Transgressing Boundaries and the Intersection of Sexualities in Social Work

The Sexuality and Social Work Interest Group invite colleagues to attend an international conference – Transgressing Boundaries and the Intersection of Sexualities in Social Work. The Conference takes place on 18 and 19 August 2016 at University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland FHNW, in Olten, Switzerland, and it seeks to explore sexuality within social work education, research and practice.

This two-day conference will feature keynote presentations from Dr. Nick Mulé (York University, Canada); Professor Peter Aggleton (University of New South Wales, Australia/UCL Institute of Education UK);  Dr. Tracey Sagar and Deb Jones (University of Swansea, UK) and Michael Häusermann (Dialogay, Geneva, Switzerland).

The theme over the two days will explore the intersectionalities of sexuality with the complexities of contemporary society, specifically in relation to social work research, education and practice. The aim of this conference is to explore the boundaries of these complexities by linking the intersectionalities of sexuality with social work practice, research and education. It seeks to explore those issues and topics within sexualities that are of interest to social work academics, students, practitioners and service users.

Sexual and Gender Diversity - North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit
Sexual and Gender Diversity – North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit

The sub themes of the conference are:

  • Migration and asylum
  • Trans* issues
  • Sex work
  • Religion and sexuality
  • Specific client/service user groups
  • Education, pedagogy and research
  • Polyamorous relationships
  • LGBT Inequalities

The social work profession has both a troubled and troubling history and role in contemporary societies. Multiple complexities and the intersectionality of these complexities can be seen in issues such as austerity and modern capitalism, neoliberalism, human rights, immigration, role of social workers, and the education and teaching of these complexities.

What has been less considered is the intersectionalities of sexuality with the complexities of contemporary society. The aim of this conference is to explore the transgressing of the boundaries of these complexities by linking the intersectionalities of sexuality. It seeks to explore those issues and topics within sexualities that are of interest to social work academics, students, practitioners and service users.

The Sexuality and Social Work Interest Group is an international network of academics, students, practitioners and service users that seeks to develop knowledge and practice innovations in the field of sexuality studies and social work. It seeks to encourage connections between members and interested organisations to enable further research and practice developments.

For further information, please go to the conference website.

Media Contact:

Monika Amann
Tel.: +41 62 957 20 13

Why LGB rights are a Crucial Part of Feminist Values


Identifying as non-straight, and identifying as a woman: they’re important political, personal and professional issues to think about. And, of course, we need to fight for the rights of both women and LGB (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual) individuals. But are they different things?

I’m going to argue that LGB issues and feminism are not only similar, but heavily overlapping. I’m also going to argue that to be effective feminists we should actively be involved in the issues of the LGB community rather than seeing it as something niche, or something separate. Whilst some of this article overlaps with problems faced by the trans* community, the focus here is exclusively on sexuality.

Firstly, gay men are often stereotyped as being weak, flouncy, verbal, and being a sexual threat to straight men. Men as a sexual threat has long been part of feminist rhetoric. Gay men are also imagined to wear bright colours, take care of their appearance, and enjoy dancing, glitter and musicals – all typically feminine traits. This is gender stereotyping (a feminist issue). Additionally, such femininity is considered a ‘step down’ because femininity is inferior to masculinity (a feminist issue).

The gay community also has noted problems with misogyny, which is a clear feminist issue. This can include: disgust at the concept of vaginas (which may be considered a trans* and woman’s issue), misogynoir (misogyny directed at black women), and dismissive references to female hormones. Rapper Azealia Banks also calls out misogynoir from gay men  – whilst such problems have also been placed as part of general society and the need for feminism more widely.

Lesbian women, contrary to gay men, are stereotyped for having short hair, being butch (or tricking straight men for not being butch enough), dressing in a masculine style, and being fat and hairy (relating to not being “feminine”, therefore not being attractive) and hating men. These are all feminist issues.

Another feminist issue is that lesbians are often left out of conversations about being “gay”, politically and otherwise. Marriage equality is often called gay marriage, for example, which erases women and non-binary sexualities although not everyone agrees with this distinction. Lesbians are often over-sexualised, which is a feminist issue. The relative societal status of a relationship that doesn’t include a man – having lower household income because both potential wage-earners are women – is also a feminist issue.

There are other links to heteronormativity and feminism, such as people asking gay men “which of you is the woman” and lesbian women “which of you is the man”. Feminism actively tries to counter prescribed gender roles of this fashion.

Bisexual individuals (including pansexuality and other non-binary labels) often face discrimination and distrust. Bisexual men are often considered partway to “coming out” as gay (because if you’re attracted to both men and women, why would you step down into a female role by getting into a relationship with a man?). Bisexual women can be framed as keen on threesomes, and portrayed as desiring to please men with their same-sex interactions. The social policing of sexuality is a feminist issue. Feminism combats sexuality policing because it’s nobody else’s business what consenting adults get up to. Additionally, bisexuality is often called a “phase”.

