Our Lives, Our Choices, Our Rights!

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.

It’s just putting the two together, that is where I short circuit. I just think that just being gay has its struggles anyway. And then you add on disabilities, and it just makes challenges bigger.
avatar of Richard
Richard
It is hard because we have to work twice as hard to find acceptance, love and put ourselves out there to gain attention from the right person.
avatar of Jordan
Jordan

Discovering Identity

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.

When I was really young, I went to a zoo that we had, and I was with someone and there was this other girl. And we just made this connection and she was beautiful… It kind of frustrated me because I still liked guys, so I didn’t really understand until a little later that you can like men and women and that’s okay… She was so cute.
avatar of Judy
Judy
It became much more obvious when I hit the sixth grade… I started noticing all this locker room stuff and that was starting to fire some signals… I was kind of noticing that I was having dreams, and thoughts and definitely knew something was up.
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Richard
When I was younger, I didn’t quite have the words for it, but definitely knew I was different and I wasn’t girly at all… When I started going to Youth Pride, that’s when I figured out who I was.
avatar of Mike
Mike

Defining Identity

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!

“Queer” gives room for me floating in space liking the people I like… I’ve dated men before, I’ve dated women before, I’ve dated people who didn’t identify as trans at the time, but I think would now. And I think queer accurately covers all of that.
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Sasha
I’m a demi boy… I mostly am mostly male and neutral in my head. And the part that only controls my emotions is female, and I was raised as a female.
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Casey
I don’t have a gender. I’m in the middle. I’m not a man, I’m not a woman. I’m just myself.
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Melissa

Dating Experiences

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.

I want to date at some point. It’s been 27 years without a date. I tried with a guy. It did not go well.
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Melissa
I go on Growlr [a dating app] and I found three hot guys who find me appealing.
avatar of Yasir
Yasir
I now found someone who I love very much. And it’s great to have someone to lean on and to go to, and to just be with.
avatar of Vincent
Vincent

Dating Barriers

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.

I want to meet people. They said do it online, Facebook. That might be hard, doing it on Facebook, dating people… I don’t know how to go about doing that.
avatar of Katherine
Katherine
It’s hard trying to find someone… Someone who is compatible.
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Pete
People don’t want to date me because of my face. They only see my face and I feel like they don’t see the true me underneath and they don’t get to know the true me. And they only see my disability.
avatar of Melissa
Melissa

Coming Out

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.

I basically came out to myself at 18, 19 years old, but on the down low still, because I was still, not ashamed because I was not ashamed. I was just afraid of society, and what people thought or would think of me.
avatar of Andre
Andre
Everybody was waiting on me to actually acknowledge it [being gay]. And I didn’t really want to at that time, because I was fearful of rejection, and people disowning me. Yeah, things like that. Because, like I said, I’ve been in the closet for 26 years.
avatar of Randall
Randall
I have beaten myself up and thought, so many things. What’s going to happen if I come out? What’s going to happen? And the biggest fear I have to be honest, the biggest fear was losing everyone in my life. My friends, my family, the people that I talked to on the daily, people at work. So I had this big fear of, am I going to lose my life as I know it?
avatar of Vincent
Vincent
I was very, very nervous. But I said, I need to get this off my chest. Because I know what I am. And I don’t want to live like this and be in the closet for the rest of my life without having some kind of acceptance, you know? And it was like a ton of bricks had lifted off my chest when I told [my parents], and they were both accepting.
avatar of Tim
Tim

Isolation

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.

My thing right now is with being in Ohio, is how would I go about finding the resources for LGBTQ?
avatar of Randall
Randall
I don’t know of any, well, there’s only one other self-advocate I know who’s also gay and disabled.
avatar of Benjamin
Benjamin
Right now it’s kind of hard for me to find, meet new people… I live in a group home so it’s hard for me to get around and I don’t drive so, and most of the stuff we have like LGBT stuff, they like in the north side, so the suburbs don’t have no LGB or support stuff like that.
avatar of Will
Will

Dismissal

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.

[My parents] thought it was a phase. They thought because I have a disability, I didn’t understand what I was doing.
avatar of Mike
Mike

Rejection

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.

