Seventeen students from the USC School of Social Work traveled through Europe’s most socially progressive cities this summer, meeting with everyone from policy wonks to former prostitutes as they explored issues of sexual orientation and gender identity abroad.
“Global Perspectives on Sexual Orientation, Gender and Ethnicity in Europe” was one of two new global-immersion trips added to the school’s 2010 travel itinerary.
Professors Devon Brooks and Kim Goodman led the roving classroom through France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Along the way, students observed social workers in community organizations such as Brussels’ Rainbow House – a vibrant hub of activity and counseling services for the gay, lesbian and transgendered community. Instead of relying mainly on traditional counseling sessions, social workers there organize like soccer games or jewelry-making classes, among other group activities.
Goodman said the Rainbow House was indicative of how entirely different social work can look in Europe, where therapeutic delivery is heavily focused on social networks and group activities.
“It’s more about people who enjoy doing this together versus sitting down and doing therapy like here,” she said. “It definitely opened my eyes to ideas that we could benefit from at home.”
While in Brussels, students also visited with senior policy officers and other officials at the European Parliament’s Intergroup on Gay and Lesbian Rights – an advocacy group comprising politicians from Europe who are interested in issues of sexual orientation.
Intergroup had asked the USC delegation to prepare a report on American social work’s best practices. So before embarking on the two-week course, students broke into interest groups and selected issues to study within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. They researched American problems and solutions related to homeless youth, elderly discrimination and adoption, as well as the handling of transgendered prisoners and gays in the military.
“This experience was all about collaboration and the exchange of ideas,” Goodman said. “We didn’t just want to take.”
Students peppered their foreign hosts with questions in order to learn more about their own solutions to the issues.
Roxanna Yashouafar’s group studied homelessness among LGBT youth and transgender issues. She arrived in Europe expecting to find homelessness among non-heterosexual youth to be as big of an epidemic as it is in the United States. Curiously, the issue was not on the radar of most policymakers and advocates she talked with, and she couldn’t find many programs catering to the demographic.
In France, a transgender advocate surprised everyone when he told the students it was illegal for social workers or doctors in that country to provide services to anyone under 18 who felt they were transgendered.
“I was shocked,” Yashouafar said. “The teenagers there have to be in the closet. Their parents can’t help, and if they go to a social worker, they have to turn them away. They can’t even tell the doctor they are transgendered. “
But Brooks said these countries are not burying their heads in the sand or trying to discriminate against LGBT people. Rather, European society doesn’t view sexual identity as the dominant factor informing a person’s life experience, and their social services reflect this view — for better or worse.
So while every country has homeless teenagers, these young people might not be placed in a foster home based on sexuality.
“In fact, they might not think it’s relevant at all,” he said.
Brooks believe these examples illustrate one of the biggest differences between Europe and the United States when it comes to issues of sexual identity and diversity.
“In America, we are big into celebrating diversity. What makes us different makes us special. But in many parts of Europe, much more emphasis is placed on what makes people the same.”
A majority of the trip was spent in the Netherlands, where participants explored sexual orientation, gender, class and employment.
Perhaps one of the most eye-opening experiences was a meeting with a former prostitute. She is now the coordinator of the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, an organization that aims to further the acceptance and respect for sex workers.
The woman shocked the group by telling them she is considering going back into the work. It’s great pay, unionized and comes with health insurance, she said.
“This woman had two graduate degrees; she was extremely intelligent,” Yashouafar said. “We couldn’t believe what she was saying at first. This whole trip has opened my eyes to new perspectives and points of view.”
Now that they are home, Brooks and Goodman said they hope to facilitate an ongoing relationship between the USC School of Social Work and their many European hosts.
“In the end, the trip was a success because of the people we met. They were so wonderful and passionate,” he said. “They were truly inspirational.”