Queer and Trans Social Workers Call to Action: VCU School of Social Work
Queer and Trans Social Workers Student Association (QTSW) calls in the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) School of Social Work (SSW) on behalf of the LGBTQIA+ student population. In light of recent legislation and the general culture surrounding the LGBTQIA+ community, we feel that action on behalf of the current events and in support of LGBTQIA+ students is necessary. In accordance with the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics, cultural competency and respecting the dignity and worth of all persons is necessary as part of this profession among educators, students, and facilitators of education.
Our organization aims to shed light on the experiences of students, faculty, and staff in relevance to current legislation and their experiences within the School of Social Work.
Some of the behaviors conducted by VCU School of Social Work administrators, faculty, staff, students, and partnering agencies are not in compliance with the fundamental NASW values and ethics. The limited response to discrimination and lack of proactive measures to ensure the psychological and physiological safety of the LGBTQIA+ community communicate an omission of support for these individuals. Anti-Queer and transphobic actions are perpetuated in classrooms, field placements, and the school environment and create an unsafe learning environment for LGBTQIA+ students and consequently, staff as well. The current lack of remedial action to address the implicit and explicit violence being committed against LGBTQIA+ students, faculty, staff, and constituents as well as the lack of formal efforts for curriculum and cultural inclusion have manifested in perpetuated silence by the impacted individuals as well as feelings of abandonment by the school.
Relevance to Legislation & Relevance to School of Social Work
An increase of political and organizational discrimination against LGBTQIA+ youth has incited discussion of how we, as social workers, must position ourselves on this issue. As conversations begin to circulate amongst various areas of our field, we have yet to be critical of the local institutions that social workers belong to. VCU’s School of Social Work has repeatedly pushed for the understanding of diversity and the counteraction of discrimination, and, yet, remains complicit in creating exclusive experiences for LGBTQIA+ students. With consideration to the values of competence and social justice, as referenced from the NASW, it is equally imperative that we name the inadequacy by the School of Social Work and its constituents in serving LGBTQIA+ students. In developing the students who will work to be vehicles for change, VCU’s School of Social Work has a responsibility to facilitate an affirmative and supportive experience for LGBTQIA+ students at every opportunity within the program.
“As a gender non-conforming individual, I have had the privilege of starting my transition (legal name change, testosterone injections, chest binding, etc) which has significantly helped with my experience in field, but should not have influenced the ability to respect my name and pronouns. I have been at my placement now for more than 325 hours, and I am still being referred to as “Ms. Mason” and hear the use of she/her pronouns constantly. In the beginning, I would correct clients and staff, but it became exhausting to have to continuously interject in conversations and then explain myself. Fortunately, I do not have a preference between they/them and he/him, which has made it much easier for the agency (again, they should have respected my identity regardless) as they can still use binary terms. My field liaison has been beyond helpful and supportive, but despite several discussions with the clients and staff at my placement, there has been little to no change in the way they refer to me.” –Mason; BSW Student
“[I witnessed in class] a guest speaker sent to teach students how to conduct support groups acknowledge the use of pronouns in a group role play, then outwardly say they would assume pronouns based on the appearance of students, instead of asking for the correct pronouns. [The guest’s] opinion was that the person’s appearance represented identity more.” –MSW student
“My efforts to live as a nonbinary person have been primarily challenged by those who are designated as my educators. This is especially so within field, as I am consistently misgendered by the social workers I am tasked to work under. The challenge of re-asserting my pronouns is not only limited to the exhaustion found in the repetitive action, but it also has worn down my ability to place value in my identity and experiences.” –BSW Student
“I was in my legislation class last semester. Our topic for the day was gender-based violence and policies that strictly target transgender, nonbinary, and queer individuals. My professor presented discriminatory policies around gender-inclusive bathrooms and shared statistics on how transgender and nonbinary students are at higher risk for sexual violence in bathrooms. This, of course, was to draw attention to public and conservative misconceptions about transgender and non-binary students. Then someone in the room commented that they would not feel comfortable letting their cisgender daughter and trans students be in the same bathroom because they did not know if they were trans. The “unknown” of a person’s intentions was the motive in their statement but also ignorance. Yet, my professor again had to re-educate on how that is unlikely to happen, and again transgender students are at higher risk and experience more violence in schools than their cisgender peers. There was a lot of tension in the room as myself and others were trying to educate that student.” –BSW Student
What Needs to Change
Above all else, all members of the school should feel supported in class, on campus, and within field placements that are associated with Virginia Commonwealth University. The mission of the VCU School of Social Work is “guided by the principle of promoting social and economic justice in a diverse and multicultural society.” It should be a mandatory effort to make sure students feel safe in their learning environment, whether that is in the classroom or in the field, regardless of how they identify. Social work education falls behind in the advocacy of LGBTQIA+ populations. We must live into our values as the professional is the personal in this field. It is unquestionable that we should consider and value the dignity and worth of all persons and this explicitly includes all LGBTQIA+ individuals.
In any instance of discrimination or transgression against LGBTQIA+ students, the student body should feel supported when reporting experiences of discrimination to ALL staff and faculty. Students’ identities should be respected both in and outside of the classroom including adherence to pronouns, names, and other identifiers.
If any member of the School of Social Work does not feel culturally competent in Queer issues and/or identities, accessible resources should be readily available for expansion of education and acceptance. The Council on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression (CSOGIE) under the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) exemplifies these resources.
Any professional found to perpetuate or be permissive of anti-Queer or transphobic ideals should be held accountable. Discriminatory biases should be consistently challenged and confronted in coherence with the professional values of social work.
All professors, administrators, and other participants in the education of students should have the adequate language and familiarity with the LGBTQIA+ community. Any educator associated with the school needs to have proper preparation to appropriately interact with any minority population.
