Interview with Roan Coughtry, MSW on LGBT Social Work
Interview with Roan Coughtry, MSW on LGBT Social Work
By Sam Frenzel
[About Roan Coughtry, MSW]: After earning their Bachelors in Psychology and Fine Arts Photography from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, Roan served as the Coordinator of Outpatient Programs at Walden Behavioral Care for 3 years. They went on to earn their Masters in Social Work from Smith College in 2011, and a year later they co-founded a grassroots transgender advocacy organization in Albany, NY. Since 2011, Roan has worked as a consultant for the United Nations, where they provide expertise on issues faced by LGBTQ populations. Roan currently facilitates trainings and workshops around the country on gender, sexuality, race, disability, mental health, spirituality and violence prevention. They’re a lead organizer and producer of Sex Down South, an annual sexuality conference in Atlanta spearheaded by and centering folks of color and queer folks. Roan also serve on the advisory board of Project AFFIRM, an organization researching transgender resilience. In addition to their background in social work, they’ve practiced integrative energy healing for over 20 years; they are a certified Reiki Level 3 practitioner, and are currently studying with Generative Somatics.
[onlinemswprograms.com]: What initially interested you in the field of social work? More specifically, what inspired you to enter the field of LGBTQ social work?
[Roan Coughtry, MSW]: I was initially drawn to social work because of the wide breadth of things you can do with an MSW. I had served as a Mental Health Counselor and then as the Coordinator of Outpatient Programs for over 3 years at a local hospital, and I was reaching the point where I needed a Masters degree to go any further in the field. While I also considered Mental Health Counseling and even took a graduate course in Art Therapy, I was attracted to Social Work because of the wide range of both micro and macro work I could do with the degree. Because I wasn’t sure exactly what kind of work I wanted to do - only that I wanted to work in the healing arts - and because I figured it would also shift and change throughout my life, a Social Work degree seemed to offer the most freedom and flexibility.
I was coming out around the same time that I attended grad school, and so my practice of social work inherently became queer. I was also in process of unlearning all of the brainwashing of a relatively sheltered white, lower-middle class life, and the more politicized I got, the more political my social work became. Doing social work from a queer, trans, racial and economic justice framework became a necessity, and was the only way I could envision moving forward in the field. While my work has taken me in many different directions since earning my degree, it has always maintained this deeply queered focus, both politically and personally, regardless of who I’m working with.
[onlinemswprograms.com]: Can you highlight how working with the LGBT community has impacted your career as a social worker? How have you seen your work in LGBT social work impact society?
[Roan Coughtry, MSW]: There’s a saying that when queer and trans people feel safe in a space, everyone feels safer. It’s a bit simplistic - there are dynamics of race, class, disability and a myriad of other factors that this phrase doesn’t address - but it communicates something useful: that societal restrictions and oppressions based on gender and sex harm everybody, although queer folks get the most direct brunt of it. When environments are shaped in a way that allows for freedom, self-determination and celebration of one’s own gender and sexuality - that prioritizes consent and agency related to bodies and sex - everyone benefits, not just LGBTQ folks. Whether I’m working with queer and trans folks or with straight cis folks, I take this very queered approach to educating about gender and sexuality and healing from societal and personal traumas. It’s beautiful to watch queer folks find avenues for healing with each other and become more fully themselves; it’s also amazing to witness how so many straight cis people unfold and blossom into more fullness and authenticity when these types of environments are fostered.
My work, like the work of so many folks, is a tiny part of a great tide that’s slowly shifting the broader culture and dismantling the systems that trap us, piece by piece. Just as gender oppression and sexual violence harm everyone, white supremacy and American capitalism harm everyone as well, albeit in very different ways. By rooting my social work in racial justice, queerness, and economic justice, my hope is that I can be one of many having a small trickle-in effect from the margins to the center, which over time may flood, cleanse, and transform the toxic “norms” of white supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy that exist in the center of our society.
[onlinemswprograms.com]: Can you talk a little about your work with Project Affirm and the Sexual Liberation Collective and what the organizations seeks to accomplish?
