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Workshop Explores Clinical Practices Working with Gay and Lesbian Families

Posted February 2, 2011

Working with gay and lesbian families can be a life-long process and warrants special attention from family therapists, according to presenters at the 27th Annual Marriage and Family Therapy Institute on Jan. 28, 2011, at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education and Hotel. Led by Stephanie K. Swann, an Atlanta clinician, instructor in UGA's Masters of Social Work program and former president of the Atlanta chapter of the Clinical Society of Social Workers, and Sarah E. Herbert, an Atlanta psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of children, the workshop focused on how to effectively handle the issues that gay and lesbian families bring to therapy. The daylong event titled "Going Beyond Acceptance: Effective Clinical Practices Working With Gay and Lesbian Families" attracted faculty, students and clinicians from around the state who wanted to gain a better understanding of this population.

Swann began the event with a conversation on the coming out process and sexual identity development in our current sociocultural climate. "All gay males and lesbians will engage to some degree in the coming out process. It can begin at any age, and it can vary in terms of lengths that it lasts—I would actually contend it lasts a lifetime. Whenever you are put into another situation you are unfamiliar with, you have to come out all over again…it really is a never ending process," Swann said.

Swann and Herbert went on to describe the stages of identity development in the coming out process, consisting of pre-coming out, exploration, the first relationship and integration. "Most of the time it's hard to know when someone is initially pre-coming out until they are actually out and can reflect on their experiences," Swann said. "Looking back, they felt so different…they'll talk about how they often received unrelated complaints, for youth in particular. They will often demonstrate more behavioral difficulties, whether it is mood instability like anxiety, or troubling behaviors like acting out in school, being the class clown or becoming aggressive."

Women sometimes will take a bit longer to come to terms with their sexual orientation rather than men, Herbert added. Many gay men have revealed that right around or before puberty, they are pretty clear about their sexual orientation, whereas women will go through a longer period trying to come to terms with themselves and their orientation.

Herbert concluded the session with her views on the significance of coming out, discussing a client who was experiencing the early stages of coming out at the age of sixty-five. "To not speak about a whole part of your life—it's hard for me to wrap my head around," she said.

Other sessions throughout the day included topics on issues facing same-sex couples, issues facing families with a gay, lesbian or bisexual child or parent, treatment considerations and small group case analyses.

The event was a part of UGA's "Celebrating Courage: 50th Anniversary of Desegregation" and was sponsored by the Pre-Professional Graduate Certificate Program in Marriage and Family Therapy.

Swann is an instructor in the School of Social Work and has won the Outstanding MSW Faculty of the Year award five times in the past six years.