directly. Go to events that community members organize. Support LGBT-owned business. Enjoy LGBT art. Go to rallies, marches, and protests. Follow LGBT news and blogs. Speaking directly to the source and showing your solidarity is what’s most vital to your education.

This has also been, in my experience, the best way to re-learn what I thought I knew. Textbooks and research taught me some things about the community, but speaking to a community firsthand gave me insider knowledge that I felt was missing from the picture. This can’t be taught in a classroom. You need hands-on experience.

Thank you Ms. Renee Reopell for your time and insights into LGBT social work

Last updated: April 2020