Human Trafficking and the LGBTQIA+ Community: A Conversation with Dean Alan Dettlaff

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We are continuing our Intersections series, in looking at how human trafficking affects and impacts the LGBTQIA+ community, as well as some ways in which our awareness of these issues supports the fight against trafficking. We were pleased to be able to speak with Alan Dettlaff, from the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work.

Alan J. Dettlaff is Dean of the Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston and the inaugural Maconda Brown O’Connor Endowed Dean’s Chair. Prior to joining the University of Houston, Dean Dettlaff served on the faculty of the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work from TCU, and Masters in Social Work and PhD from the University of Texas at Arlington. Prior to entering academia, he worked in the child welfare system where he specialized in conducting investigations of child abuse and neglect. Dean Dettlaff’s research focuses on improving outcomes for children and youth in the child welfare system by examining and addressing issues of structural and institutional racism that contribute to racial inequities in this system.

Interview Transcript:

Kathryn: Today I am here talking with Dean Alan Dettlaff, he’s the Dean of the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. He has included a bio on our website so we can learn a bit about his experience within the field of social work. Today we’re going to be talking about his insight and his experience working with the LGBTQIA+ community and how it intersects with human trafficking. So Dean Dettlaff, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me, and do you mind starting by sharing just a little bit about your background in social work and any work that you’ve done in the field of LGBTQIA services?

Alan: Sure, well first thank you for the opportunity to be here, it’s a big honor for me to be able to talk with you and to talk about this topic. So my background in social work is that I worked in Child Protective Services for many years in the late 90’s, early 2000’s. It was my first social work job and actually the reason that I got into social work was because I wanted to work in Child Protective Services. Since I left the agency and went into academia, my research has always focused on issues concerning the child welfare system. Predominantly, issues looking at racial disparities in the child welfare system, and the ways in which issues of structural and institutional racism contribute to inequitable outcomes in that system, but I’ve also done some research related to the overrepresentation of LGBTQ people in that system and in foster care, and I’ve also been involved in some projects that kind of relate to child welfare system involvement but are more focused on LGBTQ homeless youth.

Kathryn: That’s incredible. It sounds like you have such a great history in so many different areas, and particularly apt right now, considering all the conversations that people are having around racial justice. In particular, we wanted to talk with you, because June is Pride Month, and we were curious if you could share a little bit about any history, relevance, and what the meaning of Pride Month is for those within the LGBTQIA community.

Alan: Yeah, well I think Pride Month is a really important part of what community means in the LGBTQIA population. Pride Month is a time where we celebrate our diversity, where we celebrate our accomplishments over the years in advancing rights for the LGBTQ population, and it’s a time where we show, we demonstrate our pride in who we are, and in our community. But I think when you think about the history of Pride Month, it’s important to first to know that history. Last year was the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, that began as a Pride movement, and this year, this month, is the 50th anniversary of the first Pride march. I think that’s important to remember that Pride didn’t start as the celebration we think about it now, Pride started as a protest. And, I think that’s important for us to remember, particularly in the time where we’re living in where protests are happening all around us, to think about what we as a community still need to be fighting for, and particularly what’s important to be fighting for. I think now is the time for us, as a community, as the LGBTQIA community, to be fighting for racial justice, and really using our collective energy and power to be a part of that movement – not just for racial justice within our community, but for every person whose impacted by the really deep problem of racism that we have in our country.

I also think it’s important to remember when we think about history that the entire Pride movement was started by transgender women of color, and to remember that transgender women of color, particularly Black transgender women, are among the most vulnerable people in our community in terms of their risk of violence, and violent deaths, and we need to focus on that and remember our history and how important they are to our community and be doing what I can to try to reduce and eliminate that kind of violence.

Kathryn: That’s exactly what we’re hoping to highlight through some of these interviews and educational pieces that we’re doing. A couple of weeks ago I actually had an opportunity to interview another social worker, Maranda Harris, who also came out of the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work, and she spoke really openly about racial justice and some of the things that are going on right now, and what all of us can be doing to support that work, as well as the way that racial justice intersects with human trafficking. I do want to put that into context for us as an organization, because although our mission is centered around fighting human trafficking, but we recognize that there are deeply integrated, systemic and social factors that contribute to trafficking, so do you mind speaking on how you think that looks for members of the LGBT community and what might make them more vulnerable to exploitation?

Alan: Yeah, well I think one of the biggest vulnerabilities is the risk that LGBTQ young people have of homelessness, which then I think makes them more vulnerable to trafficking. Among the homeless population, 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQIA, which is a huge number and that’s related to many things but in many ways it’s the result of family rejection. So there’s these bigger issues in our society that contribute to the large proportion of the homeless youth population that we see as being part of the LGBTQ population, and then because that risk is so great, and because of well, societal response to sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as stressors that result from things like family rejection, or rejection from friends or peers, and stressors associated with homelessness. We see things like substance abuse, mental health concerns within those communities, I think all of those things make people more vulnerable, potentially more vulnerable for trafficking.

Kathryn: Yeah, so through your practice both in academia and as a practitioner, what is your view on any gaps in services or organizational policies that might be impacting service delivery for these individuals?

Alan: I think both in, well particularly in child welfare systems, which is where the bulk of my research has been, there can often be a lack of access to services. Primarily it comes down to the issue of data collection. Data aren’t collected within child welfare systems about sexual orientation or gender identity and the people who work in that system really aren’t trained or comfortable in having conversations with the youth that they’re working with about their sexual orientation or gender identity. So often if there are needs that children or youth have, or they want to talk to someone about those issues, they’re unknown to their social workers or their case workers because they’re not being asked. So I think it starts with having those conversations. And then, when we know that people who are within the social welfare system identify as part of a community, then finding access to the services for them, but it really starts from a data collection piece.

Kathryn: Mhmm, and being comfortable having open conversations about what people are experiencing and where they’re at, it sounds like you’re saying.

Alan: Yeah absolutely. Part of what, when children are involved in the child welfare system, it’s that system’s responsibility to address what’s referred to as well-being. Part of someone’s well-being involves their sexual orientation and gender identity, whether that’s within the LGBTQ community or not within the LGBTQ community, but just talking about sexual identity is important and if that system is responsible for the well-being of the youth that it’s serving, then you need to be having those conversations with them.

Kathryn: Yeah. And you did mention a couple of other issues too, like family rejection and homelessness. So this is a super complex topic, that we’re talking about, when we’re trying to look at the intersection between what this community is experiencing and between those who also experience exploitation. But, we can recognize, just statistically, that they’re at a higher risk for exploitation because of these issues. So, in your view as a professional, is there anything that someone as a community member, or an individual, or even working within an organization, can do to come alongside the [LGBTQ] community and minimize that risk?

Alan: Well first I think it’s important when we’re having a conversation about trafficking to point out that there is a big distinction between trafficking and sex work. I think sometimes those issues get conflated, and we don’t recognize how different they are. Sex work is work. It doesn’t come with the same kind of benefits that employment within the formal work system comes with, like healthcare, insurance, and things like that, but it’s work. Work that people enter into voluntarily, often. Sometimes the reasons for that are because of structural inequalities in society, but I think it’s important to point out that there are these larger structural factors that make it difficult for people to work in the formal economy. And then, people, work in the sex work industry, but that’s different from trafficking.

Kathryn: Yeah, that’s a great distinction to make. Are there any resources that come to mind, I’m really interested in the topic that you just mentioned, because that’s a big conversation that a lot of people in the trafficking field have. Are there any resources that we could learn about some of the legislation around prostitution, sex work, and the distinction of that from human trafficking?

Alan: I think that’s where it’s important to be informed about, particularly when it comes to voting. Because, there are – law enforcement can result in a lot of harm to people who are working in the sex work industry. And, there are ways that we could prevent that from happening. Sex work doesn’t have to be prosecuted. When sex workers are reported to law enforcement, their lives just become more difficult because they then are treated as a criminal, when they shouldn’t be, and then their ability to enter the formal economy becomes even more complicated, because of the way that they’re victimized by the criminal justice system. So I think it’s important for people to educate themselves about ways to prevent that kind of harm from happening to people who are engaged in sex work. And then, before making any kind of referrals for services or systems, I think it’s important to know and really research the agencies you’re working with or making referrals to. My view is that any type of help for trafficking, or a victim of trafficking, shouldn’t come with a religious requirement by the agency providing the services. That shouldn’t be a requirement to get help, so I think that research needs to be done into the agencies where that requirement isn’t there.

And then, certainly thinking through is any intervention going to result in that person having contact with law enforcement, and the potential harm that contact with law enforcement could result. I think we should try to be preventing that.

Kathryn: Mhmm. You’re touching on a really important idea, about the revictimization and the trauma that people can experience, even through the process of getting help. There are a lot of conversations going on right now about law enforcement and about ways that they can be better trained to approach various types of situations. So you’ve talked on this a little bit, is there anything else you’d like to add to or stress on that?

Alan: Just that it’s important to be aware that that could happen. I know that there are reasons why people make think it’s important for someone who’s being trafficked to be involved in law enforcement, and there’s certainly the other side of this in terms of holding the people accountable who are the traffickers, but to really recognize the harm and revictimization as you said, that can result when victims are required or made to feel that they have to relive their experiences. And just the harm and victimization that comes from contact with law enforcement, I think can’t be underemphasized.

Kathryn: Mhmm. Yes. Thank you so much for speaking to that. And you touched on resources, can you name any resources here or organizations within Houston, that someone could reach out to whether they are a person in the LGBT community that needs help or someone that recognizes someone else needs help?

Alan: Well, I’ll say the Mayor’s Office has a LGBTQ advisory committee, that knows of a lot of resources for the LGBT community kind of across many different areas, so I think they’re always a good resource for members of our community to learn about resources in the city are available, not just related to human trafficking, but to any issue that our community experiences. I think they’re always a go-to group, because they consist of community volunteers, and leaders, that represent a lot of different segments of the community, and industries, and occupations, and life experiences. They’re a very active group so I always encourage people if they have questions or want to know more about specific resources to start with them and Mayor Turner’s LGBTQ advisory board.

We are so grateful to Dean Alan Dettlaff for not only the tremendous work he does serving the Houston community through advocacy, outreach, and education – but for also taking the time to share his knowledge and insight and provide valuable information to further our learning.

Below we have provided additional resources for you to continue to explore the issues discussed, to further your learning

City of Houston’s LGBTQ Advisory Board

Love146, Anti-trafficking legislation and action steps

Polaris Project, Policy and Legislation in your state

Stop the Traffik, Difference between trafficking and sex work

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