Social Workers Must Fight Back Against Anti-LGBT Legislation

It seems like every week there is a new and more discriminatory law introduced in the United States. In Mississippi HB1523 and in North Carolina HB 2 have been signed into law allowing both public and private individuals and business to refuse service to LGBTQ people on the basis of religious beliefs. Tennessee’s SB 1556 is ready to be signed into law and states, “no person providing counseling or therapy services shall be required to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief of the counselor or therapist.

Mississippi writes that their law is in response to religiously affiliated foster care agencies that closed in IL, MA and DC following the Supreme Court’s ruling on same sex marriage, rather than having to recognize same sex marriages. Section 2 of MS HB 1523 protects only the following 3 beliefs: 1. That marriage is the union of one man and one woman; 2. Sexual relations should only be reserved for an above described marriage, and 3. Male and female refer to the biological sex assigned at birth. HB 1523 goes on to state that the state will not take any “discriminatory action”, defined as withholding, reducing or ending state contracts or grants, against foster care agencies or their foster parents who plan to provide services based on the beliefs from Section 2.

In practice, HB 1523 legalizes child abuse. It denies the existence of transgender individuals, protects agencies and individuals who engage in the harmful and discredited practice of conversion therapy, and prevents youth from receiving evidenced-based treatment and services if they are LGBT. This is particularly distressing in light of a recent report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) stating unequivocally that conversion therapy is not appropriate for LGBTQ Youth. Even more recently, a new study found no major differences in depression and anxiety between transgender children who are supported in their gender identity by their families and the general population.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics (2008) states that social workers are ethically obligated to respect their clients’ right to self-determination in decision-making. However, these laws will give social workers legal protection if they refuse to provide evidenced-based services to their clients based on their personal beliefs. These laws go beyond previous policies in that they not only prevent people in need of help, but they will actively harm those individuals seeking services and help. This law could also make it even more difficult for anyone who is sexually assaulted to report and receive services if they are worried about being punished for “sexual relations outside of marriage”? If a transgender male youth in a protected home is sexually assaulted by a cisgender male who could they report this to?

What can social workers do to fight back against these hateful and harmful laws? Contact your local representative to let them know that you do not stand for these discriminatory laws, organize with your local NASW chapter and LGBT organizations in your area to demonstrate your support for the rights of LGBT individuals, and find out where your agency stands. I know that in many places religiously affiliated organizations are the largest social service providers, and thus the largest employer for social workers, meaning that some will not able to speak out against these laws. Ironically, social workers who would like to follow their professional Code of Ethics and not legalized bigotry are not protected if their religious agency fires them for providing evidenced-based and compassionate care to their clients.

By SWRJ Co-Founder Maggie Rosenbloom, LICSW