The experiences of LGBTQ+ adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities
We learned that the participants’ experiences were impacted by their disabilities, their gender and sexual identities, and other aspects of who they are, such as their race and their age. Each of our participants had their own unique stories and ideas. Even though the participants were all different from one another, there were some common themes between what they talked about. We heard from the participants about how they discovered and defined their LGBTQ+ identities, and about their experiences coming out. The participants encountered misunderstanding, rejection, and mistreatment in their lives. They also talked about their experiences with dating and romantic relationships, including how they faced many barriers to meeting their relationship goals. Although they described past and ongoing struggles, many participants also experienced acceptance and support, and found communities where they belonged. Many people shared stories of resilience and joy in their lives.
We asked the participants about how they realized they were LGBTQ+. Many people talked about how they noticed feelings of attraction or feelings about their gender. Most people noticed these feelings as children or teenagers, and some noticed them when they were adults. For example, some people said they had same-sex crushes in school or felt sexual attraction toward people they knew or celebrities. Some of the transgender people we talked to said that they realized they were transgender because of feelings about their body parts or their desire to dress in a certain style. Some people also said that talking with other LGBTQ+ people and learning the words to describe their feelings helped them to realize and put into words who they are.
We learned that gender and sexual identities are very complex and personal, and that the participants described their gender and sexual identities in many different ways. Many participants did not just say that they identified with the letter LGBT and/or Q. Instead, many people had their own personal ways of explaining who they are, and one word was often not enough to describe it!
The participants talked about a wide variety of dating and sexual experiences, such as unsuccessful past heterosexual relationships, disclosing their disability while dating, meeting for casual sex, using online dating apps, and dealing with breakups and divorce. A few of the participants were in a current romantic relationship that they were happy with. Many of the participants said that they wanted to date to find intimacy and meet a partner.
Almost all the participants described physical, social, or attitudinal barriers to dating and finding a partner. For example, people said they did not have transportation or were not able to go out and meet people due to COVID-19 restrictions. Some participants said that they struggled with dating because they did not have specific knowledge or skills. For example, a few Autistic participants said it was hard for them to read social cues when dating. Another barrier was that other people were not interested in dating them because of their disability. Also, a few participants felt that other people, especially on dating apps, were only looking for sex or money, and were not looking to form a lasting relationship. Many participants said they did not have a role model or a mentor, and sometimes struggled to figure things out on their own.
We asked the participants about their experiences coming out as LGBTQ+. Many of the participants said that once they realized they were LGBTQ+, they hid it from people in their lives. All the participants eventually decided to come out as LGBTQ+ to some people in their lives. Some people were outed by others without permission, and they felt that this was wrong. Many people said they were nervous or scared to come out because they feared that they would be rejected. A few people described experiences where they came out and were accepted right away. Some participants were ignored, dismissed, rejected, or harassed when they came out. Some people who had negative reactions at first, came around to be more accepting with time.
Many of the participants talked about feeling isolated because they could not connect with other LGBTQ+ people, or were not able to get out and meet more people. This was especially true for people living in state institutions or groups homes and those who did not have transportation or support to go to LGBTQ+ events. Some people said that they just wanted even one person to talk to. Some people also lived in geographic areas where there were no LGBTQ+ spaces nearby. Many participants have felt especially isolated during the pandemic, because there are elevated health risks to meeting people and additional restrictions on going to social gatherings.
Many of the participants had their gender or sexuality dismissed by other people in their lives. People thought they could not understand their identity because of their disability, or wrote off their identity as being only a phase.
Most of the participants we talked to experienced some rejection in their lives because of their LGBTQ+ identity, and this rejection was often by family members. Some people said that their families did not accept them as LGBTQ+ at first, but then they came around to be more accepting. For example, one participant said that when he first came out as gay, his mom wondered what she did wrong. After a while, his mom came around to accept him and now she is working on starting a support group at her church for parents of LGBTQ+ children. For some people, it took a very long time for their family members to accept them. One person said that it took 18 years and getting married before her mom accepted her for being queer! For other participants, they still feel rejected by their families and some still don’t talk to their families at all. Whether it was for a long time or a short time, feeling rejected by family or other people felt hurtful to almost all the participants. Some people said that they had low self-esteem, felt depressed, and/or thought about suicide because of how terrible it felt to be rejected.
Harassment and Abuse
Some of the participants described harassment and abuse that they experienced as an LGBTQ+ person with a disability. This included being bullied and called hateful slurs, in school or as an adult. Some of the participants faced emotional and verbal abuse from members of their own family.
Many of the participants also talked about facing discrimination at work as an LGBTQ+ person with a disability. Most, but not all, of these stories came from older participants who described past instances of discrimination. Some people said that they struggled to find a job because of their disability. People who were out at work as LGBTQ+ said they had coworkers or supervisors who were negative about their LGBTQ+ identity, denied them their rights, or fired them after coming out as LGBTQ+.
Five of the participants described themselves as Black and/or African American or biracial, and talked about how reactions to their race added to the challenges they faced. All five Black and/or African American or biracial participants talked about how racism interacted with their identities as LGBTQ+ people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and this impacted their experiences of discrimination and mistreatment. One person talked about how she is always pulled for additional screening at the airport and the police were called on her once when she was waiting for her parents to pick her up outside a store. Two participants said that people perceived them as threatening because they are gay, Black, and have a disability. One participant said that he hadn’t experienced any homophobia, but had experienced racial discrimination, such as being called racial slurs at a store.
The participants also talked about how they were denied self-determination. That means that other people, like their family or their staff, tried to control them and tried to stop them from making their own decisions about expressing their gender and sexuality. Many of the participants said that people tried to control what they wear. For example, one non-binary participant said their grandparents tried to make them wear women’s clothes, even though they did not want to. One transgender man said his parents tried to call his doctor to stop his gender transition. Some people who lived in group homes talked about staff who tried to control their sexual expression. One man said that his staff wouldn’t let him go to Pride events because they did not want him to kiss any guys. Another man said that his staff wouldn’t allow him to invite men into his room for sex. Many of the participants said that it was not fair to control the gender and sexuality of people with disabilities, and that they should be supported to make their own decisions.
Strengths and Joy
Many of the participants also talked about their strengths, showed their resilience and resourcefulness, and celebrated the joys and successes in their lives. Participants discussed how they resisted mistreatment and discrimination, and persevered. Many were happy that they were able to express who they are and be in the relationships that were important to them. They defied restrictive gender and sexual expectations, refused to be controlled, and advocated to be their authentic selves. Many found ways to enjoy the things they love, support one another, and advocate to make the world a better place for others.
- What is something new or surprising that you learned about the experiences of LGBTQ+ people with intellectual and developmental disabilities?
- What are three challenges or barriers that LGBTQ+ people with intellectual and developmental disabilities might face in their lives?
- What are some ways that a person’s identities (for example, age, race, location) impact their experiences as an LGBTQ+ person with an intellectual and developmental disability?