Someone being told their sexuality is a “phase” is a feminist issue. This also includes people who define as asexual, as such individuals often lose ownership of their own sexuality.

Going feminism-first, the sexuality of feminists is often called into question. This is homophobic in of itself (to be feminist woman, you hate men, and to hate men, you must be a lesbian). Some of the arguments levelled at lesbians are the same as those levelled at female feminists: you must have been abused in the past, you need to find a good man, what’s wrong with men and why do you hate them so much?

Feminist men are often accused of just wanting to “get laid” (gender stereotyping) or are assumed to be  “white knights” (a clear feminist issue). Occasionally, feminist men may be considered “whipped” (a strange term, which on the surface seems to mean gender power role-reversal). The latter point links into toxic concepts of masculinity and gender norms (the idea that treating women as equals creates a power imbalance). These are bread-and-butter ideas for feminists.

In conclusion, due to societal norms, gender and sexual orientation are often treated like similar things. This means that LGB issues are feminist issues. They stem from gender norms and expectations, gender roles (and what happens when you violate these), and permissible expression of sexuality. People’s sexual orientation is couched in a world that privileges men – particularly prescribed stereotypes of masculinity that include power, control, hyper-libidinous behaviour and aggression.

If we are to be effective in supporting people across the gender spectrum, and support people in a feminist way, we had better start caring about LGB issues. This isn’t about waving the intersectionality flag for show, and catering to “niche” groups who happen to fall into the feminism of the (predominantly white) middle class. When it comes to LGB discrimination gender, sex and sexuality overlap so much that to care about feminism is to care about LGB rights.

The Sport of Coming Out


Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe is the latest in a long line of sports “stars” to come out as gay in an interview with celebrity interviewer Sir Michael Parkinson. It seems to be a sport in itself these days: to play professional sport and reveal that you’re gay. Perhaps a better sport might be to place bets on who will be next. David Beckham? Too good to be true.

But the real question — or the bigger conversation we’re not having — is about the “casual homophobia”, as Kath and Kimactor and out lesbian comedian Magda Szubanski puts it, in sport that stops people like Thorpe coming out — or never having to “go in” in the first place. In the Parkinson interview, he said keeping his sexuality secret was good for his career. He didn’t know if Australia wanted its champian to be gay. The lie was convenient and increased his maketability. He didn’t want to be gay.

It seems this “casual homophobia” is alive and well in more places in society than sport. I would say that there are many people — not just sportspeople — who keep their non-heterosexuality secret because it’s good for their career, they don’t know if their parents and friends want them to be gay, it’s more convenient and easy, socially, to be seen as straight — so no, they don’t want to be gay.

Which begs the question, how far have we come in liberal society, not to mention conservative pockets (religion, Russia etc), in the fight for human rights around sexuality, among other non-normative characteristics like gender (binary and non-binary), functional diversity, even race and ethnicity?

Not as far as we’d like to think, I’d suggest.

Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson was in NZ recently and, according to the NZ Initiative, “argued that human rights are supposed to be sacrosanct principles, and criticised the expansion of human rights from their classical liberal origins.” Freedom, Wilson believes, is “the fundamental human right.” Anything more are social aspirations, which “come at the cost of freedom. While they may be worthy goals, they should not automatically be given equal status to the classical human rights.”

I agree with the Commissioner and have been saying a similar thing, to half-deaf ears it often feels like, in my work on labeling and diversity. The more grounds we add to the list for which we can be accused of unlawfully discriminating upon, the more we highlight difference. The more we highlight difference, the more scrutiny it attracts. The more scrutiny, the more at risk we become of being excluded by others’ prejudice. The more at risk we are, the less fredom we have.

Gay rights did nothing for Ian Thorpe — in fact I would almost say it did him a diservice. I’m not saying that gay rights are wrong or bad or shouldn’t have happened, nor that they haven’t improved the lives of some people. But, as Tim Wilson points out, gay rights come at the cost of the freedom to not have our sexuality put under scrutiny.

I was telling a friend a few days ago that, when I was seventeen, some thirty years ago, on the cusp of homosexual law reform but a decade and a half before gay human rights legislation was passed, I wore a badge at school saying, “How dare you assume I’m heterosexual”. Not out then, when people asked whether I was meaning I wasn’t straight, I clarified that the point of the messagee was the emphasis on “assume.” Now, whether I had automatic immunity from homophobic slurs due to my unique function, I’m not sure, but I’m also unsure I’d feel as comfortable wearing that badge as a student at school now.

Why not? Because the scrutiny of sexuality would put me at risk of other students’ prejudice. I’ve heard stories that it’s harder to be queer at schools today than it was decades ago, simply because kids are more aware. Such is the shadow of liberation; such is the cost to freedom.

I titled this post “The sport of coming out.” Perhaps it could be more aptly titled “The cost of coming out,” or even “The sport of catching someone coming out.”

How far have we really come?


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