Impact Impact Feature Issue on Violence Against Women with Developmental or Other Disabilities

Homophobia as Violence


Dave Hingsburger , York Behaviour Management Services Sexuality Clinic, Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada.

“Dirty and disgusting!” A young woman with a developmental disability is crushed. Hurt to the core she withdraws into herself, a soul languishing in despair. No one offers her compassion.

She was referred to my office for “sexual inappropriateness.” A small note in the file said that she had developed a crush and then expressed sexual feelings for a staff member. Not an uncommon problem in the field of human services. Meeting her, however, was a shock. She shuffled into and out of her intake meeting as the living dead. I was out of my chair the instant she was gone. Was she over medicated? Under fed? She’d have to speed up to be lethargic! Her condition frightened me.

Back at my desk I waited for a phone call from her residential placement. I was WORRIED. A small knock came on the door and I bid enter to a woman who I’d seen at the sheltered industry. She sat nervously and I could see that her nails had been bitten to the quick.

“I think I’d better tell you what happened” she said, after pleading for confidentiality. Then the story poured out. Two days before the referral was made, the woman with a disability had approached this staff during a moment alone. Three little words were said by each, opening the two gates to a living hell – one gate being fear, the other hatred. The staff member in front of me, a closeted lesbian, was terrified that the little “I love you,” that had been uttered toward her would bring her world down. She feared she’d be accused of tempting, teasing, taking advantage of a vulnerable individual. The young woman expressing her love was told by the staff member that her love was “dirty and disgusting.” She had been destroyed. Her gift of self, of love, was more than rejected – it had been spat upon.

One woman was dying in the back of the closet, one had been thrust into the limelight. For the lesbian staff member her worst fears were realized in the reactions of the other staff. An older coworker who sat at the centre of staff politics now referred to the young client as, “a full meal – you know a vegetable and a fruit.” For the lesbian client, her life was now one of ridicule, rage, and referral.

That the system supporting people with disabilities has been, and is, often wildly homophobic is no great surprise. In addition, the history of the response to any type of sexuality on the part of woman with disabilities is riddled with institutional violence, as testified to by a history of mass sterilizations coupled with cruel punishment for women who dared to love ANYONE openly. Women with disabilities have been alternately seen as bearers of disease or the potential mothers of disaster. It doesn’t have to be that way. Once while doing an abuse prevention class for Native Americans with disabilities in northern Arizona, I met a lesbian couple with disabilities who touched each other lovingly and openly, in full view of everyone. Nothing happened. Nothing. Their relationship, I learned, was honoured and valued. It was seen in the context of a culture that valued love more than control, and harmony not hegemony.

To begin the work of healing with both the woman referred to me for “sexual inappropriateness” and the closeted lesbian staff member, we had to believe it was possible to move through bigotry. With that belief we began therapy. One with a lot to lose apologized to one who had lost everything. An explanation was given, secrets were revealed, and the healing started.

Years have passed and that same agency wherein lesbian love was hailed as “dirty and disgusting” has provided ways for gay, lesbian, and bisexual men and women to gather together, to acknowledge their sexual orientation in safety and with pride. In offering this they have as an organization begun with apology – and are on the way to healing.

It’s impossible to know how much violence is done within the disability services system to women with disabilities because they are lesbian or bisexual. We also don’t know how much damage has been done to women staff who are lesbian or bisexual. Staff often leave or impose a cloak of silence upon themselves. Women with disabilities are often “treated” – which can be a code word for controlled. What we do know is that it’s possible to move past fear and hatred to a place of respect and affirmation. We do know it’s possible to end the violence of bigotry.