Dr. Michael LaSala is a Professor and Director of the Doctorate of Social Work Program (DSW) at Rutgers School of Social Work. Dr. LaSala's research interests include clinical social work, gay and lesbian issues, and marriage and family therapy.
In honor of Pride Month, we recently spoke to Dr. LaSala about his work impacting LGBTQ+ communities and ways social work students and practitioners can honor LGBTQ+ communities during this month and beyond.
As a social work scholar, educator, and practitioner, why is Pride Month important to you?
It was not too long ago when LGBTQ+ people lost their jobs, families, and homes just for being who they are. Gay bars were raided, and people were arrested for going to gay bars, dressing in their identified gender, and dancing with members of the same sex. Pride commemorates the Stonewall Riots of June 1969, when the police raided a gay bar and the patrons, many of whom were trans people of color, fought back. As a social worker and academic, it is important to study and recognize one of the most important and successful recent examples of social justice activism. As someone who has experienced anti-gay bullying as a child and adolescent, as well as having been a victim of a hate crime, it is an amazing blessing that I have lived long enough to see the legalization of same sex marriage and LGBTQ+ groups in middle and high schools. It warms my heart to see our lives being celebrated this month.
Tell us about some of the scholarly work you’ve done relating to LGBTQ+ communities.
For better or worse, our families and the influence they wield on our lives are all powerful. The family is the first place we learn how safe the world is as well as our value as human beings. While LGBTQ+ people, and particularly youth, experience elevated rates of substance abuse and mental health problems including suicidal ideation and behavior, we know that parental support can help ameliorate the impacts of stigma and minority stress on this vulnerable population. Thus, my work has focused on finding ways to assist families through the coming out experience, helping them stay connected and even become stronger and more resilient as a result of the process.
What are the implications of this work?
I like to think my book, Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child, has had an impact on the field. It features family-based interventions based on my interviews of 65 culturally diverse families of gay and lesbian youth. It is targeted for mental health practitioners, and I receive ongoing feedback that it has be very helpful to those assisting such families. I have also done research on the impacts of family relationships on the safer sex behaviors of gay and bisexual youth and have been credited for helping establish the family of such youth as a resource for HIV prevention. I write about and have done workshops on how parents and gay youth can talk to each other about mental health, HIV prevention, and stigma in ways that are healing and that build resilience. Enough bragging from me: the impact of my work must be assessed by those working in the field.
What are you doing at the School of Social Work to support LGBTQ+ communities?
Twelve years ago, Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers student, committed suicide after being bullied by his roommate and others in his dorm. in the aftermath, I was approached by a group of MSW students who wanted to start a group that 1) advocated for LGBTQ+ students, 2) established educational programming around LGBTQ+ issues and 3) advocated for the addition of an LGBTQ+ issues course in the curriculum. The group is called SWAGGER (Social Work Advocates for LGBTQ+ and Gender expansive Equal Rights), and we meet monthly during the academic year. All are welcome, and keep an eye out for announcements at the start of the upcoming fall semester.
What can social work students and practitioners do to honor LGBTQ+ communities during Pride Month?
Buy tasteful, expensive gifts for all of your LGBTQ+ friends. OK seriously – try to look beyond all of the rainbows and platitudes and remember the fight for equal rights is still not won. As a matter of fact, there has been a roll back of rights as well as attitudes toward LGBTQ+ folks in parts of the country. Some worry that the conservative majority of the Supreme Court, after throwing out Roe vs. Wade, will go after same sex marriage. Understand that LGBTQ+ youth still experience profound health disparities and are still being kicked out of their homes. Over 40% of youth experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ+ individuals who have been ejected from their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. There is still no cure for HIV/AIDS and the rates among young gay and bisexual men, particularly those of color, continue to climb. The struggle is real, and it is far from over!