Alex Blaze

Can homophobes be good counselors?

Filed By Alex Blaze | July 29, 2010 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Alliance Defense Fund, counseling LGBT clients, Jennifer Keeton, LGBT, psychology, therapy

Everyone's talking about this student, Jennifer Keeton, who doesn't like gays all that much, says that we've made a sinful lifestyle choice, jennifer-keeton.jpgbut still wants to be a counselor and promises that "those beliefs would not affect [her] ability to counsel gays and lesbians."

Jennifer Keeton, a graduate student in the school of counseling, says in her court filing that the school threatened to expel her if she didn't complete a remediation plan that includes diversity sensitivity workshops. Keeton had said in and out class that, according to her Christian beliefs, homosexuality is immoral and a lifestyle choice, according to her suit.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in federal court in Augusta. The university has not been served with the lawsuit and officials declined to comment on the case, spokeswoman Kathy Schofe said Friday. She did say that the university does not discriminate and has policies in place to protect students if they believe they have been discriminated against.

The Alliance Defense Fund has taken up her case, arguing she should have the academic freedom to dislike gay people. Since she doesn't just have a moral opinion on gays, but is making up her own facts that are rejected by mental health professionals, it seems that the lone student fighting for the right to discuss a topic freely is a bad analogy. Closer analogies would be an Amish student who wants a degree in electrical engineering but doesn't want to do the technology parts because they're against her religious beliefs.

The ADF was also working on a similar suit in Michigan on behalf of a grad student who wanted to become a high school counselor, which recently got rejected by a judge:

Ward, the plaintiff in the case, was admitted to the master's program in 2006, with the goal of becoming a high school counselor. Like many counseling graduate programs, the one at Eastern Michigan is a mix of coursework and practical experience, in which students engage in actual counseling.

Ward describes herself as an "orthodox Christian," the judge's ruling said, and was upfront in her courses -- both in discussions and papers -- about her view that homosexuality is "morally wrong." She also wrote in papers that it is "standard practice" for counselors to refer clients whose values they disagree with to other counselors (even though that's not standard practice or consistent with American Counseling Association ethics rules, which specifically require counselors to work in non-judgmental ways with clients whose values differ from their own.) While Ward's suit alleged that she faced "disagreeable" reactions to her views from professors, she also earned excellent grades.

The dispute that led to the litigation started in 2009, when Ward was enrolled in the practicum in which she was to engage in actual counseling. Faced with an appointment with a client whose file indicated past discussion of a gay relationship, Ward asked to refer the candidate to another counselor rather than engage in any counseling that could "affirm the client's homosexual behavior." Since this was two hours before the appointment, the supervising counselor canceled the appointment, but set off disciplinary hearings that eventually led to Ward being kicked out of the program.

Eastern Michigan's counseling program -- like many others -- requires its students to practice in ways that are consistent with the counseling association's ethics code, including requirements that bar behavior that reflects an "inability to tolerate different points of view," "imposing values" on clients or discrimination based on a number of factors, including sexual orientation. The counseling association does permit referrals, but they are supposed to be for the good of the client, not for the comfort of the counselor. Typically, a referral that would be seen as legitimate might involve a counselor referring someone to a colleague with expertise on a particular problem.[...]

Judge Steeh rejected those arguments, finding that the requirements were curricular in nature and thus that the university deserved the right to set its own standards.

He noted a number of differences between the kinds of speech codes that courts have barred and the rules at Eastern Michigan. For instance, he noted that the rules applied only to students in a specific professional program, and that the issues of discrimination were not raised with regard to Ward's views as expressed in class, and that she was free to express those views anywhere. He said that the counseling association's code of ethics, as applied at Eastern Michigan, was "not a prohibition on a counselor making statements about their values and beliefs in a setting other than with a client," and was in fact "quite narrowly drawn" with the purpose of protecting clients served by counselors.

Then Steeh turned to whether the ethics code was widely known as a requirement at the university (he said the evidence showed it was), and to curricular autonomy.

"Courts have traditionally given public colleges and graduate schools wide latitude to create curricula that fit schools' understandings of their educational missions," he noted. Judge Steeh added: "Counseling, by its very nature, relies on a uniquely personal and intimate relationship between the counselor and client to assist in delivering the objectives sought by the client. Educating counselors to provide such services is clearly within the expertise of the universities that provide such programs.... [Ward] knew the university's curricular goal of teaching students to counsel without imposing their personal values on their clients by setting up boundaries so as not to be judgmental."

