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Articles From ALCA Journal

From The Alabama Counseling Association Journal
Volume 31 Number 2 Fall, 2005
Special Interest Section: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling

LGBT Advocacy

Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues in Counselor Education and Supervision: A Call to Advocacy
Dr. Glenda R. Elliott
Associate Professor Emerita
University of Alabama in Birmingham


As a means of raising awareness, providing knowledge, and enhancing skills related to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues in counseling, this article describes from the perspective of advocacy counseling illustrative issues faced by counselor educators and supervisors and identifies resources for responding to these issues in sound, ethical, and therapeutic ways.

Author’s note: This article was prepared during the author’s term as Chair of the Committee on Current Issues, 2004-2005, of the Alabama Counseling Association. The author would like to thank Dr. Angela M. Stowe, Director of Disability Support Services, University of Alabama at Birmingham, for her invaluable assistance in the preparation of the article. Correspondence regarding this article should be directed to: Glenda R. Elliott, 503 Woodland Village, Birmingham, Alabama 35216. Email:

Ethical standards (American Counseling Association, 1995) and accreditation requirements (Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, 2001) make it clear that counselors are responsible for providing competent counseling services that are respectful of diversity and free of discrimination and bias. Likewise, counselor educators and supervisors have the responsibility for providing the training of counselors who can provide these services. An important element of this training involves awareness, knowledge, and skills related to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) issues in counseling (Israel, 2004; Israel, Ketz, Detrie, Burke, & Shulman, 2003; Phillips, 2000). Associated with this training is the emerging concept of advocacy counseling (Kiselica & Robinson, 2001; Stone, 2003) which encourages counselors to be concerned not only with intrapsychic and interpersonal change but also to be aware of and seek to reduce barriers in society that inhibit the full development of individuals. Because of the stigmatization of homosexuality in American society the importance of the concept of advocacy counseling related to GLBT issues is evident.

While there is some indication of increasing acceptance of GLBT individuals in American society, only seventeen states have laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. A sample of the thirty-three states that do not cover sexual orientation includes Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas (NGLTF, 2005c).

In addition to the absence of state laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, statements by public officials and leaders in some states continue to perpetuate toxic environments for many GLBT individuals and their families. For example, in a ruling denying custody of a son to his lesbian mother by the Alabama Supreme Court, then Chief Justice Roy Moore stated in his opinion that homosexuality was considered “abhorrent, immoral, detestable, a crime against nature and a violation of the laws of nature and of nature’s God” (D. H. v. H. H., 2002).

Related to hate crimes legislation, currently thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have hate crime statutes that specifically include crimes based on the real or perceived sexual orientation of the victim. A sample of the remaining eighteen states that do not cover sexual orientation includes Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia (NGLTF, 2005b).

Further evidence of stigmatization can be found in those states where legislation has been introduced prohibiting the rights of gay and lesbian individuals to marry. For example, a sample of the states having introduced and/or passed state laws or state constitutional amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage include Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia (NGLTF, 2005a).

Concerning the safety of sexual minority youth in schools, a recent survey and analysis of state laws that affect school environments and safety for all students, particularly GLBT students, revealed forty-two states received failing grades. The ten states with the lowest, failing scores in order were Utah, Texas, Montana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Idaho, Alabama, Arizona, and Mississippi (GLSEN, 2004).

Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Issues

That the stigmatization of GLBT people and their families continues to exist in American society is obvious and deserving of the attention of counselors, counselor educators, and supervisors. As a means of raising awareness, providing knowledge, and enhancing skills related to GLBT issues in counselor education and supervision, this article presents some illustrative issues currently being faced by many counselor educators and supervisors and describes helpful resources in responding to these issues in sound, therapeutic, and ethical ways.

Issue #1: As a counselor educator, how can I provide an opportunity in class discussion for different beliefs and perspectives on GLBT issues among students while at the same time upholding our professional codes of ethics?

This issue reflects the larger dilemma some counselor educators and supervisors face in reconciling their own personal values and beliefs regarding homosexuality with their professional role responsibilities. In finding ways to function ethically within the tension of this conflict, these counselor educators and supervisors have an important opportunity to serve as significant role models for their students and supervisees who also have similar conflicts. All counselor educators and supervisors can demonstrate to students and supervisees ways to hold their personal, individual beliefs while at the same time demonstrating behavior and attitudes consistent with the American Counseling Association (ACA) Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice (1995), the ethical codes and position statements of ACA Divisions and
related professional associations and state licensing boards. For example, one of the position statements of the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), “Sexual Orientation of Youth”, includes a clear statement of the ethical responsibilities of school counselors related to sexual orientation issues for youth. Reflecting an emphasis also on advocacy, the summary of the statement indicates the following:

The professional school counselor is committed to the inclusion and affirmation of youths of all sexual orientations. The professional school counselor supports consciousness-raising among school counselors and increased modeling of inclusive language, advocacy and equal opportunity for all. This is done to break through individual, social and institutional behaviors and expectations limiting the development of human potential in all populations (ASCA, 2000).

