3332946782_99832b2d43Last week’s landmark Supreme Court rulings signified a huge step forward for gay rights — and leaders of the American Counseling Association say the two decisions will impact the profession of counseling, as well.

On June 26, the court declared unconstitutional the part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that denied federal benefits to married gays and lesbians in the 13 states and the District of Columbia where those unions are legal. The court also let stand a lower court’s ruling that invalidated Proposition 8, which had banned gay marriage in California.

Pete Finnerty, president of the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling (ALGBTIC), a division of the American Counseling Association, believes the day that these historic decisions were made will go down in history “as one of the most important days in the struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and intersex (LGBTQQI) rights.”

“The Supreme Court saw fit to strike down particular elements of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, effectively ending federal discrimination against LGBTQQI persons in regards to marriage rights,” says Finnerty. “The court also handed down a decision on Prop. 8, noting the opponents of marriage equality in California could not continue to pursue legal action to overturn several lower court decisions. This effectively allows for same-gendered persons to again seek marriage licenses within a month in the most populous state in the Union. This decision does not overturn marriage equality bans in other states. Although many other rights, [such as] housing, employment and adoption, are still up for fighting, these monumental moves set precedent legally and socially. The interesting notion is these decisions actually correspond with how the nation as a whole is viewing LGBTQQI rights in the polls and through social action by our allies.” 

Finnerty says these decisions will affect the way counselors practice in multiple arenas.

“As counselors,” he says, “we have the tools, knowledge and multicultural competence to work effectively with the new concepts clients will come to us with concerning these verdicts. This will spread to all aspects of counseling, especially individual, couples and family counseling. Individuals may see this legal precedent as the optimal time to begin discussing issues surrounding their orientation or gender expression. LGBTQQI couples may decide premarital counseling is a timely issue. School counselors may be in the position to advocate for their students whose same-gendered parents are coming to PTA meetings. All of these possibilities are events that have obviously occurred before but now they will happen more often. As LGBTQQI rights continue to be granted after these decisions, counselors will see the community’s issues come up more often in actual practice. At this time, we must continue to explore legal/ethical issues, LGBTQQI/ally development and advocacy in our classrooms, supervision hours and practice.”

American Counseling Association President Cirecie West-Olatunji was glad to see the views of the court reflect views accepted and supported by many mental health professionals.

“The counseling profession has long recognized the importance of socio-political issues as significant factors that influence clients’ well-being,” West-Olatunji says. “The Supreme Court ruling helps to eliminate societal barriers for same-sex couples that serve as obstacles to their psychological and emotional health. From contemporary research, we know that institutionalized marginalization, often in the form of laws and statutes, has historically contributed to stress-related problems for targeted groups in the past. “

West-Olatunji predicts the rulings will have implications on counselors “in that we can hopefully focus less on countering the effects of social marginalization and more on enhancing quality of life and prevention for same-sex couples, their immediate families and social system.”

Kimberly Frazier, the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development’s (AMCD) representative to the ACA Governing Council, believes that the Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA “illuminates the importance of being an advocate and continuing advocacy at all levels within the counseling profession. The ruling also reminds all of us that being an advocate requires the perseverance of many and maintaining constant attention to various issues to ensure what has been successfully advocated for remains intact.”

ACA Immediate Past President Bradley T. Erford notes the significance of the Supreme Court’s decision regarding DOMA, as well.

“Interestingly, the Supreme Court decided for human rights and states’ rights on this issue,” Erford says. “Now, partners in same-sex marriages are allowed to receive federal benefits just like partners in heterosexual marriages in states that allow same-sex marriages. This is a huge decision because it provides same-sex marital couples equal protection under the law. As counselors, we not only do not discriminate against protected classes of citizenry, [such as] sexual minorities, as specified by federal law and the ACA Code of Ethics, but we actively advocate for the rights, health and well-being of all clients. This ruling bolsters our ACA mission and supports our ACA Code of Ethics.”

Unfortunately, Erford continues, “the Supreme Court was silent on whether those rights are portable when a same-sex couple married in one state moves to a state that does not recognize their right to marry. Counselors, especially school counselors, can expect to encounter families in this predicament and need to be ready to provide the supports that these families may need. Similar to kinship care and custody dilemmas, some states may not recognize the legal rights of some parents when it comes to educational information and decisions.”

Brande Flamez, ACA Governing Council representative for the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, says the rulings were historic for many LGBTQ clients because “researchers have shown that the bias, stereotyping and marginalization that these clients face have serious mental health consequences.”

“For years,” Flamez says, “they have dealt with discrimination in housing, employment and medical services, and not having hospital privileges when the partner for whom someone has shared a life with is dying. With [the Supreme Court] overturning a federal law that allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriage and letting stand a lower court’s decision against Proposition 8, our clients are now one step closer to fully embrace their identity and not face sexual identity prejudice. There are many dedicated leaders in our field who have spent countless hours fighting oppression, advocating in community organizations, and working to change laws and policies to help bring about this historical social change.”

Flamez believes the rulings will have direct implications on family counseling in particular.

“LGBTQ clients will now have greater access to services provided by marriage and family counselors,” she says. “Many [who] were previously unable to afford counseling because insurance companies would not reimburse services for same-sex couples will now have access to marriage, couples and family counseling. Also, as states honor same-sex marriages, more same-sex families will be able to adopt children. As rates of same-sex couples and culturally diverse households continue to grow in the United States, counselors should expect to see an increase in same-sex couples in counseling. Indirectly, I believe these rulings will reinforce the need for counselors to have a better awareness of the unique issues, concerns and strengths of the LGBTQ community to better serve them in the counseling role.

Flamez also stresses the fact that, while gay marriage is now legal in certain states, “there are three dozen states in which there are bans that do not recognize gay couples married legally elsewhere. LGBTQ clients who … live in such states will continue to be denied certain federal benefits and may experience psychological distress. Clients may continue to experience intolerance, discrimination, stereotyping and marginalization as a result of their sexual orientation.”

Counselors need to be aware of social justice issues when working with these clients, Flamez says, and they must “be prepared to address concerns from historical, cultural, environmental, familial [and] individual levels. Furthermore, counselors need to be prepared to apply the ACA Advocacy Competencies to counseling and advocating for the LGBTQ community at the microlevel, mesolevel and macrolevel. It is important to note that the aforementioned concerns may not be presented by LGBTQ clients, and counselors should always aim to build a strong therapeutic relationship where they can provide a respectful counseling environment.”

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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