By Lauren Lydiard
[About Lauren Lydiard]: Lauren Lydiard is a social work student in her final semester at Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work in New York City. Having already earned her bachelor’s degree in another field (Educational Theatre from New York University), she is now pursuing her Master of Social Work with a concentration in clinical practice with families, individuals and groups. As part of our TK campaign, we asked Lauren to share with us the story of her experience in social work and how it relates to the LGBTQ community.
I am currently placed at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, where I provide crisis intervention, short-term counseling, case management, and advocacy for LGBTQ and HIV-affected survivors of violence, as well as facilitating training in issues affecting this community for volunteers, survivors and service providers. I am particularly passionate about trauma-informed approaches to education and support services for transgender and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) communities and LGBTQ homeless youth. Prior to pursuing my MSW, I worked at the Health Outreach to Teens program at Callen-Lorde Community Health Center and Trinity Place Shelter, both agencies providing life-saving resources for LGBTQ and HIV-affected youth.
Social workers have a responsibility to examine the systems they operate in from an anti-oppression perspective, and this includes examining how assumptions of heterosexuality (heterosexism) and assumptions of being non-transgender (cissexism) influence the way we communicate with our clients on the micro and macro levels of social work practice. Developing trans-competent agencies and institutions is critical to the safety and well-being of TGNC communities, and social workers can leverage their institutional privileges to advocate for greater accessibility to services through policy and practice. The TGNC community is in crisis, experiencing an extreme epidemic of violence, and social workers as policy writers, educators, counselors and community organizers can have a stake in trans empowerment.
The needs of members of the LGBTQ community change based on age, demography and geography. To be white, lesbian, poor and cisgender in the Bible Belt means tackling a completely different set of struggles than growing up black, straight, poor and transgender in an East Coast city. Even if all the identities are the same on paper, the lived experiences of individuals can always vary widely. It's important to examine the specific racial and cultural contexts of gender identity and sexuality in assessing the needs of LGBTQ communities, as the experience of surviving racism blended with homophobia and transphobia are uniquely exhausting and traumatic. Also, rural LGBTQ individuals struggle with isolation and invisibility differently than those in urban settings and may utilize online spaces to seek solace. In my experience with young people, they are not only trying to make meaning of the world around them, but also navigating shifting needs as they come to new understandings of how they identify. Affirmation and safety are key for LGBTQ youth.
To be in a marginalized community is to understand that you deviate from the norm and, therefore, should not exist because society was not built to make space for you. Thousands of microaggressions pile up to create devastating levels of violence — internalized, interpersonal, intra-community and institutional. To experience ever-present marginalization through discrimination is traumatic, and a lot of the coping mechanisms that LGBTQ individuals develop look like trauma responses. Suicide is far too common for LGBTQ people. An important strategy for providing individual and group therapy is first to name and acknowledge the detrimental impact of homophobic and transphobic oppression, and secondly to develop stronger, healthier coping mechanisms for surviving and thriving despite marginalization. It is powerful to draw on intergenerational models of peer support to see how LGBTQ folks have been able to cope in the past and to build upon those skills.
Social workers and other service providers should develop economic empowerment resources or strong referral relationships to address the financial needs of clients and also educate health providers about LGBTQ-competent care. There are currently no federal laws that protect workers from being fired or discriminated against in hiring on the basis of sexuality or gender identity and expression. Existing non-discrimination laws vary by state and are sometimes insurmountable barriers for LGBTQ people to obtain and keep safe, sustainable employment. LGBTQ communities deal with higher rates of stress in combating hatred and bigotry, triggering higher allostatic loads, which is a major health indicator for multiple chronic illnesses. Stigma and false assumptions prevent many medical and mental health providers from providing accurate needs assessments of their patients, which leads to misdiagnosed or overlooked health issues.
For social work students interested in LGBTQ social work, I recommend taking courses in multicultural and anti-racist practice, and bringing up LGBTQ content in every single one of your classes. LGBTQ communities maintain a marginalized status when we only discuss their needs in sexuality- or diversity-specific classes. LGBTQ people are affected by social welfare policies, by clinical practice, by community organizing and by administrative bodies. I recommend looking for field placements that talk about intersectionality, that acknowledge that clients hold multiple identities, and supervisors who will help you understand how this impacts your work. Great supervision is always key in a great field placement and so is having a supervisor who is knowledgeable about power and oppression dynamics for marginalized communities.
Thank you Ms. Lauren Lydiard for your time and insights into LGBT social work.