This statement can serve as a springboard for discussion and clarification of the ethical responsibilities of counselors in all settings related to sexual orientation and gender identity issues. An excellent classroom strategy designed to raise awareness of GLBT issues and promote respectful classroom discussion is the model suggested by Liddle and Stowe (2002). They described the advantages of a lesbian/heterosexual team approach to education on GLBT issues in which the lesbian lecturer presents material based on her personal experience and professional expertise and the heterosexual lecturer facilitates the discussion of the issues that are raised. Another very useful strategy is the one developed by Pearson (2003) who described a counselor training seminar incorporating popular songs, readings, and class discussion to increase awareness, provide information, and suggest counseling interventions for sexual minority clients. Dillon et al. (2004) described the process by which a group of counselors-in39 training developed more LGB affirmative attitudes. These authors also addressed advocacy skill development and sociopolitical awareness. An additional, excellent resource is the historical perspective delineated very effectively by Robertson (2004) on the effects of depathologizing homosexuality on the counseling profession.

Issue #2: As a supervisor of practicum students and interns or potential Associate Licensed Counselor supervisees, how can I communicate the expectation that GLBT issues and concerns will be treated respectfully and nonjudgmentally in the supervision process? During the orientation phase of the supervision process, it is expected that supervisors will review with supervisees the ACA Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice, the relevant codes of ethics of the ACA Divisions and the codes of ethics of state licensure boards as well as departmental and/or on-site requirements and expectations which ideally reflect relevant ethical codes and standards. Supervisors can also allow opportunity for and encourage supervisees to discuss in an open and nonthreatening way any potential issues supervisees may have regarding GLBT issues as well as any other issues related to culturally diverse populations. A very helpful supervision model related to GLBT issues is the model developed by Bruss, Brack, Brack, Glickauf-Hughes, and O’Leary (1997).

The orientation phase also provides an excellent opportunity for supervisors to model in their interactions with supervisees their own openness to and acceptance of GLBT concerns the supervisees may need to address in the supervision process. Being aware of the possible patterns of interaction which reflect the views and beliefs about homosexuality held individually by the supervisor and supervisee can be beneficial to supervisors in examining this dynamic in the supervision process. Very useful resources for examining these types of interaction patterns have been developed by Ancis and Ladany (2001) and earlier by Buhrke (1989)

An adaptation of the interaction types described by Buhrke (1989) shows clearly how important it is for counselor educators and supervisors to be role models of acceptance of GLBT issues in the supervision process. The first pattern occurs when the supervisor is not GLBT affirming and neither is the supervisee. In this pattern, for example, homosexuality is seen as pathological and the cause of other problems a supervisee’s GLBT client may be experiencing. The supervisee is encouraged to focus on a cure or change in sexual orientation in the client. The second pattern occurs when the supervisor is not GLBT affirming and the supervisee is affirming. In this pattern, the supervisee may be fearful of judgment and may hide or not bring up any issues related to sexual orientation. If the client or supervisee is GLBT, this pattern can be potentially detrimental to either one. Very importantly, in both the first and second patterns of interaction, transference and countertransference issues may be dealt with minimally and ethical violations, particularly the abuse of power, may occur.

A potentially complicated pattern of interaction not included in the first or second types may occur when the supervisor is GLBT and is not open about his or her sexual orientation or gender identity, but the supervisee is GLBT affirming. The supervisee may sense this dynamic and feel protective of the supervisor, thus avoiding any discussion of GLBT related issues. If the GLBT supervisor still has acceptance issues to resolve regarding his or her own coming out process, this pattern may resemble aspects of the second pattern. On the other hand, if the supervisor is GLBT affirming to oneself, while choosing in the supervision process not to reveal his or her sexual orientation or gender identity, the pattern can resemble aspects of the fourth, ideal pattern of interaction in which the supervisor indicates an affirming openness to discussion of GLBT issues in supervision.

In the third pattern, conflict is present, but a positive resolution is possible. When the supervisor is GLBT affirming and the supervisee is not affirming, the supervisor, as a positive role model, can facilitate the exploration of GLBT issues in a supportive, nonjudgmental way. An example of this type of interaction is the following case vignette:

Vignette: A school counseling supervisee found herself working with a lesbian student during her internship. The student’s presenting problem was based in her anxiety about the coming out process and her pain over the taunting episodes she had experienced in school. The supervisee described herself as conservative in her religious beliefs against homosexuality. Initially, she did not think she should or could work with this student. However, during supervision, she explored her ethical responsibility not to discriminate and not to impose her own personal value system on the student. Subsequently, she was able to keep a boundary between her professional obligations and her personal belief system by focusing on the student’s pain and struggle. By maintaining an affective focus and responding to the emotional content of the student’s issues and concerns, the supervisee was able to address the student’s needs successfully (C. Daughhetee, personal communication, April 12, 2005).

The ethical challenge for the supervisor in this example is to respect the supervisee’s perspective (moral and/or religious) on homosexuality while presenting a nonjudgmental perspective consistent with ethical standards. In this pattern, the supervisor clearly models for students and supervisees ways to work with clients who are experiencing similar conflicts. Transference and countertransference issues can be openly discussed and ethical violations more easily avoided.

The fourth pattern is the ideal pattern in which both supervisor and supervisee are GLBT affirming. Issues are addressed openly, free of bias and judgment. If a supervisee’s client and/or the supervisee is GLBT, the coming out process can be discussed openly and facilitated. If the supervisor is also an openly GLBT person, he or she can serve as a positive, responsible role model as a counselor educator or supervisor who is also openly GLBT. Transference and countertransference issues can be openly discussed and ethical violations more easily avoided.

A very useful means for examining counselor educator and supervisor self-awareness regarding GLBT issues is the model described by Mohr (2002). The model includes a discussion not only of barriers to, but also ways to facilitate, effective counseling practice with GLBT clients (Mohr, 2002).

Issue # 3: Should GLBT counselor educators and supervisors reveal their sexual orientation and/or gender identity?

This issue reflects a very difficult dilemma for most GLBT counselor educators and supervisors, especially those who work in universities and agencies that do not specify sexual orientation in the institutional nondiscrimination policies. For example, in Alabama, currently only one public, state university includes sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination policy, a recent change in policy which occurred in May, 2004 (University of Alabama at Birmingham, 2004). It is also very likely that many public and private mental health agencies and institutions do not include sexual orientation in the nondiscrimination policies of the agencies, particularly in those states that do not cover sexual orientation in the their nondiscrimination laws. Therefore, for a GLBT counselor educator or supervisor to be open about his or her sexual orientation or gender identity may mean risking job security as well as risking the disfavor of nonaffirming
colleagues, students, and supervisees. Nevertheless, GLBT students and supervisees can benefit significantly in their personal and professional development from knowing positive role models. Lark and Croteau (1998) presented a very compelling case for the importance of mentoring by openly gay, lesbian, bisexual faculty members in graduate counseling and psychotherapy programs.

What is obvious in the face of this dilemma is the need for heterosexual colleagues to serve as allies and advocates for their GLBT colleagues, students, and supervisees. They can work with GLBT colleagues in lobbying their institutions and agencies to include sexual orientation in the nondiscrimination policies. Even if institutions and agencies continue to exclude sexual orientation in their policies, counselor education programs and community agencies can develop and publicize, in printed and website information, policies that are inclusive and nondiscriminating regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. Specifically, in counselor education programs, members of departmental faculties can work together to insure GLBT issues are included fairly and ethically throughout the curriculum, reflecting the ACA Ethical Code and Standards of Practice and CACREP Standards. On an individual level, heterosexual colleagues, counselor educators, and supervisors can always offer their invaluable acceptance, understanding, and support to their GLBT colleagues, students, and supervisees.


In reviewing these illustrative dilemmas faced by counselor educators and supervisors in responding ethically and competently to GLBT issues, it becomes apparent that counselor educators and supervisors are called to be advocates for greater awareness, enhanced knowledge, and effective skills related to GLBT issues. Furthermore, to be an advocate in the area of GLBT issues in counseling requires the development of a personal moral imperative (Kiselica & Robinson, 2001). This imperative can serve to drive and sustain the efforts of counselor educators and supervisors who serve as advocacy counselors in the face of inevitable resistance and criticism. This article takes the position that in developing a personal moral imperative and in following sound, ethical, and therapeutic principles and practices, counselor educators and supervisors will train counselors who will demonstrate the requisite awareness, knowledge, and skills to respond effectively to GLBT issues in counseling.

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LGBT Issues for School Counselors


What to Say When Your Student May be Gay? A Primer for School Counselors
Dr. Jamie Satcher & Dr. Mark Leggett
The University of Alabama


Students who are gay face substantial barriers to adjustment in school, including verbal and physical harassment. The school counselor can be a primary person to assist students who are gay to come to terms with their sexual identity and to navigate the journey to self-acceptance. School counselors, however, often may feel unprepared to provide assistance to these students and may mistakenly create more barriers because of their discomfort. This manuscript provides an introduction for school counselors when approached by students who are struggling with issues related to gay identity development.

Note: Jamie Satcher, Ph.D., CRC, NCC, is a Professor of Counselor Education at The University of Alabama. Mark Leggett, Ph.D., NCC, is a temporary Assistant Professor of Counselor Education at The University of Alabama who also has a private practice emphasizing persons who are gay. Correspondence concerning this manuscript may be sent to Dr. Jamie Satcher, The University of Alabama, Box 870231, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0231.


Perhaps few human characteristics are more controversial in the United State than sexual identity. Negative bias towards persons who are gay is prevalent in American society. Persons whose sexual identity is gay, a term which is inclusive of persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered, are often victimized by the negative attitudes toward them of the majority, heterosexual population, particularly in a society in which anti-gay sentiment is accepted (Vescio & Biernat, 2003).

In the United States, persons who are gay are not provided basic civil and legal rights, such as the right to free expression, protection from employment and housing discrimination, and legal recognition of same-sex relationships (Wood & Bartkowski, 2004). According to Avery (2002), 20% of adults would deny gays and lesbians the right to free expression. The Higher Education Research Institute (2002, as cited in Avery) studied college freshmen and found that 25% agreed that laws should prohibit homosexual relationships. Brewer (2003) reported that 54% of Americans in 1998 believed that a sexual relationship between two adults of the same sex is always wrong and 33% opposed laws protecting homosexuals against job discrimination. Brewer did indicate that these percentages were an improvement over previous years. For example, in 1992, 71% of Americans believed that same-sex relationship were always wrong and 40% opposed anti-discrimination employment laws protecting persons who are gay or lesbian (Brewer).

An extreme manifestation of negative bias toward persons who are gay is gay bashing, which is verbal harassment or physical violence directed toward persons who are, or who are perceived to be, gay (van Der Meer, 2003). Conley, Devine, Rabow, and Evett (2002), who studied gay adults, found that 38% feared that they would be verbally or physically abused if their sexual orientation became known to someone unfamiliar to them; 68% reported having been harassed by persons who have high prejudice against persons who are gay. Hate crime statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (2003) indicated that 1,479 violent crimes were committed in 2003 against persons based on actual or perceived gay sexual identity. Most (61.5%) of the crimes resulted from anti-gay male bias, and 21.2 percent resulted from anti-homosexual bias (gay and lesbian). Anti-lesbian violence occurred in 15.6 percent of the crimes. While alarming, these statistics likely do not reflect actual crimes against persons based on sexual identity because the majority of these crimes are never reported (Burroway, 2005). The persistent negative bias toward persons who are gay is mirrored in school systems (Chesir-Teran, 2003; Hunter, 1990; Peters, 2003; Rivers & D’Augelli, 2001; van Wormer, 2003). Peters found that 94% of adolescents reported hearing anti-gay statements at their schools and, when they occurred, 86% reported that school staff did little or nothing to intervene. These findings mirrored those of a previous study which found that over 80% of adolescents had witnessed anti-gay comments in their schools (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, 2001).

Carragher and Rivers (2002), in a retrospective study, found that 76% of gay men experienced verbal abuse during middle school and high school, 28% experienced theft or property damage, 24% experienced physical violence, and 5% experienced sexual assault. Many gay students may cope with the hostility they face by becoming involved in alcohol abuse, illicit drug abuse, risky sexual behaviors, or all three (Sullivan, 2003). The psychological distress resulting from in-school victimization is damaging to self-esteem and healthy sexual identity development and, in extreme cases, may lead these students to attempt or complete suicide (Chesir-Teran, 2003; Remafedi, 1999; Telljohann & Price, 1993).

Counseling persons who have are gay has a substantial history in the counseling literature. The literature is replete with examples of ways in which counselors, including school counselors, can learn more about sexual identity and the formation of a positive gay identity (see Dillion et al., 2004; Fontaine, 1998; Ford & Priest, 2004; Glenn & Russell, 1986; Marinoble, 1998; Perez, DeBord, & Bieschke, 2000; Rudolph, 1988; Stone, 2003).

Furthermore, evidence of school counseling’s commitment toward diversity and respect for gay identities can be found in the American School Counselor Association’s position statement on sexual orientation (ASCA, 2000) which states that professional school counselors are committed to equal opportunity and respect for persons regardless of sexual orientation. Much of the literature addressing counselors’ work with counselees who are gay assumes that counselors are not heterosexually biased and are comfortable creating safe places for persons who are gay. Many emphasize the role of school counselors in facilitating environmental and attitudinal changes to promote the mental health of students who are gay while failing to recognize that, often, school counselors may have little experience with or training about working with these students. The intent of this manuscript is to provide school counselors with information about how to better respond to gay students who turn to them for help with sexual identity issues.

Responding to Students

Scenario One
The following scenario takes place in a school counselor’s office:

Male Student (age 17): I think that I might be gay.
Counselor: What makes you think that?
Male Student: Well, most of my friends have girlfriends and I don’t.
Counselor: Well that doesn’t mean you are gay. You might just not be ready to date.
Male Student: No, it is more than that. I don’t really want to date girls. I am more interested in boys. I know it sounds weird. I am just really confused, scared, and not sure what to do.
Counselor: I understand that, but you need to know that if you choose this lifestyle there are going to be some difficult times ahead for you.
Male Student: What do you mean?
Counselor: Well, that lifestyle is really hard for most people to accept. Have you shared this with anyone else?
Male Student: No.
Counselor: I can’t help you. You probably need to speak with your parents about this matter or your minister.
(Other possible response of counselor)
Counselor: Being gay is not acceptable behavior. You need to stop worrying about it and everything will work itself out.
Or Counselor: This is probably just a phase that you are going through. It will pass.

The above is a scenario in which a student discloses to the school counselor his struggle with sexuality only to be redirected to another individual or given a value- or moral-based response. This counselor ignored the frustration and fear the student was experiencing and, instead, placed more focus on how others would react. The counselor seemed unprepared or too uncomfortable to deal with the situation and quickly referred the student to his parents or minister.