My mom, she had a hard time with it at first. She really did. Growing up, my mom would say, “Why you grabbing boys’ butts?” or “Why you hugging boys? Why you kissing boys?” And at one point she said to me, “I don’t want my son to be gay.”
avatar of Andre
Andre
I told my sister that I want a boyfriend. She said, “Okay.” My people I talk to kind of don’t really accept gay people so I have to hide it. My dad’s family don’t like gay people either, so I have to hide it… They think it’s disgusting and it’s a sin.
avatar of Yasir
Yasir
I came out to my grandma first just kind of hoping to have someone in my family on my side, but she was kind of uncomfortable with it. We talked about it a bit. But then I came out to my parents and they completely shut down. And also, eventually I stopped talking to my parents.
avatar of Scott
Scott

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.

I was physically bullied a lot growing up in elementary school. The reason why, the motivation, like they said, in their own words, why I was always bullied is because I was seen as too girlish… And so I was pulled against chain link fences on recess grounds, and I was chased constantly.
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Liliana
My dad went through my books, when I was trying to come to terms with myself and my bookbag at school and he just searched through it and just started tearing everything out and was very verbally abusive. Particularly that I was not a “man man.” He would follow me around just to make sure I was leading a good life and just terrible, consistent with his message of, “You are not my son.”
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Gabe

Workplace Discrimination

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+.

The people that I worked with did not agree about my sexuality. And my supervisor at the time brought me into his office, and he said, “You’ve chose to be this way. Now you have to face the consequences.” And so I put up with all these women harassing me, in the workplace, about my sexuality. And then he took me into his office, and he fired me for being gay.
avatar of Tim
Tim

Racism

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 color of my skin, being Black is hard enough already. Like we go through so much already enough because of the color of our skin. So don’t add on the fact that you’re gay. Because that’s a double whammy.
avatar of Andre
Andre
I think a lot of people don’t know what to do with me. As far as, I’m not this high femme woman so that can put people off. They don’t necessarily like that. And then because I don’t present the same visually, meeting expectations of a heteronormative person… And then just the fact that I don’t make eye contact, I might stand or look or present myself differently. People can be put off by that. I get pulled into secondary when traveling international travel like 100% of the time I get screened… I really do think it’s a combo of being Black, genderbending, and then being on the spectrum.
avatar of Sasha
Sasha

Denied Self-Determination

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.

My grandparents don’t understand… They bought me women’s clothes. And I wear men’s clothes. My grandparents said, “You’re in a female body, you should wear women’s clothes.”
avatar of Casey
Casey
I feel like that is the main sort of conflict I’ve dealt with constantly as a disabled and LGBT person to this very day. I feel like it’s great that safety can be a genuine part of any individual conversation, but it can never come at the expense of personal freedom and liberty and autonomy. I just feel very strongly about that.
avatar of Liliana
Liliana

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.

I love being me. I love men. It’s natural. And I get to wear my makeup and wear my female stuff and still be a man. So I love it.
avatar of Will
Will
I love being me a black gay man with a disability and I am open and free to be me.
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Jordan
It makes me happy and proud to be bisexual because I can understand some people better because of that, like my brother and stuff and other people. It just makes me feel more empowered to do stuff to help people. And I just get really giddy when I’m around people that are gay and bisexual and they’re more like family to me than they are just people, you know? I just love the connection, you know? We’re more accepting of things than a lot of people.
avatar of Judy
Judy
I didn’t know nobody who was gay or whatever. I didn’t. I didn’t. I had to do all this by myself. It would have been nice to know somebody who was at the time, but I didn’t. And here’s the thing, I want to be that next mentor/role model that people can come to if they’re having a problem with something. Because since I didn’t have that growing up myself, I want to be that.
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Andre
Sometimes I do have a hard time, I do have struggles. First I started with struggling, yes. Now I’m not struggling anymore. I come out strongly now.
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Katherine

Reflection Questions

  1. What is something new or surprising that you learned about the experiences of LGBTQ+ people with intellectual and developmental disabilities?
  2. What are three challenges or barriers that LGBTQ+ people with intellectual and developmental disabilities might face in their lives?
  3. 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?