Assessing Beginning Social Work and Counseling Student's Acceptance of Lesbians and Gay Men

By Newman, Bernie Sue; Dannenfelser, Paul L. et al. | Journal of Social Work Education, Spring-Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Assessing Beginning Social Work and Counseling Student's Acceptance of Lesbians and Gay Men


Newman, Bernie Sue, Dannenfelser, Paul L., Benishek, Lois, Journal of Social Work Education


NEGATIVE ATTITUDES toward gay men and lesbians have been expressed by the American public throughout its history (Katz, 1976). Nationwide probability samples of American adults surveyed between 1970 and 1984 consistently found that approximately 70% of the American public were of the opinion that homosexual relations were always wrong (Alston, 1974; Davis, 1982; Davis & Smith, 1984; Nyberg & Alston, 1976-77). However, the 1996 National Opinion Research Center survey identified a substantial change in public perceptions when it reported that only 56% of the respondents believed homosexual relations were always wrong. (Yang, 1999).

Fassinger (1991) reported on a 1989 national poll which indicated that 81% of 3,748 randomly selected non-gay adults was opposed to discrimination based on sexual orientation. Support for nondiscrimination in employment and housing, in particular, is increasing (Yang, 1999). Based on his review of nationwide random samples of the American public, Yang reported in 1999 that average support for equal employment was at a high of 80% between 1992 and 1999 and that public support for housing rights for lesbians and gay men had increased to a consistent 70% between 1994 and 1999.

Although national polls reflect the general public's changing attitudes toward lesbians and gay men, studies of those who choose social work as a career have been limited to small samples of students and professionals. DeCrescenzo (1984) compared levels of homophobia among 140 mental health practitioners and found that social workers scored at the highest level of homophobia, while psychologists were the least homophobic. Wisniewski and Toomey (1987) provided an early survey of 71 social workers and found that 31.2% reported homophobic attitudes. Weiner (1989) found that her sample of 125 senior social work students from five universities was more homophobic than sexist or racist. Ben-Ari (2001) surveyed 235 social work, psychology, and education faculty members in the five largest Israeli universities and found that faculty in education departments had the highest level of homophobia, followed by social work and then psychology. Berkman and Zinberg (1997) reported that 11.2% of 187 heterosexual MSW social workers scored in the homophobic range.

Concern about the preparation of social workers and counseling psychologists to work effectively with lesbian and gay clients has been expressed steadily over the last 25 years (e.g., Ben-Ari, 2001; Berger, 1977, 1983; Buhrke, 1989; Fort, Steiner, & Conrad, 1971; Graham, Rawlings, Halpern, & Hermes, 1984; Gramick, 1983; Greene, 1994; Humphreys, 1983; King, 1988; Morrow, 1996; Murphy, 1992a, 1992b; Newman, 1989; Perez, DeBord, & Bieschke, 1999; Potter & Darty, 1981; Thompson & Fishburn, 1977; Tully & Albro, 1979; Woodman, 1992). There exists some empirical evidence for these concerns. Wisniewski and Toomey (1987) reported that 31.2% of their survey sample of 71 graduatelevel social workers scored at homophobic levels. More recent data, however, reflect a positive and noticeable change of attitude. Berkman and Zinberg (1997) found that a much smaller percentage (11.2%) of their sample of 187 heterosexual social workers expressed homophobia. These studies, with relatively small sample sizes, do suggest a trend of increasing levels of acceptance toward gays and lesbians among social workers, but studies with larger samples are needed.

The purpose of this study was to investigate the acceptance of lesbians and gay men among a large sample of beginning graduatelevel social work students compared to beginning graduate-level counseling students. These attitudes are important to understand because the extent and type of acceptance will dictate the kind of treatment that lesbians and gay men and their families receive from those in the helping professions. Previous research has demonstrated that counselors with higher levels of homophobia made more recall errors about clients identified as gay (Casas, Brady, & Ponterolto, 1983; Gelso, Fassinger, Gomez, & Latts, 1995).

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