In backing Eastern Michigan, Judge Steeh said he wasn't endorsing the counseling association's ethics code, but respecting its right to set a code and the right of universities to follow it.

Given the mental health industry's history of abuse of LGBT people, which has really only been turned around in the last few decades, having professional standards like these make sense. Since Ward wanted to be a high school counselor, she would, most likely, eventually have to deal with an LGBT student who's coming out. Schools already don't have enough counselors, and she can't just refer every queer student to another counselor, nor would it be professional for her to refer them to ex-gay or ex-trans therapy.

Her beliefs would get in the way of her doing her job, so this isn't about academic freedom. Not every university program can have the same sort of freedom of thought that liberal arts colleges do, where since none of the degrees are practical, you're encouraged to think for yourself. Some academic programs are meant for specific jobs, and if you refuse to do a major part of that job, then a school's not going to want to put its name on your degree.


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If these people are so disgusted by our issues, but still want to practice, they should be free to do so. However, they should be ethically required to post disclosures in their practice. It doesn't have to be angry, or nasty: a simple "We don't treat LGBT patients - call this person instead" would do just fine. I don't care if homophobes and transphobes want to get the willies thinking about our issues and relationships - I just want to know to not go to them before I'm sitting in the chair and getting a lecture about how I'm just a sinful soul that needs to "end the addiction."

That works in the abstract, but when people don't have other options (think students in small high schools with only one counselor), then they have to visit that person. Plus some people might start seeing a mental health professional and then come out later, and restarting a relationship with another counselor is fairly hard. (and I'd imagine a homo/transphobic counselor would try to thwart that coming out process.)

Also too, students at both these universities have to counsel other students to graduate, and the students being counseled don't get to choose their counselor.

If all mental health work was done through private offices and done on people who had already accepted themselves, then yeah, just warn people. But the code of ethics the university came up with addresses the fact that that's only a segment of the field.

Agreed, but even with the modern code of ethics these people can practice the way they please. Picture this: a counselor with strong religious convictions, knowing that the ACA code of ethics would require them to break ties between their convictions and their counseling, chooses instead to keep their religious convictions secret. Then, once established in a private (or public) practice, the person would be relatively free to frame counseling sessions in any way they see necessary to satisfy both their personal worldview and closely approximate a "supportive environment" for the unsuspecting LGBT person in their chair.

Stealth and closeting work in both directions, after all.

Regan DuCasse | July 29, 2010 11:17 AM

Hi Austen, I disagree.
We're talking about a person whose profession cannot call one's sexual orientation a lifestyle choice that can be changed or steered that way.
When anyone is at the point of needing counseling, they are vulnerable.

Let me try this analogy, I've known of many black people who were raised under Jim Crow and Jewish young people raise in the Soviet Union. Their psychological aspect was in part hating being what they were. Not wanting to associate with someone like themselves because they'd be punished and hurt for it.
A counselor that agrees with the very dominant idea that being gay is wrong and can and SHOULD change would exacerbate the reason that person is there to be counseled in the first place.
Considering how few schools can budget for more counselors or the person needing the service have the wherewithal to be bounced around, saying that these women can have their cake and eat it too would be VERY wrong.

They are not QUALIFIED to be effective counselors, and don't WANT to be. Especially since the mental health establishment doesn't consider homosexuality an illness, let alone a 'lifestyle.'
If these women don't care to know that, then they are disqualifying themselves from graduating AND being professionals.

When gynecologists say they don't want to be trained in abortions. They TOO shouldn't be allowed to enter the profession. A complication of pregnancy might require their skills, in a medical crisis, who has time to know what doctor is qualified to handle WHATEVER medical issue through a pregnancy arises? Who has time to be referred because the doctor decided effective TRAINING wasn't for him because of his religion?!

When I became a youth mentor for the gay and lesbian center. I went through some very rigorous screening and instruction. I'm straight and I completely understand why I went through that process.
And if these women want to use this LAME excuse so as not to be the fully trained and qualified counselors their profession requires, then they don't want to be counselors then.
They need to find something else to do, those that need help shouldn't be the ones to have to shop all over for someone who is.

Suing because they don't want to meet the requirements is putting the onus of responsibility of their CHOSEN lifestyle to be Christians on everyone else but themselves.

Now here these two women are hairshirting all over the media as if the injured parties.
When their goal is to do more harm than good, completely against the current tenets of their profession to begin with.
Why Christians are indulged with this hypocrisy should be reported on.
Their profession doesn't allow DOING HARM. The sooner they know that, the better. And their profession is better off without them, as are their potential clients too.

