“TICK THE STRAIGHT BOX”: Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) people with intellectual disabilities in the UK


James belongs to a support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT+) people with learning disabilities in a large town in England. The group is going to a local Pride event and James is able to attend the event with his paid support worker. The festival lasts several days and he is able to stay the whole period with support. The support worker offers practical help (e.g., arranging travel and accommodation and buying tickets) but there has been discussion that James also sometimes needs a bit of emotional support as he is worried about feeling overwhelmed by the event. At Pride he meets someone who later becomes his boyfriend. The following year they attend Pride together, supporting each other.

Creating a chapter about LGBT+ men and women with learning disabilities (the term used in the UK which usually compares with the term “intellectual disabilities” in other parts of the world) is complex for many reasons. A conventional approach would be to rehearse and repeat the different reasons why the intersection of sex, sexuality and learning disability has been so problematic and oppressive; to highlight the limited, but gloomy, research; and to point to the lack of or ineffectiveness of policy. These are important issues, but 1 and others have started too many pieces of writing of this nature in that way. Pleasure, risk, fun, sex, adventure—these become peripheral and ‘aspirational asides.’ So, 1 start with James who, by all accounts, had the time of his life at Pride. I start here too because I am a culpable part of a tradition which writes something like, “...not much is known about the experiences of being an LGBT+ person with learning disabilities.” But who is it that does not know? LGBT+ people with learning disabilities have known about their own experiences—and sometimes those of others—for all of time. Perhaps their knowledge is not privileged or considered valid until it has been told or ‘colonised’ by non-disabled people? Conscious of that, my aim as a non-disabled, gay researcher and academic is to be an ally to the community of LGBT + people with learning disabilities and to tell and amplify their stories in the hope of effecting social change. This chapter is part of that endeavour.

It is nearly twenty years since I participated in one of the very first studies to hear directly from LGBT+ people with learning disabilities in the UK.“Secret Loves, Hidden Lives?” (Abbott and Howarth 2005) came about because we were told about a gay man with learning disabilities who was being bullied and called names in his day service. We went in search of some life stories of other LGBT+ people with learning disabilities to inform staff training and found none. The results of the research that ensued were overwhelmingly heart-breaking (Abbott and Burns 2007; Abbott and Howarth 2007).The lives we heard about were often secret and hidden, and characterised by loneliness, discrimination and depression. Interspersed within these stories were moments of joy, of emotional and sexual connection and of relationship and good support.

Our research (Abbott and Howarth 2005) coincided with a Labour government in the UK and increases in public spending alongside stronger legal and policy frameworks in relation to all disabled people. Same-sex relationships were referred to in the main policy driving force for people with learning disabilities, “Valuing People” (Department of Health 2001). There were a number of local social/support groups for LGBT+ people with learning disabilities. These were set up to combat loneliness, social isolation and discrimination, and to give LGBT+ people with learning disabilities safe places in which to explore their identity. Most of these were run by individual champions on a basis that did not seem massively sustainable. As the political climate changed and in a rather speculative update to this research published 15 years ago, 1 suggested that austerity had eroded much of the work that had been done and that sex and sexuality would return to the back burner, labelled, “nice but not necessary” (Abbott 2015). The UK is more than ten years into the political project called austerity and of course LGBT+ people with learning disabilities continue to exist and to have the whole range of aspirations, hopes and challenges as non-disabled LGBT+ people. Their voices surface in quite ad hoc ways on social media, in tweets and news stories, in local initiatives and re-established groups. In a spirit of trying to understand the current climate of issues related to sexuality and LGBT+ people with learning disabilities, I visited six of these social/support groups for LGBT+ people with learning disabilities in England.These were visited because organisers and some members confirmed their willingness to participate and meet with me. (I was aware of one other group that I was not able to visit.) These visits were focused on getting a sense of whether things were changing positively for LGBT + people with learning disabilities and to learn more about how the groups were operating, and are the focus of this chapter. There follows a brief commentary on the ‘state of play’ with regard to research, policy and practice, and then a more detailed look at current approaches in a number of social/support groups for LGBT+ people with learning disabilities in England.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >