• Behind the Curtains

Practicing Prejudice

Practicing Prejudice

by Michael Pontello

I believe I have started this post at least 5 times, and I am still struggling on where to begin. I just remind myself, "Hey, this is 2020, would you expect anything less?" Last week I was sucker punched by this article, New rule lets Texas social workers turn away clients who are LGBTQ or have a disability. Basically the Texas State Board of Social Work Examiners voted to allow social workers to turn away clients based on a disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. This was done in part because the board's code of conduct provided more protections than the state legislature. This creates a slew of issues that many people in the mental health community see eventually affecting similar rules for LMFTs and LPCs.

As someone who is a marriage and family therapist and also happens to be a trans woman, I am feeling gutted and worried about how this will impact clients and those who are tentatively wanting to receive mental health services and support.

Let's take a trip to the past for a moment. It was the late '90s. I was a teen figuring out my life and realizing that who I was as a person, was a problem for a lot of people. I had begun a social transition in high school, I wore clothes that I felt comfortable in. Clothing that was similar to that of my female friends. I was in control of how I wanted to look and express myself, what my sense of personal gender was. I was unaware what it all meant and I was far from making decisions that would create physical changes to my body, but I knew I was different. Everyone knew I was different.

Some people celebrated that difference. Others thought I was a freak, something that was twisting and offending nature. Girls would laugh, "Oh Michael is so confused, you're not a girl, you'll never be a girl. You're sick!" And the boys, well, when they weren't yelling slurs at me in the halls, they were sneering, "Don't get too close, or that he-she-it will try to kiss you, or worse." My mental health was called into question by many.

My parents grew concerned. They knew something was different about me, so their interventions were for me to first see a priest and then to see a therapist. At this time in my life, I was under the impression that people in the mental health field had immense power. Power to decide if I was "normal" or "abnormal." Power to decide if I should be treated with decency and respect or someone that should be abhorred and dealt with accordingly.

I was petrified when I had to meet both the priest and eventually the therapist. The priest was straight forward, "Pray, and say these Hail Mary prayers ten times and just try really hard to change any thoughts that might be unnatural." I mean, girl, that was a waste. But the therapist, that was something different. That therapist, and they could have very well been a social worker, LPC, or LMFT, I did not know those distinctions at the time, but that was a different experience.

That therapist was my introduction to mental health. I did not know my therapist's personal views or beliefs about LGBTQ issues, but what I did know was that the therapist was kind. The therapist wanted to get to know me and ask questions that opened a space for me to share my perspective. It was nothing that I had been expecting. My parents were not expecting that either and quickly ended therapy and decided to have a wish and a prayer that everything I was going through would just be a phase. (Spoiler alert, none of it was a phase. Thankfully my parents would come to embrace me for who I was.)

Eventually I would go about a physical transition and I would enter into therapy as an adult. That therapist would be very open and honest. I was the first transgender person she had ever met and she was more than ready to work with me, and not just from the perspective of her code of ethics, but also because she firmly had a belief that it was important to work with all kinds of clients. We were going to go through this process together and it would be life changing.

When it came time for me to interview for my marriage and family therapy program, I was incredibly nervous. Would they accept a transgender woman as a candidate? Or would I be turned away because of who I was? I am fortunate that the program saw something in me and that my being transgender would not be a deterrent.

I learned so much in that program. Mostly the importance it was to be a member of the mental health community. How we have a special position in society to help people, especially people who are marginalized. And if we were not going to work with a client, it had better be something we thought long and hard about because ultimately our job was to help people and not turn them away.

This is what hurts so much about this recent rule. It hurts that a rule for social workers was passed to turn away services to someone with a disability or who is a part of the LGBTQ community. Mental health services are highly important for vulnerable communities in society. There have been at least 33 transgender people murdered in 2020, most have been trans women of color. For many in the transgender community, access to mental health services, support, and resources can be life changing.

And I've heard the arguments. I know some people say, "Well this will be good because it will allow us to know who has a prejudice, that way we can avoid those practicing that sort of prejudice." For some, there is no way to avoid those who practice prejudice. I think back to when I was a teen, I did not have an option to say, "Screw this close minded school, I am just gonna pack up and go to a more open minded school!" I did not have the resources to be around people who were going to help me or show me just a bit of kindness and support.

There are many people who do not have the access to open minded mental health professionals, whatever that should mean. What about those who are in rural towns or those who live in a big city but can't get to the side of town where they would be able to receive help? When does this madness stop? This recent rule is how groups of people develop mistrust in mental health professionals.

When I became more acquainted with HGI I remember reading and hearing stories about how Harlene Anderson, Harry Goolishian, and George Pulliam would work with transgender women at UTMB. This was some time in the '70s and '80s. Their philosophy helped these women be treated with grace and dignity. They were respected. They were heard. They were able to tell their story and be the experts on who they were. I remember crying on my way home thinking, "My goodness I have found a place that will be my professional home." I knew I was right where I needed to be as a new therapist.

I came about at a time where if I had a bias in my work, it was up to me to learn more about how I could become a better therapist so that I would not be doing harm to my client. I believe in striving to grow and no matter what might make me uncomfortable, that is not going to stop me from wanting to help people. That is why most of us become social workers, therapists, and counselors. We want to help people. I have to believe in my heart that others feel this way too.

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