Young people have to work hard to make sense of who they are and where they fit in society. For young people who are disabled and identify as LGBT+ this is even more challenging as they work against a backdrop of societal misconceptions and prejudices. Furthermore, young people are rarely asked about their thoughts and experiences, often leading to decisions being made on their behalf.
Overprotecting disabled young people and not providing them with opportunities to learn about sex and relationships can actually place them in situations of risk. In our research we talked to young disabled people aged 16-25 years to try and understand the challenges faced and the strategies employed to mitigate such difficulties. Here we share our thoughts and the voices of young people in regards to three key challenges they face: societal perceptions which are often harmful and unhelpful, discrimination, and what support young people access.
Societal perceptions and their implications
‘…people don’t expect you to have that interest [in sex and relationships], and even if they did would presume that you’re straight because it’s not generally advertised that disabled people can be gay, they can be transgender, people are just blind to it.’ (Bridget, 18)
Young disabled LGBT+ people believe that people in society view them as not being sexual, particularly with regards to anything other than heterosexuality. This has a significant impact upon their lives, as they are being denied access to relationships and aspects of life that they have a fundamental right to.
There are also implications for education and how the young people learn about and access their rights, as they are consistently excluded from such information on the presumption that it is not for them due to having a disability. In removing or denying such education to young disabled people it could be argued that they are being placed in situations of heightened risk. Not receiving support and information from good sources, such as school, means they are often left to explore without guidance or knowledge of positive relationships.
Discrimination on a number of levels
In light of such misconceptions and prejudices, the young people faced considerable discrimination and abuse:
‘I have tried suicide because that is how much it affects me. Because I have been getting quite a bit of abuse about it as well. I have been called a tranny, I’ve been told to slit my throat, slit my wrists, nobody wanted me here. I’ve been beat up a few times as well’. (Abigail, 19)
Such stories are common and represent a situation where individuals are discriminated against on a number of levels. Young people can feel isolated because of their disability and targeted because of their sexuality.
There are also more tacit forms of discrimination and abuse that occur. For example, being young and LGBT+ has been presented as being a ‘phase’ or a result of the young people’s disability. This is an example of how the validity of young people’s identities is undermined; leading to situations where young people felt that they had to hide who they are based upon the situations they found themselves in. Due to people not understanding, or being willing to understand, the young people felt it was often safer not to disclose their sexuality and/or their disability.
How young people can be supported
The support and information that young disabled LGBT+ people access about sex and relationships is inconsistent and insufficient, with many young people receiving basic biological education and rarely information about LGBT+ and relationships. It is clear that facilitated social groups and online communities can offer ‘safe spaces’ to explore issues surrounding sexuality and relationships.
Promising practices and initiatives such as the work of the x2y group in Wolverhampton do exist, offering peer support, education and a relevant network for young people, although such services are rare. Such a group also acts as an enabling space for young people to meet:
‘I don’t know where I would be without all of my LGBT and disabled friends…we have a lot of discussions about sexuality, we have good discussions about sexuality, so yeah it’s really good to have other LGBT, and you know, autistic friends to support me.’ (Edith, 21)
A need for consistent support and information about sex and relationships
This is the first study of its kind to give a voice to those who are young, disabled and LGBT+. Our work is on-going and we will be sharing preliminary findings as part of a British Academy Research Spotlight event. Initial findings suggest that the needs of young disabled LGBT+ people are not even being recognised let alone met. Their views need to be central to future research, policy and support.
There needs to be consistency in the support and information they receive about sex and relationships. Societal perceptions mean that daily life is challenging for the young people who have to construct intricate strategies to manage their identity. Although recent assurances have been given for equality in Sex and Relationship Education the details of how this is to be achieved is unclear.
Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Dr Alex Toft (Principal Investigator) is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Innovative Research Across the Life-Course (CIRAL) at Coventry University. Together with Dr. Anita Franklin and Emma Langley, Coventry University have been funded by a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant to explore the experience of young disabled LGBT+ 16-25 year olds, particularly in terms of identity, rights and education needs.
British Academy Charlie Mock