Meet the Trainer: Connor Simonoff Oenomel

Connor Simonoff Oenomel (MSW’20) is a queer, trans, and polyamorous macro social worker working in the areas of trauma, health, and diversity. Originally from Boston, Connor currently resides in Amsterdam, the Netherlands where he provides training and consulting service through his practice, Talking to Storms. Connor is an annual guest lecturer at several programs within the Boston University School of Medicine, where he provides training to second year students on how to best serve gender diverse patients.

The Network for Professional Education at BU School of Social Work (BUSSW) recently spoke with him about how his programs help social workers and health professionals better serve gender diverse clients.

To get started, please tell me how and why you began your practice focused on training around LGBTQ issues?

After I graduated from Boston University School of Social Work, I worked in a mental health day program. It was wonderful, but it didn’t scratch that macro itch I had. I was a macro social work major, and I’m really interested in health care policy, so I decided to open a training consultancy business on the side and see what I could do with that. I mostly work in health care equity, especially for LGBTQ people. I do a lot of training for mental health providers, students, and health care providers. Right now, I’m working with a group that is advocating for change in how gender health care and gender health policy works in the Dutch system, which has been great.

How is your approach to training different from others in the field?

Part of that is that I am transgender. I give an annual lecture to providers, including medical students, and I tell them that the statistics that you hear about LGBTQ discrimination don’t really come alive until you know someone who’s experienced it. Especially in the Boston area, people think, “Oh, this is a pretty liberal part of the country. I’m sure that we do well with LGBTQ inclusion. I can’t imagine there’s discrimination.” But there is — sometimes it’s subtle, and sometimes it’s not — but it exists. Being a person who can say I have had experience with this discrimination, or have friends that have gone through these things, can make it more real to adult learners.

Additionally, beyond just talking about how to interact with trans patients, or how to make your practice inclusive of queer or lesbian or gay patients, I also talk about what gender and sexuality is, because you would be surprised how many people think that they know and then they don’t. We have a lot of new media coming out about gender and sexuality and it’s great. It’s certainly raising the average knowledge of people, but sometimes we miss things, especially with how LGBTQ inclusion has been pushed out of a lot of school systems or even higher education in the United States. We need to make sure we’re all on the same baseline.

Could you tell me one thing that surprised you about becoming an independent training consultant, and one thing that challenged you?

I first started doing this work because I was reading the results of the US Trans Survey, which is the largest survey of gender diverse folks in the U.S. There was a specific statistic that said 70% of trans people have experienced discrimination in a healthcare setting in their lifetime, and that was just such an overwhelming number. I immediately said, “I can fix that. We can make that better. We can bring that number down.” I think it’s caused partially by ignorance and partially by health professionals just not knowing what to say and how to interact with a patient or a client who is trans.

Since then, I found that the political culture in the U.S. has changed to the point that we are having more conversations about health care, so I was very familiar with health care policy and informed consent policy. When I moved to the Netherlands, I had to relearn how health care policy works because it’s an entirely different social system and government, as well as a completely different approach to health and wellbeing. Integrating that into my practice and into my consultation services has been very interesting. I feel like I’ve done a whole new master’s degree just by working in a new country. It’s been very challenging, but great too.

Could you speak about the impact your work has had on your clients?

I provide annual lectures for a couple of medical schools in the Boston area on how to interact with LGBTQ patients. I tell learners that I have a lifetime guarantee so if you take a class with me, you can email me with a question or concern. I’m unlikely to ever change my email address. It doesn’t matter if it’s been two months or 10 years. And people do. A couple of times a year I get emails from past students who might say, “I don’t have a question, but I finally helped a patient get on hormone replacement therapy and I remembered your lecture – it was so helpful.” That’s always nice to hear.

Now that I’ve shifted to also working on policy, I’m really looking forward to seeing the direct impact. The waitlist time to get gender-affirming care in the Netherlands is about three to four years long. So that means any trans youth who come out won’t receive services at all for the next three to four years. The policy recommendation that we’re working on is aiming to reduce that waitlist time by shifting some of the care burden to general practitioners or ‘huisarts’ rather than going to a specialist for gender-affirming care. It still must go through many levels of government to get anywhere, but I’m really looking forward to seeing where that goes.

What are some of the valuable takeaways you got from the Network’s Train the Trainer course?

I think the course was a great solidification of a lot of the things that I learned throughout my degree. It was a good synthesis and reminder of those things. I kept quite a lot of course materials because they’re very helpful references, especially as somebody who does quite a lot of education and training. Whenever I’m giving a lecture, especially to a new group of people, I will go back and pull those out and see if there’s anything I can incorporate.

As a member of The Network Trainers Hub, what do you feel are the benefits of participating in our community of practice?

I think that what social workers do is so diverse that having a place where we can come together and share our expertise is so helpful. The Trainers Hub is a great resource, not only for people looking to hire trainers or consultants, but also for those who are looking for somebody to bounce ideas off or need information about a topic they’re not as familiar with. Chances are somebody has the knowledge that you don’t, and you can just connect with them and say, “Can I buy you a virtual coffee?” Social work is such a broad field, and it’s nice to have it all summarized in one area.

Do you have any advice for either a new trainer or new social worker who’s just entering the field?

Persistence matters. Persistence really has paid off for me, especially as an independent training consultant. It’s easy to think that you can just sit back and let opportunities come to you, and that’s not remotely true. You really have to network and reach out to folks. Following up is also essential. Many people don’t understand the full power of social work and the variety of fields to which our expertise can apply.

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