[Roan Coughtry, MSW]: Project AFFIRM is a research project that aims to learn more about the identity development and health of people who identify as transgender, transsexual, or gender non-conforming across the course of the lifespan. Their goal is to learn more about transgender identity development in order to foster resilience and reduce stigma and discrimination among trans folks. I’ve served on the board for the Atlanta branch for the past two+ years, providing feedback in the crafting of the study and the framing of the questions. While there are several research studies about trans folks, Project AFFIRM is unique in its commitment to focusing on the resilience of our people, rather than just the traumas we face.
In 2013 I co-founded the Sexual Liberation Collective, an intentional collaboration of sex workers, educators and healers from around the country who are dedicated to fostering education, healing, and empowerment among queer and trans folks and folks of color. The purpose of the Collective is twofold: to provide quality sexuality education and access to healing for communities, and to provide sexual liberators with support, advice, and accountability on their personal and professional projects. We facilitate a wide range of workshops, healing circles, and experiential safe spaces for people to explore their sexuality and desire and to heal from trauma. We have presented at numerous conferences around the country, including Creating Change, Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit, Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, Sex Down South, Unity Through Diversity, and others. Since our founding, I have served in varying roles as co-leader and active member.
[onlinemswprograms.com]: How has your background and education in social work prepared you to work with vulnerable populations, specifically the transgender community? What tools did you learn in school and your early career that have best suited you to serve the LGBTQ community?
[Roan Coughtry, MSW]: My personal experience as a trans/queer person has been the best preparation for my work in the field, as well as my personal relationships with other trans/queer people in my life. However, my graduate degree gave me some useful tools and skills for how to engage with people in healing ways. It gave me hands-on practice in thinking critically about complex and nuanced situations, and holding space for others to do the same in their own healing processes. I got the opportunity to learn and practice facilitation skills that I use daily in my workshops and anti-oppression trainings. More than anything, my experience and education emphasized being thoughtful, self-reflective, and aware of how our own identities shape our perceptions and beliefs. Like many helping professions in our country, social work - when practiced without intentionality - runs the risk of coming from a “savior” framework and unintentionally perpetuating the systems of oppression that cause harm in the first place. I’m grateful to have had a more politicized education - both in school and in my personal life - that gave me the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual tools to transform these systems and practice a more radical kind of social work.
[onlinemswprograms.com]: Can you tell us about your work as a consultant for the United Nations? Do you think looking at these international issues through the lens of a social worker is helpful?
[Roan Coughtry, MSW]: I started consulting for the United Nations shortly after graduating, and have provided writing, editing, research, and specialty knowledge about LGBTQ populations to inform a wide range of work, including international and inter-agency guidelines on the prevention of gender-based violence. I believe looking at international issues through the lens of healing is important, frankly because I believe everything should be examined through a healing lens! I also think looking at social work through a global lens is equally important, as we can sometimes get tunnel vision about the issues that affect us without recognizing the ways in which they’re connected to, influence, and are influenced by issues around the world - especially when it comes to colonialism and exploitation.
[onlinemswprograms.com]: For social work professionals and students who are interested in learning more about LGBT social work, do you have any recommendations for resources (online, print, or in person) that they can read themselves, or which they can refer to clients? Any other advice for social work students entering this field?
[Roan Coughtry, MSW]: Social work that is deeply rooted in an anti-oppression framework - including LGBTQ social work - is essential now more than ever. We need you now more than ever. If you are drawn to working with LGBTQ folks, never stop educating yourself! Our concepts of gender are continuously evolving, and even I as a non-binary trans, queer, polyamorous person am constantly learning new things from generations younger than me. Be sure that your work is deeply informed by whatever areas in which you hold privilege in society. Be sure it’s influenced by a commitment to anti-racism, to class equity, to disability justice, to worker’s rights. Be sure it’s looking not only at the individual healing of queer and trans folks, but also taking into account the broader healing and transformation that must occur on systemic and societal levels. All of these issues are inseparable - to quote one of my sheroes Fannie Lou Hamer, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
Thank you Roan Coughtry for your time and insights into LGBT social work.