Academic journal article Social Work

Social Work with Gay and Lesbian Adolescents

Academic journal article Social Work

Social Work with Gay and Lesbian Adolescents

Article excerpt

Whether or not they are aware of it, social workers who work with adolescent populations work with gay and lesbian youths. Fear of rejection and nonacceptance drives many lesbian and gay adolescents to hide their sexual orientation. In addition, workers too often assume heterosexuality among clients, thereby setting up barriers to homosexual clients' self-disclosure and implicitly discriminating against them.

Because of the difficulty in developing a healthy identity in a homophobic world, lesbian and gay adolescents are an at-risk population. They are an oppressed group discriminated against by universal social institutions such as the family, social culture, and educational setting. This article examines the unique issues that gay and lesbian adolescents (youths from puberty to approximately 21 years of age) must deal with in each of these settings. Suggestions are provided for improved methods of working with lesbian and gay adolescents.

Some professionals question the wisdom of actively exploring sexual orientation with adolescents; they fear that doing so would proselytize young people into adopting a homosexual orientation. Such a perspective exemplifies societal homophobia (that is, excessive fear of homosexuality) and keeps the notion of homosexuality "in the closet" as a horrible and forbidden topic. There is no evidence that one can be effectively converted from one sexual orientation to another. Moreover, according to many researchers (Bell & Hammersmith, 1981; Kinsey, Pomery, & Martin, 1948; Marmor, 1965), sexual orientation seems to be evident at an early age. Social workers who are aware of issues that confront gay and lesbian adolescents can help them deal positively with such issues and accept their sexuality as healthy and normal. Social workers can therefore facilitate the development of positive self-awareness and self-acceptance in gay and lesbian adolescents.


In various socially oppressed ethnic and cultural groups, the family typically serves as a focus of validation and teaching about what it is like to be a member of an oppressed population. For example, the parents of an African American or Jewish child teach their child what it is like to be African American or Jewish in our culture. Such is not the case for gay and lesbian adolescents. Because most parents are heterosexual, they cannot teach their lesbian or gay adolescent what it is like to be a member of the gay and lesbian culture; they are unable to be role models of a positive gay or lesbian identity for their child.

Furthermore, children are often reared with negative stereotypes about homosexuality. Parents who adhere to traditional viewpoints tend to see homosexuality as sick, sinful, and criminal. In such scenarios it is no wonder that many gay and lesbian adolescents remain secretive about their sexual orientation.

Hunter and Schaecher (1987) stated that family recognition and acceptance are central to healthy adolescent maturation and directly related to the development of a positive self-image. Lesbian and gay adolescents considering whether to "come out" (disclose their homosexual orientation) to parents must carefully weigh the hoped-for benefits against the possible negative effects. Parental rejection of the adolescent, at least initially, is a common outcome (Browning, 1987; Cramer & Roach, 1988; Wirth, 1978). According to Hetrick and Martin (1987), "Families react with shame and guilt to homosexuality in a child partly because of the widespread belief that homosexuality is the result of bad parenting".

Social workers can be instrumental in providing to families accurate information that dispels negative myths surrounding homosexuality. In addition, they can provide support and validation to family members dealing with normal feelings of grief over losing the image of their child's heretofore presumed heterosexual orientation.

Wirth (1978) suggested that given time, families improve in their coping with a family member's homosexuality. …

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