Feature Issue on Sexuality and Gender Identity for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities
Expanding Our Wings
Around a table in St. Paul, Minnesota, people with IDD who identify as LGBTQ+ come together to talk. One person shares about deciding whether to come out as a lesbian to her family members, who sometimes make rude comments about gay people on television. Another wonders where it might be safe for him to wear Spandex, which makes him feel sexy. Someone laments that their group home staff can’t seem to figure out how to use their gender-neutral pronouns. Many members express the desire to meet someone they might like to date—a person who understands them, finds them attractive, and wants to connect.
The Rainbow Support Group is a safe space to talk and laugh.
These are just a few concerns of the self-advocates who are part of Wingspan’s Rainbow Support Group. Wingspan Life Resources is a Twin Cities-based non-profit organization that serves adults with developmental disabilities. Wingspan has long recognized the importance of making information about sex, gender, and relationships available to marginalized communities—including those with disabilities. In 2002, a Wingspan program director learned of the Rainbow Support Group model, founded in 1998 in Connecticut by John D. Allen, and Wingspan began offering space for LGBTQ+ adults with IDD to come together in a welcoming environment. The group provides a monthly refuge for people to be themselves, connect to the wider community, learn how to advocate for themselves on the topics of gender and sexuality, and access information to help them make safe and informed choices. There is an independent sister group in Mankato, Minnesota, and we communicate regularly with Rainbow groups on the East Coast.
It remains difficult to navigate or even bring up conversations about sexuality and gender outside of the safe spaces these groups provide. People with disabilities and their families and supporters have fought for their rights to direct their lives, but many families and staff still struggle with supporting people with IDD to express their sexuality and gender identity. This is especially true when someone’s identity or interests fall outside of the cisgender, heterosexual box. When someone faces the double stigma and exclusion often accompanying disability and LGBTQ+ identity, it is especially important to express acceptance and provide access to community and support.
Rainbow Support Group is a free, peer support group that provides a safe space for people to express thoughts and ask questions. Participants also learn about and discuss dating and intimacy; safe sex; setting healthy boundaries; pride and self-esteem; and coming out to family and friends. People are welcome even if they are not affiliated with Wingspan. The group meets at least monthly and for special outings.
Rainbow Support Group members show off their rainbow cowboy hats.
Sexuality and gender are often left out of person-centered planning conversations, leaving people with IDD questioning whether they will be supported if they bring up the subject on their own. The risk of disapproval, which comes with the fear of restraining access to needed services, leads some people with IDD to avoid bringing up their needs and goals around sexuality and gender. Others may feel a general sense of feeling different but might not have the information or language to see a place where they fit. We have also heard anecdotes about case managers and guardians who have denied access to gender-affirming services or assistance with dating, leaving people to pursue what they need without support, which can put them at risk.
Earlier this year, the Minnesota Department of Human Services’ HCBS Provider Capacity Grant Program awarded a $99,000 grant for Wingspan’s Rainbow Support Group to expand its outreach regionally. Previously, the group survived without much of a budget and ran on volunteer time, limiting our ability to expand the group or address structural issues affecting LGBTQ+ self-advocates. With the support of grant funding, we are now able to raise awareness about the resources we provide in hopes of connecting more people with the support group. We are available to provide support for those who wish to start groups in other regions of Minnesota, and we can offer virtual workshops for out-of-state organizations.
Wingspan has also begun offering trainings to leaders and staff of group homes, day programs, and case managers on how to support LGBTQ+ people with IDD. We hope these trainings will encourage organizations to ask people about their goals as sexual beings and for expressing their gender identity as part of their person-centered practices. Suggestions include adapting organizational intake forms to be inclusive of chosen names and more gender options, as well as educating staff to be aware of the wide range of possibilities when it comes to human sexuality and gender identity. This year, we plan to advocate for changes to our state-wide annual meeting survey to include questions about sexuality and gender. Self-advocates in the Rainbow Support Group have begun sharing their stories through public speaking engagements, which we hope will help families and guardians to better understand the LGBTQ+ community, increasing acceptance and support.
Creating welcoming spaces and providing resources for people with disabilities to express their full identities is worth the investment of time and training, and we welcome other organizations, volunteers, speakers, and people in the LGBTQ+ community to connect with us.