The Battle of LGBTQA+ & Disabled Youth
Disabled LGBT+ young people face a battle just to be taken seriouslyAlex Toft, Coventry University
As young people navigate adolescence, they ask questions about their sexual attractions and how they understand gender. If they are fortunate, they have access to sex and relationship educators or mentors and support networks. But my research with young people who identify as LGBTQA+ and disabled shows that they are often treated as though their gender or sexuality is just a phase.
In my research looking at the experiences of young people aged between 16 and 25, we’ve seen how harmful this approach can be. Not recognising that young disabled people can be LGBTQA+ can reduce their ability to have fulfilling sexual lives. It also reduces the chance that they will receive appropriate help and support in relation to their sexuality or gender throughout their lives.
Seeing sexuality or gender as a phase is not new. But for the young people we work with, it comes as a result of misconceptions about their disability, sexuality and their age. As one young person put it, with regards to their disability:
I do sometimes think that my mum thinks my whole mental health issues and my autism . . . I think she hopes it’ll go away, she goes on about me getting a job which makes me feel even worse. It makes me feel panicky. It makes me feel like she wants a better child than I am, like I am not good enough because I don’t want work.
These ideas about disability often work alongside misconceptions about sexuality. One young person explained how being gay was “blamed” on their disability. They felt that people think you are LGBTQA+ “because you are ill or have autism”.
In addition to confusion about disability and sexuality, young people reported challenges due to their age. One interviewee was told to hold off on identifying in one way until they’re older and more mature; “so that you know for sure, so it gives you time”.
These reactions suggest that there is resistance to young disabled people identifying as LGBTQA+. There seems to be a perception that young disabled people cannot understand LGBTQA+ sexuality. But the stories the young people told me show a long process of working to understand sexuality and gender. Such decisions were not trivial or a result of trends.
It’s not a phase
Labelling sexuality as a phase suggests that it is something through which one will pass, emerging on other side as heterosexual. This frames anything other than heterosexuality as being flawed and suggests that there is something undesirable about being LGBTQA+. One young person said that they thought being “LGBTQA+ in the heterosexual world is a bad thing”. As a society, we appear to be more accepting of LGBTQA+ identities. Yet not for young disabled LGBTQA+ people who are seen as non-sexual and unable to understand what LGBTQA+ means.
We need to think about sexuality and gender as part of life and not a passing moment. This is important because young disabled LGBTQA+ people need appropriate support. Labelling their sexuality as a phase denies them access to information and support as their sexuality is not seen as being valid. They may suffer physical and mental violence and discrimination because of who they are, and are left to fight on their own because no one recognises them for who they are.
In order to work against societal attitudes and misconceptions, we need to listen to the experiences of young disabled LGBTQA+ people and understand that they are experts in their own lives. Dismissing sexuality as a phase says a lot about societal attitudes towards what it means to be young, disabled and LGBTQA+. Yet most importantly, such reactions have a direct impact upon the intimate lives of young disabled people as they work against such challenges to make sense of who they are.
by Alex Toft, Research Fellow in Children and Families Research, Coventry University
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Here are some comments from older readers who identify as LGBTQA+
"I feel this topic is under reported. Well done for sharing this research. I’ve struggled with many of these issues as a child, and my entire childhood was spent in an all boys boarding school, horrific. I’m only beginning to unpick the mental health issues in middle age. We need to talk about this more." — Dave C., PhD Researcher in Anthropology
"I'm travelling and watching a lot of ordinary U.S. movies. SO many of them show “normal” men and women who are —-of course —-attracted to the other sex. Being someone a little bit different seems to challenge people. I saw “Love, Simon” on the plane. Yes, not perfect as a story of a boy growing up who is “just like you” but with one difference: he’s gay. At least it’s a change from the usual boy-looking-for-girl. Some of the European movies show us more interesting challenges, with some disabilities now appearing in the movies, such as the The Intouchables. Again, a start! Being disabled and not-perfectly-average-and-normal (?) is a challenge. Older gay men who have some kind of disability have to keep their sense of self intact with healthy self-talk and loving friends and family. Some more thoughtful and offbeat movies would help." — Peter W., Reader
"I had similar observations within the Social Work field re: service users with intellectual/developmental disabilities and finding out that in any positive representation/recognition of their sexuality heterosexuality (& cis-genderism) is always assumed from service provider to parent. Suffice to say, little consideration is given to how those with disabilities are also minorities within the spectrum of sexuality (and gender identification)." — Edward A., Reader