This Gay Man Believes Counselors Should Be Allowed to Discriminate

Bill HaslamRepublican Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed into a law a bill that allows counselors to refer patients to others when the patient’s goals differ from their own sincerely held principles. As a gay man, I think this is reasonable. When I’m in trouble and seeking professional help, the last thing I want is a counselor who secretly believes my sexuality is disordered.

This seems so basic and logical. Why is it controversial?

The law is a reaction to a 2014 amendment made by the American Counseling Association (ACA). The ACA changed their code of ethics to say, “Counselors refrain from referring prospective and current clients based solely on the counselor’s personally held values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.”

The change in language was an attempt to bar discrimination on the counselor’s couch. But it’s bad policy for at least three reasons.  

It encourages dishonestly – The ACA’s language makes it unethical to refer patients to others due to a personally held belief. I can imagine going to a counselor and saying, “I grew up in a conservative, evangelical home [which is true of me]. I have some residual shame around being gay. Can you help me with that?” If the counselor thought that accepting myself for being gay is wrong, I’d want her to out herself.

If the counselor thought that accepting myself for being gay is wrong, I’d want her to out herself. Click To Tweet

I’d feel betrayed if a counselor worked with me for months before I found out that she thought being gay is pathological. But, under the current language of the ACA, if she referred me to someone else she’d be guilty of unethical conduct according to her certifying organization.

That’s silly. We ask judges and jurors to recuse themselves from certain cases if they have a vested interest in the outcome. Why can’t counselors excuse themselves if they know their values conflict with those of the client? The ACA language encourages an unhealthy deception.

It’s an impoverished view of what counseling is – Theologian Stanley Hauerwas, quoting a Jewish friend, once said “A god who doesn’t care what you do with your pots and pans and genitals isn’t very interesting.” Similarly, a counselor who doesn’t deal with values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors isn’t very helpful. Given that, counselors should be able to refer clients to others when they know that their own beliefs and those of the client are incompatible.

Convo2I wonder, does the ACA think of counselors as technicians for the widget that is the human psych? Are counselors to be completely objective, neutral parties who extract the most sacred parts of themselves from interactions with clients?

An admittedly extreme example might be, what about the client who says, “I want to you help me gather the courage to commit suicide?” Most counselors wouldn’t sign on to that project. They have the value, attitude, and belief that killing yourself isn’t a healthy behavior. But in the ACA’s code of ethics, counselors are admonished to refrain from “imposing their values onto clients.”

I don’t mean that counselors should be coercive or manipulative. But counseling is always value-laden. That’s what makes it helpful.

The ACA’s stance is, ironically, its own kind of discrimination against patients – I work part-time as a pastor for a small church here in San Francisco. Occasionally I counsel people. If someone came to me and said, “I want you to help me become like Donald Trump,” I’d gulp and ask, “And why do you want to do that?” Eventually, if the person persisted in that desire I’d need to say, “I’m sorry, as a Christian I can’t help you with that. To be honest, I think that is a terrible idea. If you succeed you’ll shrink your soul. You need to go elsewhere if that is your true objective.”

I went into this work because I care about people. I have a vision of human flourishing which I value. I should have the freedom to state my beliefs honestly, and refer people elsewhere when I can’t in good conscience help them toward their goals.

But it’s not just freedom for me. It’s freedom for my parishioners as well. They should get to discriminate too.

Freedom means living in world and a country in which gay evangelical Christians should be able to go to “out” evangelical counselors, queer anarchists should be able to go to queer theorist counselors, and Donald Trump lovers should be able to go to (gulp!) Donald Trump supporting counselors. For that to be possible, counselors shouldn’t be penalized for being open about their commitments.

That may be daunting to some, but that’s what our God-given human dignity and freedom looks like. The ACA’s code of ethics undermines that.

I may be a gay San Franciscan, but I’m glad for the Tennessee bill that lets counselors refer clients to counselors with compatible beliefs.

Tim Otto-8Tim Otto is author of Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict Over Gay Relationships and may be followed on Twitter at @Tim_Otto



Photo Credits
Bill Haslam – cc Shiloh National Military  Park’s Photostream via Flicker
Conversation – cc Andreas Bloch via flicker