As the first school officials to whom students may turn for information on issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, school counselors have a special role in providing support to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth. We heard from several students who credited their school counselors with providing them with guidance and support at critical points in their lives.
"Unlike their heterosexual peers, lesbian and gay adolescents are the only social minority who must learn to manage a stigmatized identity without active support and modeling from parents and family," Caitlin Ryan and DonnaFutterman note.32 School counselors are well-positioned to help youth who are coping with social stigma, feelings of isolation, and the effects of harassment.
But many more youth spoke to us about negative experiences with school counselors. "A lot try to be very understanding, but most have kids of their own and when you tell them they freak out," Dahlia P. observed. "They don't want their own kids exposed to gay people."37 When Dempsey H. went to talk to one of his school counselors about the issues he faced as a gay youth, he reported, "She told me she was biased and could no longer speak to me on this topic."38 Philip G. recounted that when he asked teachers at his school to make donations so that students could attend a youth lobby day in Sacramento, a guidance counselorreplied, "I'm not going to donate to that. Is it for that gay thing?"39 In fact, a 1992 study of school counselors found that two out of three of those surveyed had negative attitudes about gay and lesbian youth.40
In particular, youth expressed concerns about the training their counselors received on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues. Erin B. remarked of her school's counselors, "They seem to be nice, but a lot aren't educated on gay issues. Once I went in to get advice about a friend of mine who was taking pills. Everything turned into about me being gay. I got no advice about my friend. That made me mad."41
Here if you ask for a counselor, they'll send in a student who's got some counselor training. Some of the student counselors have issues of their own. They'd say things to other students. What you tell them would leak out. When I went to talk with the student counselor, she didn't say much. She just shrugged her shoulders and acted supportive. Finally I asked if I could call in a friend of mine to talk to instead. I asked to see the school psychologist. I never got an appointment. I was not helped out at all.43
"I've heard about kids getting harassed for being gay," a second counselor told us. "This came to the attention of another counselor. The student washarassed because he was effeminate. In fact, the counselor thought he was a girl at first. The counselor didn't deal with the issue in the best way. She changed his schedule after talking with the other students, when the abuse continued. To me, that's punishing the kid."44
"Confidentiality is critical in clinical work with sexual minority youth and their parents and families," write Michael W. Bahr, Barbara Brish, and James M. Croteau, noting that "confidentiality has a seminal role in assisting these individuals in accessing support through counseling relationships with school staff or an eventual referral to a community resource."58
As Caitlin Ryan and Donna Futterman note, "Virtually every health profession is bound by a code of ethics that mandates client confidentiality, which is also governed by state medical records laws, federal funding statutes, and the right to privacy."59
We heard a number of instances in which counselors not only failed to discuss confidentiality with students but also disclosed their sexual orientation to their parents. Gail Goodman spoke to us about one case:
I took a call from one sixteen-year-old who came out to his counselor. The only other person he'd told was his friend in California. The counselor said, "I can't help you with that." After he left, the counselor called his mother to make sure she knew. The youth went home that night not knowing that he'd been outed to his parents. Sitting around the dinner table, his mother said to him, "I got a call from the school counselor today. We're not going to have any gay kids in this family." His father took him outside and beat him up.
People at the school found out and started harassing him. He became suicidal. Ultimately he was able to move in with a family in [a different city] and finish school there.
Goodman notes, "School counseling is my background. As a mental health professional, you have a duty to your client. You don't out a kid no matter what the school policy says."67
"Confidentiality needs to be heavily touched on for those working with trans youth. I've known people who were outed by counselors or teachers, those who they go to for support. They've been outed to the rest of the school community," another counselor told us. "It means that gender issues become the defining factor of who they are among their peers in school. Suddenly they're walking around and everybody knows them as `oh, that transsexual person.'"68
Providers should be aware that the decision to disclose one's lesbian or gay identity, particularly to parents, may have long-term consequences. Most adolescents are dependent on parents for financial and emotional support. Although coming out can reduce stress and increase communication and intimacy in relationships, disclosure during adolescence may result in abandonment, rejection, or violence when parents abruptly learn or discover that their child is lesbian or gay.70
In addition, such actions violate the youth's basic right to privacy. "It's not like you can tell one person and have them keep it a secret," Dahlia P. notes. "I told a few and then everybody found out."71
Confidentiality is particularly important for youth who are survivors of assault, including sexual abuse and hate crimes. "Family and peer support are important resources for recovering from trauma; in many cases, an adolescent victim may not have `come out' previously to parents or peers," caution Caitlin Ryan and Donna Futterman. "Parents may react to the assault with anger and `blame the victim' if the adolescent's sexual orientation is initially disclosed as a result of the incident."72
32 Caitlin Ryan and Donna Futterman, "Lesbian and Gay Youth: Care and Counseling," Adolescent Medicine: State of the Art Reviews, vol. 8 (1997), p. 213. See also Michael Radkowsky and Lawrence J. Siegel, "The Gay Adolescent: Stressors, Adaptations, and Psychosocial Interventions," Clinical Psychology Review, vol. 17 (1997), p. 191.
