Article

Frontline Initiative: Supporting Healthy Relationships

In this together

Author(s)

Brian Potvin is a personal outcome measures interviewer at The Arc of Monroe in Rochester, NY. He may be reached at bpotvin@arcmonroe.org

Woman and three men at Pride. They are wearing colorful purple t-shirts from The Arc of Monroe.

Deb Czerniak, Brian Potvin, Pete Dancer, and Dave Becker celebrating Pride in Rochester, New York

Coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or non-binary (LGBTQ+) can be a lonely and confusing process for anyone. When I look back on my own experience, I remember vividly how it felt when I realized that I had to tell everyone in my life whom I cared about that I was gay. It’s been 10 years since I came out, but the memories of those insecurities remain familiar. My mind was constantly overwhelmed with questions. Will people start treating me differently? Which of my friends will support me? Will anyone in my family understand? Will I ever be honest about my personal life at work? I’m grateful to say that many of those insecurities were unfounded. The social support that I had spared me from whatever personal catastrophe I was anticipating. 

Society’s perceptions of equal rights for LGBTQ+ people has shifted dramatically in the last decade. Those of us who once felt alone are finding more acceptance in our personal and professional lives. However, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities still face many barriers when they go through the coming out process. They might struggle to feel accepted by their support staff, friends, and family because of their sexuality or gender identity. They can also feel left out of the greater LGBTQ+ community because of their disability. They might feel like they’re alone, especially when they don’t know anybody else who is experiencing something similar.

PrideAbility is a social group that creates a safe place for people with disabilities who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community. The group includes people with disabilities as well as Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) who are either part of or allies to the community. It began several years ago with a small group of people in Long Island, New York. As their group grew in size, they saw how powerful this was. They recognized that there was a need for groups like this around the state of New York. Our group in Rochester, New York, was established a year-and-a-half ago by myself, someone I support, and another DSP. We started small but have grown steadily as our message of inclusion and awareness draws in those who need a space to talk about these things in an informal way. People gain a sense of empowerment from getting together and being honest about whatever they are going through.

Our doors are open for anyone with an open mind who wants to come and find community with others who have a disability, or for those who support someone with a disability who is part of the LGBTQ+ community. We have monthly meetings at our local LGBT+ community center. This is significant because being in that location helps us bridge the gap between people with disabilities and others in the LGBTQ+ community. We also meet informally throughout the month in other places in the community. For example, we meet at local sports teams’ pride nights or the city’s annual pride parade. We stay in touch on social media, where we also collaborate with other PrideAbility groups throughout the state. People can meet others who are facing some of the same insecurities and concerns. They also can hear the stories of triumph and success that they have had. Listening to these examples helps people develop confidence through seeing ways others have overcome the obstacles they face in their own lives. These meaningful opportunities help people feel seen and accepted. 

I’ve felt comfortable sharing with the group some of my own experiences and struggles, with the intention that we can all learn from each other’s experiences. One of those things I’ve shared is something I still struggle with regularly in my work. That is, being honest about myself as I earn the trust of someone I am supporting, or when I’m establishing a relationship with a member of that person’s family. Whenever I’m engaging in a meaningful conversation, people I support ask me about my personal life. They mean well when they inquire about my wife or girlfriend at home, but each time I hear that I freeze up. I weigh the potential consequences that my honesty could have. There have been times when I’ve held back details of my personal life. I smile and say, “No, no girlfriend for me,” and quickly move on from the topic. There have also been times where I’ve been honest in my answer to the question. When I answer, “Yes, I have a boyfriend” the reaction I get each time always blows my mind. It’s never what I fear it to be. I’m always surprised at how quickly the people I support accept and appreciate me for who I am.

At the agency where I work, we’ve used these values to support people who are navigating the coming out process. We’ve helped them advocate for themselves in the face of resistance from others. We educate our staff to help them gain awareness of issues that LGBTQ+ people continue to face. We also train our staff on ways to create safe spaces, and how they can be accepting of the diversity of people’s sexuality and gender preferences.

As DSPs, we help the people we support find their voice. We advocate for the people we support to reach for the qualities of life that matter to them. We work with people to establish and maintain meaningful relationships in their lives. We help them participate fully in their communities. At the agency where I work, we’ve used these values to support people who are navigating the coming out process. We’ve helped them advocate for themselves in the face of resistance from others. We educate our staff to help them gain awareness of issues that LGBTQ+ people continue to face. We also train our staff on ways to create safe spaces, and how they can be accepting of the diversity of people’s sexuality and gender preferences. It’s important for any DSP to have knowledge about the cultural values of each person they support. We are here to help the people we support navigate every season of their lives. We need to be that person that they feel comfortable opening up to so we can help them know that they are not alone in their current situation.