Scenario Two
The following scenario provides a different response from the counselor in trying to meet the needs of the struggling student:

Male Student (age 17): I think that I might be gay.
Counselor: How long have you been feeling this way?
Male Student: I’m not sure, maybe a couple of years, maybe longer.
Counselor: It sounds like you have been struggling with these feelings for quite some time. Is being gay something that would be difficult or hard for you to deal with?
Male Student: Gosh yes! It would be a nightmare! I am really confused and upset because I don’t want to be gay.
Counselor: The idea of being gay is very frightening to you. What kinds of things about being gay frighten you?
Male Student: That my parents would kill me or kick me out of the house. My friends would probably stop talking to me, especially the ones at my church. They all talk so much about how wrong and sinful it is. Plus, I see how other kids who are gay get treated. I am really scared. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything to you.
Counselor: I can see how upset and scared you are, even about talking to me, and am glad that you came to see me. My office is a safe place for you to talk and the things you share with me will remain confidential.
Male Student: Thanks.
Counselor: I also want to say that I am proud of you for talking about this with me. I think you are very brave. Tell me more about why you think you may be gay.
Male Student: Many of my male friends have girlfriends and they are always talking about girls and sex. I feel like I can’t relate to them when that topic comes up.
Counselor: You feel left out and different from your friends. Have you ever had a girlfriend?
Male Student: No, I am really not interested in girls. At least the way they talk about them.
Counselor: Are you more interested in boys?
Male Student: Well, I guess, sort of. I just can’t imagine having a boyfriend though. It just seems wrong. What do you think?
Counselor: Well, some people believe that homosexuality is wrong and is a choice. Others believe that you are born that way and it is a part of who you are. What is important to me is what you believe.
Male Student: I don’t know what to believe?
Counselor: I am available and more than happy to help you sort out what you believe. I can also provide you with some resources that might help.
Male student: Thanks.

In this scenario, the counselor listened and displayed empathy without giving a value-based response and without immediately referring the student. The counselor also praised the student for coming forth to talk about his struggle and assured the student that the counselor’s office was a safe place.


When working with students who are gay, school counselors must understand that disclosing this personal struggle with another individual is a major step. These students have most likely been internalizing frustrations and doubts about their sexual identity for quite a period of time before reaching the point of acknowledging or disclosing it to someone. Depending on the age of the student, he or she may have been struggling with this issue for many years. The role of the counselor is to respond or facilitate the student’s growth in a number of ways, including (a) active listening, (b) displaying genuine support and caring, (c) allowing the student to tell his or her story, (d) asking appropriate probing questions, (e) helping the student process feelings about sexuality, (f) protecting the student, and (g) evaluating for clinical symptoms. Other roles include (a) exploring fears about coming out, (b) helping the student to discover and connect with positive resources, and (c) continuing to be supportive throughout the process of self exploration. At the very onset of the initial counseling session, the student needs to be affirmed, encouraged, and empowered for coming forth to address and share his or her struggle with the counselor. Sexual identity is a difficult and sensitive issue, and dealing with being gay requires courage and strength. In many situations, students who are struggling with sexual identity are turned away by friends, ministers, parents, or other helping professionals. If they are not turned away, then they are instead given clichéd responses such as “This is simply a phase,” “Everyone questions their sexuality at some time in their life,” or “You will be fine.” Some may even be told they are sinful or immoral.

When students find a counselor who doesn’t react with shock or make any of the above judging statements, a huge weight is lifted from their shoulders. Providing a safe and nonjudgmental environment for students struggling with sexual identity is crucial to helping them process their feelings, as well as ensuring that they will return to see the counselor in the future. Basic counseling skills such as listening, genuineness, caring, and understanding are important in letting these students know that they are being heard and will be supported.

Allowing students to tell their story is the next step in counseling with them. Students should be encouraged to express their feelings and thoughts regarding their sexual identity, such as their attraction to members of the same sex and any experiences they have had which have led them to conclude that they are not heterosexual. Appropriate probing questions which can assist in gathering or processing this information include the following: What events have led you to believe that you may be gay? How long can you remember feeling this way? With whom have you shared these feelings? Have you told your parents and what was their response? What are some of your fears about being gay? Some students may need assistance in verbalizing their own ideas of sexual identity, relations with peers, and feelings about emotional and sexual attractions to others. These probing questions will assist the counselor to explore some of the fears or concerns these students may have.

Gay students also struggle with behaviors that could give them away or out them as being gay. This struggle is commonly based on fears of rejection by their peers and, in some cases, fears of torment or abuse from other students. Quite often, fears of coming out to others is a primary concern. The term coming out refers to informing friends, family, and others of their sexual identity. These students should not be pushed to come out to anyone until they have fully explored their own feelings and have reached a point where they are comfortable sharing with others where they are in their life in accepting their sexuality. Coming out too early can cause other unnecessary stressors in the student’s life.

In relation to fears of coming out, it is the counselor’s responsibility to show zero tolerance for any verbal or physical abuse from other students in the school, regardless of the basis for their torment. This stance will show the student that the counselor will take all measures to protect and provide a safe environment for all students regardless of their sexual identity. Bullying, name calling, putdowns, or any other forms of verbal or physical abuse are not acceptable in any school.

A number of clinical symptoms are associated with adolescents who are struggling with their sexual identity. Evaluation of the student should consider symptoms of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideations, and drug or alcohol use. If these symptoms are present, they need to be addressed immediately. In some cases, an appropriate referral may need to be made. It is the counselor’s responsibility to become familiar with positive resources that are available to gay youth. Numerous on-line resources specialize in assisting students in their struggle with sexual identity (see Table 1). Some of the topics addressed include self-esteem, coming out to friends and to parents, and dealing with nontolerant behaviors and violence. Links and hotline numbers for support systems are available not only for the gay or lesbian student, but also for parents and friends who are having a difficult time accepting and dealing with this issue. Encourage the student to explore these options, identifying the ones that will serve as a best fit for the student’s perspective, background, and needs. Some students may be struggling with religious values and ideas. Many positive resources address sexual identity from a religious perspective. Encourage the student to seek out as many of these supportive resources as possible.

