Recognizing Anti-LGBT Bias in US Social Policy:
Securing Basic Protections for Gender Expression
Sarah-Jane Dodd, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Hunter College School of Social Work
On a federal level lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are not protected from discrimination in the workplace; their relationships are not recognized with equal weight; their ability to parent is called into question; and crimes against them are not considered to be hate crimes. Where protections do exist, they are uneven across local and state governments.
Perhaps because socialization occurs in the context of legislated discrimination, LGBT youth are routinely harassed in schools by students, staff and administrators.
In addition, a disproportionate number of LGBT youth are at risk for suicide or homelessness (GLSEN, 2006). In fact, an estimated 3,000-8,000 LGBT youth are currently homeless in New York City
There are five major areas in which federal policies disadvantage LGBT individuals. First, LGBT individuals do not have basic protection from workplace discrimination on a federal level. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is currently being considered by Congress, but lost the support of over 350 LGBT organizations nationwide who were dismayed by the removal of protection for gender-identity/expression from the proposal. While NYC laws were passed after stalling for 33 years, without federal laws LGBT individuals are sent the message that they are only valued in some places. The federal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy banning openly gay or lesbian individuals from serving in the military embodies workplace discrimination.
Second, gay marriage has received considerable public attention over the past few years. Many states have a law defining marriage as between one man and one woman, while only one, Massachusetts, has full marriage equality. The lack of federal recognition for gay marriage denies same-sex couples, even those married in Massachusetts, 1,183 federal benefits (GAO, 2004). For example, Social Security (SS) benefits are tied to employment history and marital status.
Without the protection of federally recognized marriage, LGBT couples cannot calculate their benefit utilizing both incomes, nor can they receive SS survivor benefits, even though they paid taxes at the same rates as their heterosexual, married counterparts.
Third, safety is a key issue with LGBT individuals requiring protection against harassment and violence. For example, in 2006, the Anti Violence Project (AVP) reported 486 violent incidents against LGBT individuals just in New York City. Greater protections are needed especially for LGBT youth who are routinely harassed in schools. A national survey indicated that 74.5% of LGBT students had been verbally insulted. In addition, 37.8% reported physical harassment because of their sexual orientation, and 26.1% because of their gender expression (GLSEN, 2006). Despite these figures only 11 states have hate crime bills that include both sexual orientation and gender identity. (New York includes sexual orientation but not gender identity.)
Fourth, unlike in 16 other countries, including Israel, Iceland and South Africa, same-sex bi-national couples do not have any immigration protection for their relationships. In the absence of such a policy, same-sex couples have to make difficult choices, seek expensive immigration attorneys, and in some cases are split up through deportation.
Fifth, there are still two states (Nebraska and Utah) that ban LGBT individuals from serving as foster parents and five that restrict gay adoption (Florida, Mississippi, Utah, Nebraska, Michigan). In addition, children from LGBT headed families in any state may be restricted from accessing key programs like Head Start, since the federal faith-based initiative now allows government funded agencies to restrict access to services.
Social Work Implications
The social work profession, through its code of ethics, has at its core the principles of social justice and the dignity and worth of all persons (NASW, 1999). Therefore, all social workers should be actively engaged in advocacy efforts seeking positive policy changes on behalf of LGBT individuals and their families. Social workers need to be at the fore-front of creating policy changes that support all individuals. Combating heterocentrist bias is essential if we are to achieve social justice and honor the dignity and worth of all persons regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
To get more involved, contact the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Human Rights Campaign or the Empire State Pride Agenda. ?
General Accounting Office (2004). Defense of Marriage Act: Update to Prior Report.GAO-04-353R.
Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (2006). The 2005 National School Climate Survey. GLSEN.
Lind (2004). Legislating the family: Heterosexist bias in social welfare policy frameworks. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, XXXI, 4, 21-35.
NASW (1999). National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics. Washington, DC: NASW Press.
Ray, N. (2007). Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness. Washington, DC: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, National Coalition for Homeless.