More intentional spaces should be created for the expression of thoughts, feelings, and experiences of Queer and gender diverse students.
We recognize the efforts in the creation of the Gender Beyond the Binary training as the initial step towards an inclusionary culture at VCU. To ensure the safety of and respect towards all students, faculty, and staff, additional training opportunities are necessary. Recognition of racial and ethnic intersectionality in the construction of gender and sexuality identities informs the quality of education received and the atmosphere of the university. Recognition of the impact of gender and sexuality-based micro and macro-aggressions on the individual is imperative to inform the educational and professional success of Queer and gender-diverse VCU affiliates. We not only call for a more formally educated faculty and staff, but a more cognizant student body as well.
Firstly, we call for the provision of more incentivized cultural competency training for new and existing faculty, staff, and administrators, such as the Gender Beyond the Binary trainings paid for by VCU. Maintaining these trainings as voluntary attendance, while providing further information to interested staff, may excuse the primary transgressors of discrimination from confronting personal biases.
We suggest three options for addressing this issue to be completed within six months of the delivery of this statement.
One: create availability for all affiliated staff and faculty prior to each semester to complete these trainings, or host trainings in the evenings or weekends for a larger audience.
Two: provide incentives for completing the trainings. This could include financial compensation, application of trainings to maintain professional accreditation, higher priority of class schedules/obligations to work with personal schedules, or if completing a series of trainings, providing a certification of LGBTQIA+ cultural competency.
Three: maintain the training opportunities as optional and require the signature of a contractual agreement to maintain the NASW Code of Ethics including respecting all student and staff identities. In this case, failure to abide by this agreement may result in mandated gender and sexuality competency trainings.
Additional training materials and resources have been previously developed as per the examples and resources provided by CSOGIE and other affirming organizations. These models should be replicated in the VCU School of Social Work.
Second, the collaboration between administration, faculty, staff, and students representing all minority identities is necessary to achieve an inclusive and representation-based pedagogy within the curriculum. The LGBTQIA+ community, and especially trans individuals, are NOT a special population and should not be treated as an extra but unnecessary portion to course material. Failure to include us and our history engrained in all course curriculums erases our identities and the fundamental contributions we have made, especially in the development of the field of social work.
Administration: There is a need to recognize the indifferences in power that the administration at VCU’s School of Social Work hold when compared to faculty and staff. This power is one that limits the voices advocating for change for fear of retaliation. Furthermore, with this additional power, administration must take a leading role in promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion within culture and curriculum.
Faculty and Staff: It is fundamental that those in close relation with students, such as faculty and staff, have the necessary training, resources, and language to promote inclusivity in the classroom. The failure to provide LGBTQIA+ students with this need subsequently places the burden of education regarding their identities and experiences on the students and robs them of their role as a learner. In addition, faculty and staff in direct contact with students who foster environments where advocacy, inclusivity, and intersectionality - as it relates to LGBTQIA+ issues - are not core beliefs propels future social workers to engage in similar attitudes and behaviors.
Students: Failure to equip the future generation of social workers with the competence to work with LGBTQIA+ and especially transgender populations leaves them ill-prepared to enter into the field. Not only may they carry discriminatory attitudes, but LGBTQIA+ students are left disempowered, traumatized, and worn out before even entering the field as professionals.
Third, the development of a formal process to establish that partnerships created for the purpose of field internships are able to provide a safe and affirming space for the continuous growth of LGBTQIA+ students is imperative. This process will also consider the need to terminate contracts with organizations that cannot meet this criteria.
The narrative of agency scarcity must be abolished. Partnerships can no longer be chosen over the safety of students. More work must be done to facilitate partnerships with inclusive agencies already doing the work.
Agencies and/or Field Instructors who are in violation of the Memorandum of Agreement relevant to nondiscrimination must make mandated and standardized remedial action. Absence of increased education and remediation must result in termination of the partnership with the agency.
In the event that a student experiences discrimination in their field placement, removing them from field as a solution is an unacceptable mitigation of this issue. If active efforts are made to increase partnerships with inclusive organizations, as social service organizations are not in scarce supply, then they will not be faced with the consequence of a diminished learning experience. Removing a student from field under the guise of limited inclusive partnerships perpetuates the violence enacted upon them within that placement and communicates punishment for their identity.
Fourth, the VCU School of Social Work must develop statements within ten business days to address national injustices that target queer and gender diverse communities that will be in accordance with the NASW Code of Ethics and its relevancy to students of similar identity.
To protect our LGBTQIA+ staff, faculty, and constituents, we call for the formation of a formal body of combined faculty, staff, alumni, and students to address past and present injustices done to LGBTQIA+ individuals in social work. The group aims to engage transformative progress through dialogue, visibility, and support of LGBTQIA+ populations.
This Call to Action has been written by impassioned QTSW members, Florence Martinez and Em Bickford,
With the support of: Alexis Dickerson, MSWSA president; Taylor Hohle, '19 MSW alum; Angela Matijczak, PhD Student; Matthew Morgan, PhD Student; Aaron Kemmerer, PhD Student; Colleen Diep, Upcoming QTSW President; Caitlin Mayton, PhD Student; Muna Saleh, PhD student; Camie Tomlinson, PhD student; Nicole George, PhD student; Caroline Bray, MSW student; Rae Obejero, BSW alum; Unnamed Faculty & Staff
We have also created a separate form for those who would like to include their signatures in support of this effort. Likewise, if you, or someone you know, would like to share an experience or has witnessed an instance of LGBTQIA+ discrimination within the classroom, during field, or in any place associated with the School of Social Work, please direct these to email@example.com. These may remain anonymous upon request.