Making services relevant to LGBT clients
Reprinted from the "LGBT" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 6 (2), pp. 21-23
I’ve been giving awareness training on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities for Education Outreach Services at Qmunity, BC’s queer resource centre. I’ve led trainings for health care, social service and criminal justice workers, as well as students at colleges and universities.
The majority of service providers who attend my workshops are open and eager to learn, but often have very little knowledge or practical skills in working with LGBT clients. This is not surprising, because it’s only recently that educational institutions began to introduce LGBT content into their programs and courses. Many professionals currently working in their chosen fields may not have had opportunities to receive training on LGBT communities.
This means that many mainstream organizations have limited capacity to provide culturally relevant services to LGBT clients—that is, services that acknowledge the lived experiences and cultural identities of LGBT people.
It’s not unusual for agencies to rely on an LGBT staff person to be the service provider for LGBT clients. There are several drawbacks to this approach. The LGBT staff person may end up with an increased and unmanageable workload without being officially recognized or compensated by management for this unique skills set. If this LGBT staff person should leave, the organization is left with even less or no capacity to serve LGBT clients appropriately.
Another drawback is that LGBT communities can be small, and a client might know the service provider through shared networks. In this case, a client may not be comfortable or trustful seeing someone they know and may have added concerns about confidentiality.
It’s also important to note that not all LGBT clients will necessarily want an LGBT service provider. The client may identify first as a youth or a Filipino, for instance, and age-related or cultural issues may be more important to them at that moment than LGBT issues.
LGBT people, like other marginalized groups, often experience barriers in accessing mainstream organizations. Barriers for LGBT people can include homophobic and heterosexist attitudes among service providers and a general lack of knowledge and skills in working with LGBT clients. It’s not a simple matter of physically entering a building, going to reception and requesting service. Accessing services is a complex interplay of many factors. These factors include age, race, culture, ability, socio-economic background, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, past experiences accessing mainstream organizations and more.
The desire of service organizations and providers to provide optimal care should motivate them to remove as many as barriers as possible.
Providing LGBT culturally relevant services
At the agency level
Service organizations can do the following to ensure culturally relevant services for LGBT people:
Adopt a policy on diversity. In drafting this policy, avoid making general commitments to diversity. It’s important to name sexual orientation, gender identity and your commitment to LGBT communities (as well as other marginalized communities). Consider inviting an LGBT individual to sit on your organization’s board or diversity committee.
Arrange for LGBT awareness training for staff and volunteers. It’s a good idea to make this training mandatory or to strongly encourage staff to attend. Sometimes staff who are uncomfortable with LGBT issues will avoid attending.
Reach out to LGBT communities. Find creative and low-cost ways to let your local LGBT communities know your organization welcomes LGBT clients. For example, staff an information booth at local Pride celebrations and provide information on your services and programs.
Create a welcoming environment. Look for ways to make your reception and counselling rooms more welcoming. For instance, display posters and pamphlets that celebrate diversity, including LGBT communities.
At the service provider level
Along with these organizational changes, service providers play a key role in creating safe and respectful environments for LGBT clients. It’s important for service providers to:
Examine their own attitudes and beliefs about LGBT people. If you find yourself uncomfortable at the idea of working with LGBT clients, ask yourself if this due to stereotypes and lack of information. Ask yourself what you need to do to become more comfortable.
Use inclusive, non-heterosexist language and practices. Allow for the possibility that any of your clients could be LGBT. Ask questions rather than making assumptions. Use inclusive questions that are broad enough to embrace all kinds of people.
Respond appropriately when a client discloses. When a client tells you that he/she is a member of the LGBT community, don’t say that it’s not important to know or that you treat everyone the same. The client has just shared something very personal with you. Quietly thank them for sharing and acknowledge that it can be hard to trust in someone new.
Be aware of concerns for confidentiality. LGBT clients may be out to varying degrees in their personal lives and may have concerns about confidentiality. For example, a client may ask whether personal information goes into his/her file and who has access to the file.
Offer support and make referrals with sensitivity. As much as possible, make referrals to other service providers and organizations that also welcome LGBT clients.
LGBT awareness training is critical
Any organization committed to working with marginalized communities should consider training all staff and volunteers to work with LGBT communities.
Typically, an LGBT awareness workshop covers:
language and terminology
LGBT culture and history
the impacts of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and heterosexism
barriers to accessing services, including practical suggestions for making services more accessible to LGBT clients
Training can be tailored to specific audiences. For example, a workshop for health care professionals would likely include additional information on the specific health issues of LGBT people. For far too long, LGBT health has focused mainly on HIV/AIDS. As a result, significant health challenges such as substance use, mental health and cancers may have been overlooked.
Ideally, workshops are at least two to three hours long, though I have managed with less time. Longer workshops (e.g., full-day) allow for exercises in which participants are encouraged to examine their own attitudes and beliefs about LGBT communities. Having an ease and comfort with sexuality and gender diversity within LGBT communities is fundamental to providing services that are culturally relevant. If a service provider is uncomfortable with LGBT people and communities, their LGBT clients will pick up on this.
Qmunity’s Education Outreach Services typically provides LGBT awareness training to organizations in the Lower Mainland of BC. In the past, staff were able to provide training in different regions of the province, but unfortunately that project funding has ended. The training is free, though honoraria are appreciated.
For more information on Education Outreach Services, contact Qmunity reception at 604-684-5307.
About the authorPeter is the former Program Manager for Education and Outreach Services at Qmunity, BC’s queer resource centre. He has delivered numerous LGBT awareness workshops to service providers.