I agree with you; anybody who can't put down their moral mouthpiece long enough to do their job shouldn't be counseling.

At the same time I find myself reflecting on my past experiences with counselors regarding trans issues and wonder if the system isn't already at least slightly broken. How much money could I have saved (and heartaches averted!) if a counselor had been ethically bound to tell me they treated transgender patients as crossdressers before I was in their chair?

I guess I'm just trying to find a least-resistance path to make it easier for LGBT people to meet with supportive therapists, and I'm not sure how else to do that.

It's not the best solution (and it's not an exact science, because it's all based on word-of-mouth), but we keep a running list of trans-friendly medical professionals of all stripes.

This has come up for me when talking to med students. And it's true, they don't have to like me, don't have to agree with my transition, and are free to believe what they want.

But they have to accord to me the respect and dignity that they would any other patient, they have to treat according to established and time-tested standards of care and do no harm by impeding those standards of care.

So far, people seem to get that, and it silences the hecklers.

The fact that she passed the appointment off two hours in advance demonstrates either (1) she wasnt told the nature of the case or (2) she hadnt done her homework. Either way, whether it was the university springing it on her (which is a possibility, given how she seems to have been pretty vocal about her stand all along) or her purposely avoiding doing a bit of background work (either outof laziness or a sense of "Hey, he's getting the session for cheap -- I can wing it!"), it was the client who ultimately suffered here.

As far as I'm concerned, a pox on both their houses.

In my experience, one of the questions is how a person with strong anti-gay beliefs comes to the conclusion that they will be able to effectively parse that fairly and professionally.

One of the core competencies that therapists in training have to develop is navigating this very thing... not just conservative-leaning folks who will serve progressive-leaning clients some day, but innumerable permutations. They have to be reasonably nimble and adept about identifying which of their own biases and personal values need not be shared by their clients in order to lead healthy, productive lives.

The specific experience for me was hiring a Christian therapist to do relationship work with my wife and me. We were at a critical point (I had been out as I-think-I'm-gay-but-not-sure for a couple months, neither of us was pressing for divorce). When asked from several angles whether she was prepared to work with us without taking sides, she was concrete: She would be working for both of us. She and my wife shared conservative Christian beliefs and connections to the local ex-gay ministry; I identified as a gay-affirming Episcopalian.

I saw reasons to trust her. Her graduate work had been at an accredited school with a faith-based orientation. She had graduated and was still in a period of supervision by more experienced folks, on the path to being licensed as a therapist. I had close ties to a couple of progressive faith-influenced therapists, so I didn't see faith and therapy as an automatic conflict.

She seemed to be handling things competently in the initial couple/three sessions; for a couple more, I raised concerns and they were resolved. In session 7 or 8 we hit a wall. When challenged about violating her commitment to work for both of us without taking sides, she insisted that she wasn't. I followed up in written form, asking that the facts be reviewed by her supervisor.

The next response, a week later, was an apology for violating professional standards and personal commitments. It was apparent that the small agency they worked for was concerned about their professional liability for supervision and future certification of her readiness to work independently.

She withdrew from any further work with us, but the damage inflicted was irreparable. My wife saw this as me playing the gay activist card and sabotaging the only option she considered viable. We had initiated a temporary separation during the therapy which ended up being permanent. The year-plus journey from there to the divorce trial was treacherous and awful for everyone involved.

So, a relevant question about Keeton is, does she understand her limitations and have an ability to treat clients professionally? Her supervisors', and the school's, answers are clear: No. If a high school student comes to her with any flavor of ambivalence about their orientation, she's not likely to have a couple hours' warning, and can do harm by shutting down a conversation abruptly. If a youth is experiencing faith-based conflict with the parents and Keeton identifies strongly with one side or the other, she appears prone to insert herself against the one she considers immoral.

Heterocentrist homophobic bigots should attend Liberty University if they want to become separatist counselors. However, they shouldn't be allowed in any school that is funded by taxpayers. We have enough crazies allowed in this country to put forth the harmful "reparative therapy" bullshit, we don't need any more.

You have to wonder how on earth some people who identify themselves primarily by their faith think they can practice in their chosen profession.

"Hi, I'm your therapist. I see here that your husband beats the living crap out of you and you want some counseling while you get a divorce. Well, hon, I don't believe in divorce, so that option's off the table. How about we talk about how to keep your self-esteem up while submitting to the rightful authority of your husband?"

"Hi, I'm your pharmacist. I'm not going to be filling that antibiotic prescription for you because if you weren't an unrepentant sinner and you opened your heart to God like you ought to, you wouldn't get sick. I'm just enabling you when I give you medicine."