Finally, the counselor must protect the student from any form of discrimination in the school from other students, teachers, or administrators. Some states and school systems have specific laws and policies on handling discrimination based on sexual orientation. Furthermore, the American School Counselors Association’s position statement on sexual orientation is clear in its mandate to respect for and equal treatment of individuals regardless of sexual orientation. Ethical practice requires that this mandate be followed when serving students who are not heterosexual.

Summary and Conclusion

Serving students who are gay can be daunting to school counselors. Reluctance can stem from multiple sources. Some school counselors may object to homosexuality on religious or moral grounds. Others may have conflicts related to their own sexual identities. In these two circumstances, ethical practice calls for seeking knowledge or personal therapy. More often, however, the reluctance of school counselors likely stems from feeling unprepared to respond affirmatively to students who seek them out about sexual identity issues. A focus on basic facilitative skills, coupled with knowledge about gay identity development and available resources, will assist the school counselor to be a more skilled practitioner when serving these students.

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School Counselors and LGBT Advocacy


Counseling Issues with Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, & Transgender Youth: The School Counselor as Advocate for Change
Nancy Wolfe
Huntsville City Schools


Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) adolescents present a sexual minority in our schools. GLBT students have few, if any, family and social supports. Lack of outside support leaves the school to provide guidance and information to GLBT students, their parents, and possibly the community. Most importantly, school administrators, faculty, and counselors must know the unique developmental needs and challenges that GLBT students face. Likewise, their families’ concerns and needs should be addressed. The formation of GLBT groups at school, such as a Gay/Straight Alliance, can help to provide social support for GLBT students while also educating the other students in the school. This paper will explore the development of a sexual minority identity, the possible risks that GLBT students may encounter, stages of acceptance for the students’ families, and how school personnel can provide support for GLBT students.

Correspondence regarding this article should be directed to: Nancy Wolfe, 2712 Barcody Road, Huntsville, Alabama 35801. Email:


An increasing need for school faculty and administrators to address the need for support for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) students exists. These students are more at risk for truancy, dropping out, drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, sexual abuse, AIDS, and suicide (Taylor, 2000). The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN, as cited in Lamont, 2004) released a report in 2004 that summarized state laws that affect school environments and school safety for all students, particularly GLBT students. All states were given letter grades based on points in six categories: (a) existence of statewide safe schools laws; (b) statewide nondiscrimination laws; (c) support for education on sexual health and sexuality; (d) local safe schools policies; (e) general education issues; and (f) existence of laws that stigmatize GLBT people. According to the 2004 GLSEN State of the States Report, Alabama not only failed, but had their state scores reduced for laws that stigmatize GLBT people by specifically prohibiting any positive portrayal of GLBT issues or people in schools. Similarly, according to another GLSEN poll (as cited in Snorton, 2004) in 2004, 66% of students report using homophobic language, 81% report hearing homophobic language frequently or often, 48% of students know a lesbian or gay classmate, 30% have a close lesbian or gay friend, 65% of students identify their personal experiences with gay people as important influences in their attitudes about gay people, 58% said their parents factored into their attitudes, and 28% acknowledged the role of television with gay characters. Considering these statistics, it is expected that GLBT students are at greater risk for verbal and physical harassment and violence, low self-esteem, suicide, substance abuse, eating disorders, homelessness, HIV/AIDS, sexual abuse, pregnancy, declining school performance, truancy, and dropping out (Birden, 2002; Munoz-Plaza et al. 2002; Taylor, 2000).

The purpose of this article is to discuss the following issues related to counseling with GLBT youth: (a) developmental issues; (b) high risk behaviors; (c) issues with disclosing their sexual status; and (d) the role of school personnel. Due to a lack of resources for GLBT students, it is important for the school to be a place where students and parents can find accurate information and resources as well as support.

GLBT Adolescent Development

During adolescence, a primary developmental task is to separate from the family in order to become a self-sufficient adult (Crespi & Sabatelli, 1993 as cited by Johnson & Johnson, 2000). Most healthy adolescents have already successfully dealt with issues of basic trust, autonomy, initiative, and industry (Erikson, 1959 as cited by Johnson & Johnson, 2000). Adolescents deal with the physical changes of puberty, demands of peers, and increased responsibility and need to perform (Amanet & Beck, 1994 as cited by Johnson & Johnson, 2000). The process of becoming autonomous extends over several years, during which time teenagers may use maladaptive coping mechanisms to deal with inner conflicts. In order for teenagers to progress developmentally, they must balance autonomy and interdependence.

