Commentary | “Do you have a girlfriend?”

The double standard for LGBT social workers

“Do you have a girlfriend?” The way you answer this question, for the most part, depends on one thing you may take for granted: sexual orientation. For most men, this simple everyday question is not a source of personal tension or anxiety – but for me, it’s an anxiety-provoking experience whenever I am asked. Being a Social Work student who is part of the LGBT community compounds this question, and makes it especially difficult to deal with in the context of field education and employment in social work.

As part of my social work field placement course in 2011 at McGill, I accepted a practicum position at a community centre in Montreal. While working with a Caribbean female client in an abusive relationship, she, on many occasions, inquired if I had a girlfriend. Discomfort arose, as I didn’t know how to answer her persistent inquiry. In fact, her question presumed that I am “straight,” but I have always been attracted to men, and am proudly ‘out’ as an ethnic LGBT immigrant from Ghana.

How do I honestly answer her mundane and benign inquiry without risking affirming my non-heterosexuality? For me, sexual orientation in all its fluidity – straight, gay, bisexual, et cetera – has always been similar to the differences in ethnic affiliation: an unremarkable natural personal trait. If my “straight” colleagues, who happen to be the majority, can freely affirm and infer their dominant heterosexual orientation to clients and coworkers on a whim at work, why shouldn’t I be able to do the same? Isn’t this what equality for LBGT persons is all about, to be free to be publicly who we are, without the need to hide and lie, and risk the danger of homophobic reaction?

For me, sexual orientation in all its fluidity has always been similar to the differences in ethnic affiliation: an unremarkable natural personal trait.

Not knowing what to do, I sought guidance from my immediate supervisor. She, a straight white female, instructed me not to affirm my sexual orientation – keep in mind, relationship status cannot be disclosed without inference to sexual orientation identity – to the client in question because, in her words, “women in her position are afraid of gay men.” More confused, I requested my supervisor to clarify her arbitrary and restrictive position, which led to disagreements and my eventual termination from the field placement.

What was behind her desire to regulate the free affirmation of homosexual identity in a professional helping relationship context to the extent of termination? Had I been “straight,” would my hegemonically accepted sexual orientation affirmation be still subjected to permission in the work place? Is this a perpetuation of that view, that gay sexual orientation is pathological, unnatural, marginal, and and must be conveniently hidden or disclosed based on the circumstances of the day? As a black person, I can’t, and don’t even intend to, hide my blackness or even my Ghanaian roots. Why am I forced to hide my homosexuality?

Believing that Canadian and Quebec laws would support the public affirmation of non-heterosexual orientation, and given that my field placement termination was caused by my supervisor’s double standard to keep me in the ‘closet’ at work, I complained to the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission in the same year. Much to my despair, the provincial human rights body at first rejected the civil rights discrimination deposition on the grounds that “my sexual orientation is a private matter” and “employers have the rights to ask employees not to reveal their sexual orientation to clients.”

As a black person, I can’t, and don’t even intend to, hide my blackness or even my Ghanaian roots. Why am I forced to hide my homosexuality?

Upon an immediate appeal, the Commission’s initial decision was overturned and the complaint was formally investigated. After three years of investigation, however, the Commission issued a final decision in which it sided with my supervisor, saying that “it was ill-advised [for me] to disclose [my] sexual orientation to a client in the context of social work.” No explanations given, case closed. The Commission’s controversial final decision raised more questions than answers, so with the intention of seeking clarity again, I asked, at the cost of thousands of dollars, the Superior Court of Quebec to review the Commission’s final decision despite the latter’s fierce opposition to my motion for judicial review. It was greenlit last week.

I’m taking the Commission to the Superior Court of Quebec to shed light on the former’s improvised decision. In almost four years of handling my case, not once did the Commission consult my stakeholders in rendering its precedent-setting decision. The opinions of the two stakeholders, the Ordre des travailleurs sociaux et thérapeutes conjugaux and the Canadian Association of Social Workers, which have no defined policy on this particular debate, were not reflected in the Commission’s opinion. Furthermore, none of the decisions made on my case were informed by any legal framework and policy, as one of the Commission’s own lawyers said in an internal memo to her superior. Rather, the Commission’s opinion was based on the uninformed and biased sentiments of its staff. In my opinion, the ad-hoc views of the Commission are a legitimate cause for concern and an impetus to push for judicial review for anyone who respects human rights.

The Commission’s improvised position was reactionary, and as an institution it may function to perpetuate institutionalized homophobia in Quebec. For example, it implies that sexual orientation is a private matter and has no place in the workplace. This position is partial against those members of society who have historically been forced into the shadows and denied the right to be as equally visible and respected as heterosexuals. Given that in some parts of the world today LGBT people have the right to marry, like their heterosexual counterparts, it would be difficult for them to talk about their family status in the workplace without running the risk of revealing their sexual orientation. To commit to the discriminatory notion of keeping your sexuality secret, LGBT people would thus have to conceal their identities or lie.

The Commission is legally placing restrictions on LGBT persons to be out at work, a notion that goes against thirty years of Canadian case law on equality and Quebec’s own policy against homophobia.

Heterosexual employees, on the other hand, do not have to reveal or disclose their sexual orientation because society regards heterosexuality as the norm. The Commission ruling that “it was ill-advised to disclose sexual orientation to the client in the context of social work” then disproportionately and adversely affects sexual minorities, compared with people belonging to the dominant sexual orientation. In fact, the Commission is legally placing restrictions on LGBT persons to be out at work, a notion that goes against thirty years of Canadian case law on equality and Quebec’s own policy against homophobia.

The outcome of the judicial review has serious implications for LGBT professionals employed in the context of care-relationships such as psychologists, nurses, physicians, and teachers whose identity expression can be deemed secondary to the needs of their clients. This practice of satisfying the “needs” or bias of a service recipient, even if it means sanctioning a discriminatory behaviour in the interest of the idea that ‘the customer is always right,’ is discrimination by proxy, and represents a major setback for LGBT civil rights in Canada. It shows that LGBT rights can easily be relegated. As a black man, I will not let anyone tell me to go to the back of the bus. As a gay man, I will not let anyone tell me when or how I should be out. And as a gay black man, I cannot let a human rights commission adopt a position that can send many of us back into a pre-civil rights era.


Kofi Norsah is a Master’s student in Social Work. To reach him, send an email to commentary@mcgilldaily.com.


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