For those of us working in the area of intellectual disability, it’s easy sometimes to assume many things. To assume we know why someone is in a bad mood, to assume that the washing-up takes precedence over having a cup of tea with a resident, to assume that people with disabilities are not interested in sex, and definitely not interested in members of their own gender. Well, I would hope that most of us working in the area would also assume that people with disabilities are also just like ‘us’—like everyone else on the planet. Since that is the case, it’s also safe to assume that anywhere between 3-10% of the population are attracted to members of the own gender, which is what being gay is.
The sexual expression of people with intellectual disabilities and homosexuality in Ireland share a little bit of history. The Act which decriminalised homosexuality in 1993 was also the Act responsible for the criminalisation of sexual activity involving people with intellectual disabilities. While this law was written to protect vulnerable people from abuse, the repercussions of it have been far reaching, and not so clear-cut. It is often a struggle for people with intellectual disabilities to be able to get themselves seen as sexual beings, like everyone else. People don’t want to talk about it, believing that people with intellectual disabilities are ‘child-like’ or vulnerable. Being gay with an intellectual disability is a taboo within a taboo. In order to change this, we must revisit the way we work, and how we see people with disabilities, and how we see gay people—not an easy task, and not one that can be achieved fully here. However, some points for discussion can be addressed here, and this article will briefly discuss the notions of homophobia and heterosexuality (and how it affects the way you work with people with intellectual disabilities, and how you might react as a parent); what it actually means to be gay, and the difficulties around people with intellectual disabilities and being gay. The article ends with some general advice.
Homosexuality and intellectual disability
What does being gay actually mean? Well, if you feel attracted to members of your own gender, whether that is exclusively or in addition to attraction to the opposite gender also, then you’re gay. There are many myths that surround sexuality, and homosexuality in particular. There is no scope in this article to address or to debunk all of these myths. Even within the gay community, the images presented by the media about homosexuality, and what ‘makes’ a person gay, can influence the actions of people who identify as gay. Many young gay men face confusion because they aren’t ‘camp’, or that their friends won’t believe that they are gay because they’re really good at sports and don’t like interior design programmes.
Given that people without disabilities become incredibly confused about their sexuality during puberty and throughout their lives, the situation for people with ID can be just as confusing, if not more so. People with intellectual disabilities may not understand the sudden changes in their bodies at puberty, and as some parents and carers wish to protect their children, in some cases they are not encouraged to explore their feelings in the same way as their non-disabled peers. Some people with intellectual disabilities may need help to understand their feelings. Those individuals who have difficulty expressing themselves may express their sexuality in different ways. For example, I once worked with a gentleman who never spoke of feelings of love or of romantic or sexual desire. However, he became very interested in watching the film ‘The Full Monty’ repeatedly, and spoke about it a lot. One woman I worked with became obsessed with another female resident in the house, to the point of becoming very upset if anyone else spent time with her. Of course, these incidents alone do not mean that a person is gay, not by any stretch of the imagination. However, some incidents like these may be a person’s way of communicating or expressing what they are feeling, even if they don’t fully understand what that is. It is our job, as supporters of people with intellectual disabilities, to do our best to try and figure out what the person is trying to say, and to support them in whatever way we can.
Heterosexism and homophobia
‘Homophobia’ is a term that is used quite often, and yet it is important to know exactly what the term really means. Broadly speaking, it is a fear of homosexuality, and it can be expressed in many different ways ranging from jokes about ‘queers’, to feelings of deep revulsion and hatred of homosexuals and homosexual behaviour (Gramick 1983). Further to these broad definitions, homophobia has been described as also having elements of anger, fear and dread of being around homosexuals (Berkman and Zinberg 1997).
‘Heterosexism’ is described as ‘a belief system that values heterosexuality as superior to and/or more ‘natural’ than homosexuality’ (Berkman and Zinberg 1997). If you think it’s ‘more normal’ to be straight, then you’re heterosexist. What this means is that although you may not be openly or aggressively homophobic, your attitudes will subconsciously affect the way you work with individuals.
Research has shown that heterosexist attitudes are prevalent in the helping professions (Ben-Ari 2001; Berkman and Zinberg 1997). Doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists all exhibited homophobia and heterosexism to varying degrees; in most studies, social workers exhibited the highest rates across the spectrum.
But what does this mean, in practice? Well, if we look back at one of the previous examples I mentioned earlier, the woman who was very interested in her house.mate, and became very upset if she spent time with other people. It would be very easy to consider any number of reasons for her behaviour, and what was motivating it. It is necessary then, not to exclude the possibility that she had romantic feelings towards her friend, and wanted to spend all her time with her. If you ignore that possibility, you do a disservice to the individual you are there to support.
It is also important to be aware of the possible related issues that being gay may bring for the people you support. Cochran et al. (2003) found that men who self-identified as homosexual or bisexual were more likely to suffer from depression, panic attacks and psychological distress than heterosexual men, and that lesbian and bisexual women were more likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder than heterosexual women (Cochran, Sullivan and Mays 2003). However it is important, when attempting to work in a non-heterosexist way, that we understand that the root cause of a person’s problems may not be anything to do with their sexuality. It is not going to be the answer to every question we ask, but it needs to be a possible answer, and acknowledged as a valid one. Not acknowledging that a person with a disability might be gay, and might be confused about this could lead to many problems. Of course, it is just as likely that a person with a disability will know they are gay, and be perfectly fine with that— and in those cases we need to ensure we support that person as much as possible, and don’t associate his or her being gay with the disability. (For a great video that explains this, and which really highlights a lot of the points in this article, please check out a video made by the Leonard Cheshire Group in the UK. This group ran a series of focus groups with people with intellectual disabilities around sexuality, with the result being a series of vignettes illustrating points that members of the focus groups raised. One such video is the story of Brian, available to watch at http://www.vimeo.com/10351006).
Working positively with people with intellectual disability around sexuality issues
This article has introduced something of a taboo within a taboo—people with intellectual disabilities being gay. We have spoken about what it means to be gay, and what it means to be homophobic or heterosexist. The consequences of these attitudes in the work you do can be detrimental to the people you support. It is dangerous to make any assumptions around sexuality, and it is important for people to know that they can discuss their confusion (if they are confused) with you, and also to talk about their feelings in a positive and safe way. You might think that it would take a lot to bring some of these elements into the way you work and think every day, but there is a simple but effective way to begin working in a gay-affirmative and non-heterosexist way. Very often when chatting to people, we ask the question ‘have you got a girlfriend?’ to a man. If he says no, why not follow this up with, ‘have you got a boyfriend?’ Or indeed, from the start you could ask ‘have you got a boyfriend or a girlfriend?’ This is one simple way to show that you value gay relationships as equal to straight ones, and that should a person you support be gay, you have quickly shown that that is a topic that is open for discussion. That knowledge alone might just be invaluable.