Johnson and Johnson (2000) state that for members of the dominant culture, progression through developmental stages happens almost without effort. Many ethnic, religious, and racial minority groups instill a sense of pride and give information on how to deal with difficult situations; however, for GLBT adolescents there is not a group identity to help them progress. “GLBT teens realize at an early age that their peers will not tolerate differences” (Sanelli & Perreault, 2001, p.70). GLBT teens know that the majority of Americans are not accepting of their sexual identity. Unlike other minority groups, GLBT youth do not have support at home, making them more dependent on resources at school and peers (Birden, 2002). Many GLBT adolescents come of age in communities where few gay adult role models are visible (Hughes-Hassell & Hinckley, 2001).

Stages of GLBT Identity Development

According to Harrison (2003), the stages of developing a homosexual identity are Early Awareness/Sensitization, Identity Confusion, Identity Assumption, and Identity Consolidation. The Early Awareness/Sensitization stage usually begins around age ten with feelings of being different due to beginning same-sex attractions. Identity confusion usually begins in adolescence. The GLBT teen may experience guilt, shame, and denial which can lead to maladaptive coping strategies that can then lead to high risk behaviors. “Characteristics of this stage are feeling a sense of isolation that includes: (a) feeling alone in social situations; (b) feeling the need to emotionally distance oneself from others; (c) feeling there is no one to talk to; (d) fearing that same-sex friendships may be misinterpreted; and (e) feeling hopeless about the future” (Martin & Hetrick, 1987; Ryan & Futterman, 1998 as cited in Taylor, 2000, p.222).

Maladaptive coping strategies may include trying to pass as straight, rationalizing that same-sex attractions are only a phase, avoiding situations that may confirm sexual identity, denying same-sex attractions, trying to change sexual orientation through heterosexual dating or sexual activities, and using drugs and alcohol (Johnson & Johnson, 2000). The fourth stage, Identity Assumption, occurs when the person integrates their sexual identity and begins limited disclosure. The last stage, Identity Consolidation, is the point when the GLBT person recognizes and accepts their sexual identity as well as incorporates their identity into various social aspects and increases disclosure.

High Risk Behaviors

“Studies of gay adolescents tend to note high percentages of “acting out”, represented disproportionately among adolescents who drop out of school, runaway from home, abuse alcohol and drugs, engage in prostitution, and attempt suicide” (Johnson & Johnson, 2000, p.625). GLBT adolescents may also experience depression and verbal, sexual, and other physical abuse/violence. “The origin of substance abuse in sexual minority teens may be linked with feeling marginalized by society, seeking relief for feelings of depression and isolation, or desiring alleviation of the chronic stress associated with being stigmatized both interpersonally and intrapersonally” (Jordan, 2000, p.201). Substance abuse can lead to other problems such as problems at home and school, placing adolescents in dangerous situations, legal troubles, or interpersonal problems. Another factor that contributes to high risk behaviors is the lack of age-appropriate social outlets for GLBT students, so their culture is often pushed underground and is not adequately supervised. Jordan (2000) notes that these underground activities can also lead to more high risk behaviors such as drug and alcohol use, promiscuity, and abuse.

Issues Related to Disclosure

Harrison (2003) discusses the fear adolescents may have about disclosing to friends and family. Disclosure is the process of the adolescent telling other people about their lifestyle preferences. Adolescents may avoid disclosure due to legal, economic, family constraints, and lack of social support. The fear of rejection and abuse can be another reason that adolescents choose not to disclose. The initial disclosure to the family is often received negatively and may produce long-term negative effects. Because many adolescents realize the possibility of being rejected by their families, they choose to keep their sexuality a secret which can limit the possibility of family social support and lead to more internal conflict. (D’Augelli & Hershberger, 1998, as cited in Harrison, 2003).

Stages of Family Reactions to Disclosure

Harrison (2003) provides an outline of the Stages of Family Reactions to Disclosure based on Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ Stages of Grief (1969, 1997). The first stage listed is the denial of homosexuality. During this stage, the parents may feel fear, guilt, denial, and may choose may choose to ignore the issue. Parents may pressure the teen to keep their sexual identity a secret. At this stage, the parents may think that the child is experimenting. The second stage is anger at oneself and others. At this time, the family blames others or themselves for the homosexuality. The family may threaten or abuse the adolescent. The family may try to coerce the adolescent to change their sexuality back to a heterosexual identity. There is often hostility towards the adolescent. The family may be angry at society for not accepting them as a “normal” family. The third stage is bargaining with God and the adolescent. Bargaining may include asking God to convert the adolescent, asking the adolescent to continue to keep it a secret or renounce their sexual identity, and asking the adolescent not to tell other family members in order to stay in the family. The fourth stage is depression in which the family feels guilt and shame. The family may not be able to see beyond their own needs. The family mourns the loss of their heterosexual family member as well as the possibility of being a grandparent, aunt, or uncle. The final stage is acceptance of adolescent’s homosexuality. During this final stage, the family learns to cope and integrate the child’s sexual identity into the family identity.

