Impact Feature Issue on Sexuality and People with Intellectual, Developmental and Other Disabilities
A Daughter-Mother Conversation
Where to begin? How do we have this conversation? Sitting at the round glass dining room table with my mom, Nancy, and a laptop, we talk about the process, the road that we travel on together. She brings out her notes and she says, "I wrote something" and proceeds to read a beautiful summary of her experience raising a girl with a disability, who just happens to be a lesbian. Or should I say a Lesbian who just happens to have Cerebral Palsy. We begin with her gut reaction to my coming out… "At first, I was very surprised! What about those yummy Brad Pitt posters on the bedroom wall, or the tears and screams for hot male rock stars?" She goes on, "So very pretty, feminine, and even a flirtatious side; kisses and college sex."
The conversation continues and she goes on to say, "But when the truth came out I started to put the pieces together… The pain and frustration I remember her suffering so, not a poor me over a disability, but more confusion and devastation over losses of best girlfriends. The lack of support in her world, and how to talk about something so strong you were feeling. Where do you turn when you don't want to let down your family? Oh, how I wish I would have seen the signs earlier, opened the door for a conversation. We knew gay guys but not so many lesbians. Corbett expressed that she thought only guys could be gay." With tears streaming down my face, I say, "You did know what I was going through!" We laugh now, but when you are in it, it feels like nobody sees you.
I had tried to get involved and interact with my peers, but all they saw was my wheelchair, the Disability. I was at a party once, the only boy/girl party I was invited to before I was completely left out, and I remember a boy whispering, "How do you dance with her?" My heart broke. This is only one obstacle, but it represents the distance between me and the opportunities that others, without disabilities, may experience. I might have had the chance to "figure things out" had I had a way or opportunity to navigate those social/physical gaps. How do I help others to be comfortable around me when I am still figuring what I am comfortable with myself? There is a period of time that young adults use to flirt, experiment, make mistakes and learn from; this period did not truly happen for me until I went to college.
In trying to help me, I was put into counseling from the time I was seven years old until my fourth year of college. Although I had several counselors, it seemed to always be about the disability and my adjustment to it rather than the deeper issue. What if someone had taken the time to understand that the real issues I was having had to do with understanding who I was as a sexually-maturing woman who had some real questions about what all these feelings meant? What if I had gotten some validation, someone had seen that the struggle wasn't disability-related but sexuality, wanting relationships, intimacy, sex, to find what feels good and what doesn't? What if someone understood that I wasn't getting my human needs met? My mom goes on to read, "A part of me was worried: she is so sexual, what is going to happen to her?" And my response is, "It was so painful because I had all of those feelings and had no place to put them. Everyone asked if I was angry because I was disabled and I was angry, yes, but it was about wanting intimacy. I wanted the movie stuff. I wanted the Tom CruiseRisky Businessstuff."
So it was in college where I met peers who saw me for me and I was able to have those experiences I saw in the movies. I was searching for and wanted to give normalcy to a very not normal situation. Then I met my Ashley and it was like finding that one thing that brings you comfort. Then the feelings of doubt set in. I felt as if I let the family down. I had always envisioned bringing home a boyfriend to give my brother a male role model. Instead, I brought home Ashley. My mom explains, "Suddenly I was at a loss for rules. Should she sleep with her friend in my house? I wouldn't want it if it was a guy. I laugh about the tent built in her bedroom." She goes on, "My role changed so. I no longer helped with those special needs – dressing, bathroom etc. Felt left out. But then I'd hear them laughing and talking, talking so at ease with each other and very much in love. Questions pop into mind like, 'What about babies?' As time went by and their relationship grew it was the same letting go as it would be in any loving relationship. Their comfort level slowly let me back in. I found myself so happy that they were so happy. It's okay not to be immersed in their life. Everyone grows."
We discuss that mom was unsure about some of the literature Ashley and I gave her – information about Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and books. She mentions, "I thought it was about people who are upset about their gay kids." Both of us realize now that this was my way of asking her to show me acceptance and support. My mom sums it up when she says, "Gay is this world of wanting rights and being supported. I could have joined something to show my support, even though I was supportive. It amazes me, all the derogatory comments made by people all the time. It is disgusting how freely people discriminate."
We want to leave you with the understanding that it's not always about disability. Support comes in all shapes, sizes, and needs to be recognizable by the receiver as well as the giver. Laughter through tears is the best way to get to know yourself and others. Even when the lines of communication look thread bare, keep talking; there is always someone on the other end. Information is vital to understanding the real issues, and sometimes the issues just need a voice.
My mom and I have learned so much about each other and ourselves by writing this article and we encourage people with disabilities, their families, friends, and professionals to support the fact that people with disabilities have the right and desire to express their sexuality, experiment, experience, fall in love, make mistakes, get a broken heart and dream just like everyone else. May we all find happiness where we least expect it.