"Hi, I'm your biology teacher. My preacher told me the Bible says the earth is 6,000 years old, so we'll skip over that evolution nonsense and go straight to looking at pondwater under a microscope."

This post struck a cord with me. First, I am from Ann Arbor, which is just a stone’s throw from Eastern Michigan University. Second, I came out in high school in 1994 - No one backed me at that time.

Yes, Ann Arbor is a liberal college town but during that time it was not for the LGBT teens like me. We had to travel 60 miles to Ferndale, which is outside of Detroit, to attend the LGBT group that would take in teens. The only way you could get there from where I was if you had a car.

It took me three years to find a guidance counselor who would be willing to work with me. The one I was assigned to me in 1994 essentially told me that I had no future because I was gay. I was too young and naïve to realize that this is not something a counselor should say to a child. Needless to say, I didn’t find someone who would work with me until my senior year (1998) when I was on the verge of not graduating. (I skipped a lot of class to avoid the “fag” remarks from teachers and my student peers) My senior year was also the year that I started my high school’s first-ever Gay Straight Alliance. This would not have been possible had it not been for the guidance counselor who took me on my senior. Thankfully, twelve years later, this group is still going strong.

Based off of my own experience, people who are not tolerant and trained in diversity should not be high school guidance counselors. Yes, that bites for those that want to practice but high school is just too young of an age where you don’t know how to seek out the proper resources for you. What if you’re a gay teen and you’re not out to your family and you face this type of discrimination. This could lead to some serious depression issues.

Also, I would like to know what would happen if someone who hates the gays enters their office. Do they share their gay hating views with them or explain that they need to be more tolerant?

If the school were to graduate this bimbo, they'd lose all credibility. Expressing her feelings publicly (in class) shows she is not qualified for this type of work. Although I'm sure there are a bunch of redneck principals down South and elsewhere who would be tripping over themselves to hire her. I doubt seriously that she would be able to be objective and keep her beliefs to herself in treating gay students. It would definitely affect how she would counsel them.

The photo says it all: Lights on, nobody home.

FurryCatHerder | July 30, 2010 3:09 PM

I'm sorry, but her being a stark, raving mad Christian bigot is irrelevant to whether or not she should be allowed to get an EDUCATION, without having her RELIGIOUS beliefs called into question.

That said, because she has beliefs that are counter to her ability to find placement during the practical portions of her education, I'd expect she'd flunk that portion. And that is precisely what she should be allowed to do -- fail, if she is unable to find a school of some kind that is willing to have a person with her views on staff.

First Amendment rights aren't lost the instant someone crosses the threshold of an educational establishment, and I see the "tossed from school for religious beliefs" aspect of this case as a pretty cut and dry violation of her 1st Amendment rights.

S. Maglott | July 30, 2010 3:51 PM

Anyone who is paid by tax dollars to perform a job but refuses to work with LGBTQ constituents should be required to give back 10% of their salary to a same-gender loving support organization that will provide the support they will not.

FurryCatHerder, neither of those women was denied their First Amendment rights. Neither were they dismissed because of their religious views, or even for expressing their views. They were dismissed because they find they are unable to fulfill the requirements of their degree programs and the ethical standards of their chosen profession. Period.

If you cannot find it within yourself to put aside your personal views, however devoutly held, in order to serve your patients, you are in the wrong profession. These women may prefer to join the ministry, where they can counsel according to their own beliefs and prejudices. If they choose to become secular counselors, however, they have to follow the ethical standards of their field, and they don't get to pick and choose which standards they will abide by and which they won't, any more than an emergency department doctor gets to decide she won't treat a Mormon because she thinks they're icky.

Paige Listerud | October 6, 2010 5:40 PM

Let me say that if I were out to myself as queer in high school, the last person I would go to for that matter is a guidance counselor. I don't consider such counselors highly trained or experienced enough to offer cogent, impartial advice to LGBTQ students. More likely, I'd go for advice on career or academic options.

Even young people should be apprised of the fact that therapists, psychiatrists and psychologists are all fallible human beings who have bad advice to give as well as good.

Being bisexual, you'd think I would be relieved being counseled by an out bisexual psychiatrist or therapist. Not necessarily. At Oberlin College, I feel that I got third-rate advice from an openly bi head of the Psych Department. But at that point, I don't know whether the advice I was given was due to the limitations he accepted as a bi man or whether he didn't feel he could go into more detail with a student about living an openly bisexual life.