The Role of School Personnel

School personnel, faculty, administrators, counselors, and nurses are in positions to provide support and resources to GLBT students. Unfortunately, according to a study by Munoz- Plaza, Quinn, & Rounds (2002), “negative messages and a lack of information in the school climate about homosexuality contributed to the internal conflict many participants experienced as a result of their homosexual or bisexual feelings”(p. 62). A study conducted by Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) done in 2004, indicated that: (a) 95% of school counseling services had little or no gay, lesbian, or bisexual resources; (b) 99% of school counseling services had little or no transgender resources; (c) 70% of schools had no training for staff on how to stop GLBT bullying; (d) 92% of schools had no training for students on how to stop GLBT bullying; (e) 84% of school counseling offices had little or no resources for parents about GLBT issues; (f) 59% of schools did not include gay, lesbian, or bisexual students in their harassment/non-discrimination policies; and (g) 75% of schools did not include gender identity/expression in their harassment/non-discrimination policies. Most program changes that have taken place in schools have happened in large urban areas concentrated on the two coasts. Schools can begin to aid the prevention of risk-taking behaviors by GLBT teens two ways. First, “increasing the visibility of sexual minority youth can alter the sociopolitical climate of the school, neighborhood, or community, and increase acceptance of these youth” (Shifrin & Solis, 1992, as cited by Jordan, 2000, p. 204). Second, handing out substance abuse information can also be a preventative measure.


Taylor (2000) made several suggestions for how teachers can be proactive in addressing the needs of GLBT students. Teachers may educate themselves about homophobia and GLBT issues and history by reading books, journals, and periodicals. Integrating information about GLBT people who have made significant contributions to society into their lessons can provide some role models to GLBT youth as well as helping to make them more accepted. Teachers should also use language that is inclusive and show zero tolerance for name-calling, harassment, and the use of homonegative phrases. Bibliotherapy can also be a great tool to use with GLBT teens in order for them to see their concerns reflected in school settings (Norton, 2004).


Sanelli and Perrault (2001) listed many ways that principals play an important part in instituting reforms at schools through their support or nonsupport of programs. Primarily, the principals can support the extension of teaching tolerance and respect for culturally different people to include sexual minorities. Gay parents should be welcomed into the school and be encouraged to participate in activities that support the school, such as PTA. Principals can also support policy changes at the state level to incorporate the topic of sexual orientation into the courses. The principal should be an advocate for all cultures in the school so that “the entire student body can accept the enormous and valuable diversity among them” (Sanelli & Perrault, 2001, p73).

GLBT Clubs

Jordan (2000) states that a current trend is the presence of GLBT groups or clubs in high schools. The groups offer age-appropriate social activities that are supervised by a faculty member or administrator. These groups can also become discussion groups for issues that affect GLBT students. A study by Lee (2002) investigated the impact of belonging to a high school Gay/Straight Alliance. The results supported previous research in the area and indicated that membership in an alliance “positively impacts academic performance, school/social/family relationships, comfort level with sexual orientation, development of strategies to handle assumptions of heterosexuality, sense of physical safety, increased perceived ability to contribute to society, and an enhanced sense of belonging to a school community” (p.13). Alliances are equally important in providing education to straight students.

Suggestions for School Personnel

Harrison (2003) stated that in order to provide effective support, school professionals (i.e. school counselors, teachers, and administrators) must function as an interdisciplinary team for GLBT students. Professional should be careful about providing accurate and sensitive information to students and parents. The importance of this is to ensure that inaccurate information cannot further harm an already stressful situation for the student and family. School professionals need to remain non-judgmental and keep information that is shared confidential. If the student is in physical danger or is being continuously harassed, it will be necessary to involve administrators and other professionals to ensure the child’s safety at school. As part of the team effort, the role of the school counselor is to provide have a list of community resources that help adolescents and their families. Counselors may need to provide information on sexual issues such as STD’s, pregnancy prevention, and health screenings to students and parents. School counselors need to help with problem-solving skills to cope with stigma, how they will relate as a family, and how or when to disclose to others. Successful interventions with GLBT teens who have substance abuse problems begins with a thorough assessment by a counselor which should include questioning about factors unique to GLBT students such as: (a) reaction of others to their disclosure; (b) their same-sex relationship history; (c) their support network; (d) difficulties with their social life; (e) legal problems; and (f) school difficulties (Faltz, 1992 as cited in Jordan, 2000). “School counselors can work with teachers, administrators, students, families, and communities to ensure that gender identity expression is handled with dignity, respect, and intellectual clarity in the curriculum and through inclusive policies, procedures, and forms at all levels of the school community” (Chen-Hayes, 2001, p. 40).

There are many issues for professionals who work with GLBT students. Professionals must be aware of their own beliefs, values, and biases and how those can influence their work GLBT adolescents. Van Wormer (2003) suggests that any adults who work with adolescents should consider their thoughts and feelings about the following issues: (a) working with GLBT people; (b) seeing GLBT people being affectionate with one another; (c) GLBT people and issues of morality; (d) teachers whoare openly GLBT; (e) GLBT people as parents,  adoptive parents, or foster parents, working with 13 and 14-year-olds who self-identify as GLBT or  are questioning their sexuality; and (f) working with bullies who persecute GLBT people. Working with GLBT students presents many challenges to the school counselor. A central task for the school counselor should be to help the community to broaden their ideas about the ways in which the needs of this group need to be addressed. Issues of harassment, ignorance, and prejudice can be addressed with the help of the school. Parents and students need a safe place that they can go in order to receive accurate information and help. School should be a haven for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, or sexual identity.

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