Like many of you, I don't become aware that any particular period is National Whatever Day/Week/Month unless we have one of those desk calendars or see it trending on social media, so I wasn't even aware that March was Social Work Month until it was almost over. This is funny, because I often don't know it's any particular day on Twitter to tweet about it till it's too late to get any likes or faves out of it, and we mostly don't notice or care about social work or workers until they get shoved right in our face. Let's face it, for most of us, the only time we think about social workers is when we watch reruns of "Very Special Episodes" of sitcoms from the '80s, ironically laugh at bad after-school specials for fun, or see them involved in the crime of the week on Law and Order: SVU. Man, they're on that show a lot, aren't they?
I don't talk a lot about my day job, which actually isn't writing professionally (go ahead and take the easy joke -- I set you guys up for it) but supporting social workers for my state. Before I started this job, the most I ever thought about them was when they showed up on TV or had screwed up and something bad happened to a child, or a disabled or elderly person. Because of this, I often had a low opinion of them as government workers, which is ironic since I have spend most of my adult life as a government worker. It wasn't until I got this job and spent a lot of time around social workers that I really got to know and understand what went into their jobs and who these folks were.
First of all, let me say this: Most government workers don't get paid nearly enough for what they do. Most social workers make less than a teacher does on average, and teachers get paid garbage. What's worse is what they have to deal with on a regular basis as part of their job. Now, I can't say that I know all about it since it's not my job, but I have learned a lot through being around their classes, seeing their training materials, and becoming friends with them. Having to listen to trainers talk about child abuse, sexual abuse, drugs, and poverty really changes the way you see things. Through my office walls, I can hear the audio of someone screaming and beating another person, and that's just people acting in a training video. The real-life pictures in slide shows I've seen, my God. The level of poverty in our country that I've been exposed to, I'm surprised I'm not a red banner-waving communist.
This destitution and misery is what a lot of these folks deal with on a daily basis, and we pay them crap. I for one don't think I could spend day after day hearing a mother talk about how she can't feed her family, or having to look at an abused child. Of course, when it comes time to trim government budgets, one of the first things cut is social services, which usually means hiring freezes and funding for programs. This translates to heavier caseloads and less support for these folks. Imagine being paid wages that can put you on welfare while trying to help two dozen families at a time navigate the welfare system. Add to the fact your job is often the whipping boy for politicians who clearly don't care about these people, while the public at large rarely gives you the time of day until there's some tragedy caused by a broken system and then wonders why you're so bad at your job. That's why there is such a huge turnover in social work. It's a thankless job that you really have to believe in to do.
Now, what you may be wondering, does this have to do with the LGBT+ community? Well, firstly, there is that all-pervasive myth both within and outside the community of "the bougie gays." The ones who all wear pricey designers, have impeccably decorated homes, eat fancy brunches, and vacation often to queer hot spots. We think they exist because that's what a lot of LGBT media as well as mainstream media push, since they don't have kids (which means lots of disposable income). That's a huge fantasy, as gay men have a higher level of poverty than heterosexual men, and the rate of poverty increases for transgender people and lesbians. LGBT+ people are actually more likely to have a caseworker than a concierge. The other thing about social workers and the LGBT community is something a little less tangible, but something I've personally noticed, so it may be a bit biased.
There are a lot of LGBT+ people and allies working in the field. Even the ones who are very religious and have their desks covered in Bible quotes and aphorisms are friendly, and if not openly accepting of LGBT+ people, at least keep their opinions to themselves. Probably because in a field like social work, being judgmental of other people's lives is gonna drive you insane. In my time here, I've met plenty of openly gay men and women, mothers of trans children who also happen to be child adoption workers, and people who hang "Ally" signs outside their offices. While I'm not super out at work about who I am, it's no secret either, and I've never had a single problem other than people overapologizing if they accidentally misgender me.
These supportive folks aren't just the caseworkers, but the trainers and coordinators as well. I've seen them working to implement training on how to deal with an LGBT+ child, same-sex marriages, the unique issues of being poor or homeless and transgender, and finding jobs for people in the community. This isn't even a progressive blue state either, but Oklahoma. There aren't any mandates coming down from the state legislature for them to do this; they're doing it because that's our society, the LGBT+ community has unique challenges, and they genuinely care about people. I've seen foster placement and adoption workers teary-eyed when they can't find a home for a normal, healthy LGBT child because of a shortage of accepting homes (seriously consider being a foster parent if you can, folks!). These people are honestly some really good people with big hearts and serious backbone.
Social workers play a huge role in helping parts of the LGBT community that are often overlooked and forgotten about. They get paid insulting wages to do a thankless, difficult, and heartbreaking job few of us could last more than a week doing. Lots of people talk a big game about how they care about these types of issues but consider the trip to drop off clothes or canned goods a huge hassle. Meanwhile, these workers put in long hours driving to these folks' homes and taking phone calls from clients at 3 in the morning to talk them down from a panic attack or suicide. That's why I don't talk about my day job very much; I'm just over here on the sidelines carrying water buckets for these people. We should pay these people what they're worth, thank them daily for what they do, and not realize at the last minute they deserve to be recognized for it, and not just when they fail but for all the times they succeed.
AMANDA KERRI is a writer and comedian based in Oklahoma City. Follow her on Twitter @EternalKerri.