LGBTQ+ people with learning difficulties: a fight for visibility

Society is loathe to accept that disabled people have sexual identities, or can be anything other than cis. Karen Pollock welcomes the formation of a new group for LGBTQ+ people with learning difficulties


Visibility is a good indication of who has power within our society. It is why there have been many campaigns for better representation from those who sit on the boards of companies to those who trade quips on panel shows. The demand has gone out to improve diversity, to say the world is made of many different identities, and all deserve to be seen.

For LGBTQ+ people, this idea of being visible has deep roots. Just look at the language we use to talk about self; we are “out” or “in the closet”. We are “loud and proud”. The gay rights movement, and its myriad of successors, grew from the idea of no longer hiding who we were. Those who oppose LGBTQ+ rights and representation so often say it is fine if it is behind closed doors; it’s public affirmations of our identities they object to, or so they claim.

Visibility is not just about the actions of those who wish to be seen, but about the willingness of society as a whole to be willing to see. It is a two way process; if I wish to be seen, but you refuse to recognise me, or only see me in a way which denies my complexity as a human being, then I become invisible. So it is that entire sectors can deny the need for accommodation of difference, because those who would benefit are invisible to them.

Very often, this process of “invisibilisation” or, as some now describe it “erasure”, happens to those whose identities are more complex than society is willing to accept. Disabled people are one group who face this erasure in so many of their interactions with the outside world. As figures of inspiration, or pity, society just about recognises that physical disability exists. A simple narrative of triumphing over adversity provides a very narrow lens through which the disabled experience is viewed. Non-physical disabilities are still very often ignored. Some campaigners call them the “invisible” disabilities, as they fight to have their needs recognised.

People with learning difficulties belong to this group of the invisible disabled. For a long time, this invisibility was reinforced by locking away those with learning disabilities. They were to be removed from sight, very often for the comfort of the neurotypical rather than to meet their own needs. High hospital walls and locked wards were deemed the solution to a problem which only existed because of a negative reaction to difference. I grew up near a large hospital of this type, and still remember the shock and surprise people exhibited when the patients started being brought out from behind the walls for walks through the town.

We have thankfully moved away from this ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude, but many problems remain. One problem faced by people with LDs, but shared by so many people regardless of their disability, is society’s reticence to accept  discussions of sex, gender and sexuality as expressed by those with disabilities. For those with learning difficulties, it can be especially hard as we have become accustomed to framing them as children, rather than the adults they are.

In a society which struggles to accept straight and cis people with learning difficulties (or that they even have gender and sexual identities), LGBTQ+ representation is rarely even considered. In 2005, Bristol University published the first, and to date, only research into the lived experience of LGB people with learning difficulties. It makes sobering reading;

Virtually every person with a learning difficulty who took part in the research said they had been bullied or harassed as a direct result of their sexuality.

However, the gay scene was felt by many to be unwelcoming and staff were often reluctant to see this work as part of their jobs.

There was also a sign of the determination the participants in the study showed;

Despite the very many messages telling men and women with learning difficulties that it is a problem for them to be sexual at all – never mind gay, lesbian, or bisexual – people were forging their identities and striving to lead full sexual and emotional lives.

Worryingly, many of those who work with those with learning difficulties opposed supporting LGB people to live full lives which explored their sexual identities.

There were concerns – and some reticence – about doing work in this area. These related to a lack of experience and confidence, gaps in policy and training provision, prejudicial attitudes and concerns about the (potential) adverse reactions of other people including parents, carers and other colleagues.

Discriminated against because they were LGB, and had learning difficulties, this is a group we are all too willing to pretend does not exist. It seems no research has been conducted which also includes trans people with learning difficulties. Layers of erasure surrounding a group whose intersecting identities mean we prefer to believe they do not exist perhaps? It is the case that recently, the idea has been growing that somehow being autistic means a person cannot be trans, most recently on the infamous BBC documentary defending conversion therapy.

In a radical, and much needed step, a number of organisations have come together in and around Bristol to try to change things for this invisible community. I spoke to a number of those involved with this groundbreaking scheme.

Tracy Smith, from Public Health Bristol explained how the group came about:

This new group came about when a service user who has a learning disability and identifies as trans wanted to join a group where she would fit in. There didn’t seem to be any LGBTQ+ groups accessible to people with a learning disability in Bristol.  So, I worked with Brandon Trust, The Diversity Trust and SARAS (Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support) to set up a meeting to see how we could make this happen and the first LGBT LD Group was born.

As the Diversity Trust, who have been instrumental in supporting the new group, explained

We know from our own research and research with others that isolation, thinking there is no one else “like me”, is a significant barrier and impact on the lives of many LGBTQ+ people and especially impacts on adults with learning disabilities

Brandon Trust works with children and adults with learning difficulties and autism. They highlighted how the formation of the new group has been led by LGBTQ+ people with learning difficulties.

We heard from people that there is very little support for people who identify as LGBTQ+, and started a conversation with other organisations to find out what their experience is and what support is available to people. We decided to work together to provide a supported opportunity for people to connect and socialise.

Speaking to Jill Corbyn, head of involvement at Brandon Trust, it was clear just how important projects like this are;

We know that additional barriers to socialising and connecting with others leave many people with a learning disability feeling isolated within their communities.

People have told us that they don’t always feel welcome in LGBTQ+ groups, they find it hard to connect with other people – particularly people who identify as LGBTQ+.

People have also told us that it is difficult to find information they want and need in an accessible form.

Somerset and Avon Rape Crisis were also instrumental in setting up the group. They had already identified the difficulties faced by people with learning difficulties who have experienced sexual abuse and rape. SARSAS are currently running a 3-year project to make the service more accessible for people with a learning disability. This includes developing resources, hosting an advisory group for people with learning difficulties who have experienced sexual violence and offering one-to-one support or counselling for survivors.

Currently, the group is meeting at St Stephen’s Cafe in Bristol, and the next meeting is on February 16th. You can contact Tracy on 07876 814 592 or find out more on the Brandon Trust website if you would be interested in attending, or know someone who might like to.

The wider LGBTQ+ community needs to consider its idea of who is acceptable, who is allowed to access our spaces, who is welcomed into our fold. Until we do so, it is at least heartening to hear that others are stepping in, and providing much needed support, education and opportunities for LGBTQ+ people with learning difficulties. . 

Follow Karen on Twitter (@CounsellingKaz)

A note on language: All of the organisations use, and participants in the study, and attendees in the group identify as, people with learning difficulties so this is the term that has been used here, with an awareness that others may prefer different language.

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