Graduate College of Social Work dean strives for LGBTQ equality
Alan Dettlaff challenges discriminatory policies against the LGBTQ community — one that he is a part of, as a gay man.
“Part of the mission of the social work profession is to achieve social justice,” Dettlaff said. “Because of that, the profession supports full inclusion and rights of the LGBTQ population and freedom from discrimination.”
At the start of LGBTQ history month, Dettlaff, who is dean of the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and an active member of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s LGBT Advisory Board, took noticeable strides on campus to spread awareness of LGBTQ issues. He invited Homeless Gay Kids Houston, which works to provide a dependable safe place for LGBT youth to find support and access services, to set up a table in the GCSW.
This is one of many endeavors Dettlaff makes year-round to incorporate LGBTQ awareness into the GCSW environment.
As a result of this, GCSW students are taught to become active leaders and challenge complex community topics. They have an active LGBTQ student association and also recently completed a fall event series exploring LGBTQ issues.
His life’s mission
Dettlaff said he hopes to create a welcoming environment in GCSW through student programming and class content. He became dean in May 2015.
“He sets the tone for the entire department, and he’s very dedicated to his strategic development plan,” said Kamah Wilson, a first-year graduate student at the GCSW and graduate assistant at the LGBTQ Resource Center. “During orientation they told us he was brought to our college to help develop a strategic plan to revitalize the program and, so far, he has successfully done that.”
Since October is LGBT History Month, Dettlaff said it is important to know about the community’s accomplishments and leaders who fought for civil policies currently in effect.
“Being out as an LGBT person now is not the same as it was 30 or 40 years ago, so it’s important to know the history of what our community has done,” Dettlaff said.
Dettlaff said that when he was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, there were negative messages in society and a lack of LGBT role models. They made it more challenging for him to come out.
“I came out when I was 22 to my mother; she was the first person that I told,” Dettlaff said. “She was very supportive and accepting, but it was much more difficult back then because there wasn’t the kind of visibility of the LGBT community as there is now.”
Dettlaff strives to look for ways to advance social justice for the LGBTQ community on and off campus. He said that although UH is diverse and there are a lot of resources for LGBTQ students, room for improvement always exists.
“One thing I’ve heard from students is the need for all-gender restrooms for students who identify as trans or transgender,” Dettlaff said. “I think that’s something we could improve on and something I’d like to see at some point in the college.”
In addition to bettering policies on campus, Dettlaff also works to improve those in the city. He said it is concerning that a city as large and diverse as Houston doesn’t have a non-discrimination policy.
As a committee member of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s LGBT Advisory Board, Detlaff helps to inform the mayor about issues of practices as well as city services and advocacy work to address the LGBT people’s needs.
Dettlaff said it is vital for him, as dean, to know about all the issues that are impacting the LGBTQ community in Houston. He is responsible for ensuring that GCSW students receive not just quality education but also the means to address issues of social injustice.
Wilson said that because the dean is active in social justice, it sets a model for students to follow his lead. She said that they get to have more opportunities to be out in the community and be part of the movement.
“We’re not just learning about it. We are about it,” Wilson said.
Dettlaff is also an active member of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. His partner, Vincent Pryor, is on the caucus’s board of directors.
Dettlaff met Pryor at Texas Christian University when both were undergraduate students.
As a football player, Pryor had a difficult time coming out, worrying that he would be kicked off the team or lose his scholarship.
“He was fortunate that he came out to his team right before their last football game as a senior and had the best game of his career — he set the record for the most sacks in one game,” Dettlaff said. “What he says is that it was the first time the felt he could really play to his full potential because he was out and open to his teammates.”
Pryor has done public speaking for the past five to six years to talk about the need for sports, or sporting teams, to be more accepting and affirming of LGBT people.
Dettlaff said he was fortunate to come out out to a relatively supportive family — something not many people have despite a lot of progress has been made.
“About 40 percent of the homeless youth population is LGBT, and that’s largely because of issues with their family not accepting them,” he said.
Both Dettlaff and Pryor are members of Homeless Gay Kids Houston. During the organization’s visit to campus, they provided students with information on safety options and support services for LGBTQ youth.
“He’s bringing people from the LGBTQ community into the GCSW and giving us the opportunity as students to volunteer and have exposure to groups we may not have known about if we were just out in the community,” said Kelsey Reynolds, a second-year graduate at GCSW.
Reynolds took a class focused on LGBTQ studies, where one of the requirements was to participate in LGBTQ meetings, support groups or volunteer at Pride Houston. By volunteering, Reynolds got the opportunity to be in a raffle to go to dinner with the dean.
She won, along with another classmate.
Reynolds said it was an amazing experience, as she wanted to get feedback on what was and wasn’t working in the GCSW to help students.
“He’s fighting oppression tooth and nail for the LGBT community,” Reynolds said. “What he’s doing — that’s what I want to do, and seeing him bring that to life shows me that I can do it, too.”
Dettlaff said he has been happy in Houston in terms of how welcoming the University has been.
“As dean, I have the opportunity to go to a lot of events and galas to support the school, and I always bring my husband to those,” Dettlaff said. “Everybody in the community has been very welcoming and accepting to us, and we’ve made wonderful friends here. It’s just been a great place to be.”
Wilson said that one day there might be a statue or monument of Dettlaff on campus.
“I think he should be a part of LGBTQ History Month,” Wilson said. “Him being dean and doing all the things that he’s doing — he is making history.”