Academic journal article Social Work

Homophobia and Heteroxism in Social Workers

Academic journal article Social Work

Homophobia and Heteroxism in Social Workers

Article excerpt

Social workers, although trained to put aside biases and to respect the diversity of cultures reflected in client populations, are susceptible to absorbing the explicit and implicit biases held by mainstream society. Gay male and lesbian populations have historically been seen not simply as different from but as somehow less than their heterosexual counterparts. Evidence suggests that social workers may be biased when dealing with gay and lesbian populations. The problems these populations experience when encountering heterosexual social workers are partially related to social workers' often unconscious bias and partially to an information deficit concerning the gay and lesbian communities and the unique difficulties that homosexual men and women encounter living in a predominantly heterosexual society.

Although homosexual clients are apt to bring many of the same problems to counseling as heterosexual clients, these problems are often exacerbated both by the heterosexual bias (or "heterosexism") of the mainstream culture and by the real or imagined heterosexism of those to whom they turn for help. The study discussed in this article was designed to determine the nature of heterosexual social workers' attitudes toward gay men and lesbians. We also hoped to understand how these attitudes are related to gender, contact with gay men and lesbians, education about homosexuality, and religiosity.

Review of the Literature

Until 1973 the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which has historically determined the nomenclature and diagnostic criteria for clinical social work, regarded homosexuality as a psychopathology. At that time, 37 percent of the members of the APA opposed depathologization (Bayer, 1987). Homosexuality as pathology was replaced in 1973 with "ego-dystonic homosexuality," a concept that defined dissatisfaction with same-sex orientation as illness. In 1988 ego-dystonic homosexuality as well was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Haldeman, 1991). Homosexuality is still a classification category in the International Classification of Diseases (World Health Organization, 1997).

Although homosexuality has ceased to be regarded as a mental illness, heterosexuality continues to be referred to as the norm, and homosexuality is still often inadvertently discussed within the context of pathology (Morin, 1977; Rudolph, 1988). Negative attitudes toward homosexuality exist on a continuum from homophobia to heterosexism. Homophobia is traditionally defined as "fear, disgust, anger, discomfort and aversion that individuals experience in dealing with gay people" (Hudson & Ricketts, 1980, p. 358) or as a "dread of being in close quarters with homosexuals" (Weinberg, 1972, p. 4). The term has come to be more broadly defined as "any belief system which supports negative myths and stereotypes about homosexual people" (Morin & Garfinkle, 1978, p. 30) and "any of the varieties of negative attitudes which arise from fear or dislike of homosexuality" (Martin, 1982, p. 341).

Heterosexism is "a belief system that values heterosexuality as superior to and/or more 'natural' than homosexuality" (Morin, 1977, p. 629). Heterosexual bias is a more subtle concept than homophobia and entails the belief that heterosexuality is normative and that nonheterosexuality is deviant and intrinsically less desirable. Heterosexism is often manifested by individuals who would not be considered as being blatantly homophobic or holding negative attitudes. This often subtle heterosexism permeates the culture in which social institutions and social work practice are built.

Rudolph (1989) demonstrated heterosexism among mental health practitioners; his sample of master's- and doctoral-level clinicians and clinicians in training clearly held strongly positive attitudes about homosexuals in areas such as civil liberties, psychological character, and morality, yet had negative attitudes when addressing the suitability of homosexuals in sensitive professional positions. …

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