33 Human Rights Watch interview, Orange County, California, October 21, 1999.
34 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.
35 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.
36 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.
37 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.
38 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 21, 2000.
39 Human Rights Watch interview, Los Angeles, California, October 20, 1999.
40 See J.T. Sears, "Educators, Homosexuality, and Homosexual Students: Are Personal Feelings Related to Professional Beliefs?," Journal of Homosexuality, vols. 3/4 (1992), p. 29.
41 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, March 2, 2000.
42 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 14, 1999.
43 Human Rights Watch interview, Los Angeles County, California, October 21, 1999.
44 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 14, 1999.
45 See Sears, "Educators, Homosexuality, and Homosexual Students," p. 29.
46 The American School Counselor Association defines the school counselor's role as including the development of "comprehensive school counseling programs that promote and enhance student learning," noting that school counselors "are specialists in human behavior and relationships who provide assistance to students" by, among other means, meeting with students "individually and in small groups to help them resolve and cope constructively with their problems and developmental concerns." American School Counselor Association, "The Role of the Professional School Counselor," June 1999, www.schoolcounselor.org/ role.htm (accessed on November 30, 2000).
47 American School Health Association, "Gay and Lesbian Youth in School," 1997, in Compendium of Resolutions (Kent, Ohio: American School Health Association, August 1998), www.ashaweb.org/resolutions1.html (accessed on June 12, 2000).
48 Amy L. Reynolds and Michael J. Koski, "Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Teens and the School Counselor: Building Alliances," The High School Journal, vol. 77 (1993-94), p. 90.
49 See also American Psychological Association, Guidelines for Psychotherapy with Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Clients, Guideline 11, www.apa.org/pi/lgbc/publications/guidelines (accessed on January 23, 2001).
50 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 21, 2000.
51 Human Rights Watch interview, San Francisco, California, January 27, 2000.
52 Human Rights Watch interview, San Francisco, California, January 28, 2000.
53 Human Rights Watch interview, Los Angeles, California, October 18, 1999.
54 Human Rights Watch interview, Bergen County, New Jersey, October 31, 1999.
55 Human Rights Watch interview, Los Angeles, California, October 18, 1999.
56 Human Rights Watch interview, San Francisco, California, January 27, 2000.
57 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 21, 2000.
58 Michael W. Bahr, Barbara Brish, and James M. Croteau, "Addressing Sexual Orientation and Professional Ethics in the Training of School Psychologists in School and University Settings," School Psychology Review, vol. 29 (2000), p. 222.
59 Ryan and Futterman, "Lesbian and Gay Youth," p. 240.
60 American School Counselor, "Position Statement: The Professional School Counselor and Confidentiality," 1999, www.schoolcounselor.org/ethics/index.htm (accessed on December 14, 2000). See also American School Counselor Association, Ethical Standards for School Counselors, June 25, 1998, www.schoolcounselor.org/ethics/standards.htm (accessed on November 30, 2000).
61 See American Counseling Association Code of Ethics, section B, www.counseling.org/resources/codeofethics.htm (accessed on November 30, 2000); American Counseling Association Standards of Practice, section B, www.counseling.org/resources/codeofethics.htm (accessed on November 30, 2000); National Board for Certified Counselors Code of Ethics, October 31, 1997, sections B.4-B.8, www.nbcc.org/ethics/nbcc-code.htm (accessed on November 30, 2000).
62 See National Association of Social Workers, Standards for the Practice of Social Work with Adolescents, April 1993, Standard 9, www.naswdc.org/practice/standards/adolescents.htm (accessed on November 16, 2000). See also Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers, 1999, Ethical Standard 1.07(c), www.naswdc.org/Code/ethics.htm (accessed on November 16, 2000).
63 National Education Association, Code of Ethics of the Education Profession, 1975, Principle I-8, www.nea.org/aboutnea/code.html (accessed on June 12, 2000).
64 National Education Association, "Teaching and Counseling Gay and Lesbian Students," Human and Civil Rights Action Sheet (Washington, D.C.: NEA, 1994).
65 See T.L. Cheng et al., "Confidentiality in Health Care: A Survey of Knowledge, Perceptions, and Attitudes Among High School Students," Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 269 (1993), p. 1404.
66 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 14, 1999.
67 Human Rights Watch interview with Gail Goodman, executive director, Out Youth, Austin, Texas, March 14, 2000.
68 Human Rights Watch interview, San Francisco, California, January 28, 2000.
69 American Academy of Pediatrics, Statement on Homosexuality and Adolescence (1993), in Ryan and Futterman, "Lesbian and Gay Youth," p. 368.
70 Ryan and Futterman, "Lesbian and Gay Youth," p. 220.
71 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.
72 Ryan and Futterman, "Lesbian and Gay Youth," p. 249.