Interview with Karalyn Shimmyo, LCSW on LGBT Social Work

[About Karalyn Shimmyo, LCSW]: Karalyn Shimmyo earned her MSW in 2009 at NYU’s Silver School of Social Work. She is a licensed master social worker and is currently a post-masters trainee at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy’s (ICP) Psychotherapy Center for Gender & Sexuality (PCGS) Program. Karalyn provides individual psychotherapy for LGBTQ adults at ICP, and writes letters of support for transgender individuals seeking gender-affirming surgeries through ICP’s Surgical Assessment Program. Currently, Karalyn is a psychotherapist at the Park Slope Center for Mental Health, a community mental health agency, and a faculty advisor in the master’s program at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service.


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

[Karalyn Shimmyo, LCSW] When we speak about the LGBTQ community, we are really talking about a large, diverse group of people with different sexual orientations and gender identities. A large portion of my clinical work has been specifically with LGBTQ individuals. In much of my professional experience, I have been one of the few LGBTQ-identified staff members and have not worked in LGBTQ-specific settings. In this regard, it has often fallen to me to educate my peers on LGBTQ cultural competency, to push for training, or to recommend changes to agency paperwork.

For example, do agency intake forms ask directly about sexual orientation or gender identity, and do they offer the opportunity for individuals to define their own identities and experiences? Will social workers incorrectly assume that a particular client’s sexual orientation or gender identity is their presenting issue, when in fact they are seeking treatment for another concern? Are transgender and gender non-conforming clients given the opportunity to state their correct gender pronouns and chosen names, which may not be the same as the name and gender marker on their health insurance cards? Are there policies in place to ensure that LGBTQ clients will be treated respectfully while visiting the site, including by reception and front desk staff?

For me, asking these kinds of questions has illustrated the need for LGBTQ competence in all settings where social work services are provided, and that it is incumbent on social workers and agencies to provide adequate training for all staff, in addition to simply creating non-discrimination policies. I think this has shaped the way I think about service delivery across the board; we need to be sure that all clients feel welcomed and have the opportunity to work with providers who are informed and aware of the specific challenges they may be facing, such as discrimination in employment or housing, or estrangement from family. LGBTQ individuals and communities also show tremendous resilience and strength.

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

[Karalyn Shimmyo, LCSW] Research fatigue is a barrier to participation for many members of the LGBTQ community. Members of specific segments of the community such as MSMs (men who have sex with men) and HIV- positive individuals are often asked to participate in research studies or to answer surveys, without being offered any personal benefit or understanding the broader implication of such research to the larger LGBTQ community. Some subgroups and topics (such as sexual health) have been over-studied, while others have been excluded and disregarded. Researchers should also not assume that because something is true for one segment of the community, it is true for all LGBTQ people.

Many researchers are not members of these groups or the larger LGBTQ community, and are not always using affirmative, non-pathologizing language or following best practices. Community-based research should aim to involve community members as participants and stakeholders whenever possible, and not to view them simply as research subjects. It is extremely beneficial for researchers to solicit feedback from focus groups composed of community members, and from professionals who are familiar with LGBTQ community norms. Research that is guided and informed by the needs of LGBTQ community and that acknowledges the community’s diversity, strengths, and challenges is typically met with greater interest and participation.

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

[Karalyn Shimmyo, LCSW] I think there are a few main methodological issues faced by researchers conducting LGBTQ research, some of which may be more easily overcome than others. The first is that many LGBTQ people have faced some type of discrimination, and are therefore hesitant to identify themselves to researchers. Gaining the trust of participants is crucial, and this can only be done by researchers who are both sensitive and knowledgeable. Another difficulty is in operationally defining sexual orientation and gender identity, especially since there are many distinct identities and experiences under the LGBTQ umbrella. A third barrier is in participant recruitment, whether the research is conducted online or is venue based. It is often difficult to obtain a representative sample when LGBTQ people comprise such a small segment of the population.

For example, if researchers are studying population health, sample sizes may be too small to be able to identify differences between subgroups. There is far less research on other subgroups and topics such as LGBTQ affirmative care for seniors living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, outcomes for transgender children who have affirming social and peer support versus those who do not, and the economic challenges faced by LGBTQ adults who are disabled.

[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?

[Karalyn Shimmyo, LCSW] For students interested in careers working with LGBTQ individuals and communities, I recommend taking an elective course in LGBTQ issues and field placement in agencies that serve LGBTQ people. It’s also important to seek out specialized training, such as joining an LGBTQ social work organization or attending workshops, webinars and conferences. One great conference is the Philadelphia Transgender Health Conference, which offers a specialized training track for behavioral health providers.

They may wish to join an on-campus LGBTQ organization and work with LGBTQ students and allies to enact change on their own campuses and within local communities. For students with a clinical or micro focus, they should seek out as much supervision as possible to become aware of their own attitudes and biases, which may have implications for their future work with LGBTQ clients. It’s also important to read as much as possible of the current peer-reviewed literature. There are a number of LGBTQ peer-reviewed publications that may be available online and in their school library.

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