Let’s talk disability, sex and LGBTQ+ education this Pride Month

This Pride Month, it’s time to change conversations around sex, disability and the LGBTQ+ community. 

Our individual identity is imperative for us to live healthy, prosperous lives. However, many disabled people are being left behind when it comes to discovering intimate relationships and the LGBTQ+ community and realising their true identity, and the implications can be harmful.

Between June 2000 and November 2003, Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was repealed. The clause, it is believed, prohibited local councils from distributing any material, whether plays, leaflets, books, that portrayed gay relationships, which could have also integrated into relationship and sexual health education (RSE) in schools across the UK.

“The sex education that I got was very heteronormative and cisnormative*,” remembers Erin Ekins, an autistic woman set to release her debut novel, Queerly Autistic: The Ultimate Guide for LGBTQIA+ Teens on the Spectrum. “At the same time, what I got that was heteronormative also wasn’t very extensive.”

*CIS references cisgender, a person whose gender identity matches their sex identified at birth, not ‘comfortable in own skin’ as mentioned in the print edition.

Alongside the limited experience of RSE that Erin and many others have experienced, there is research to highlight that many young disabled people are being forgotten when it comes to RSE and LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning) education.

IDENTITY 

“Disabled people are often labelled as non-sexual and their capacity to understand things is commonly called into question,” emphasises Dr Alex Toft, research fellow at the Nottingham Centre for Children, Young People and Families at Nottingham Trent University.

Through extensive research and communication with young disabled people, Alex reveals participants to his study have noted that they were infantilised and not taken seriously in regards to their sexuality or gender identity. 

Alex continues: “As a result, for many, any education concerning sex and relationships was withheld from them. Throughout previous research there are examples of young disabled people being removed from such lessons or being told that it is ‘not for them’.

“This problem is acerbated when it comes to LGBTQ+ lives and identities.”

SELF EDUCATION

For Erin, who was diagnosed as autistic later in life, it was through television shows and online communities that she learned about the language around sexual identity. “I identify as queer and bisexual, but I really didn’t know that was something that existed until I was probably about 16,” reveals Erin. 

After a character in one of Erin’s favoured series had a relationship with both a man and woman, Erin learned that bi-sexual – attraction to both genders – was an identity. 

Erin continues: “I finally felt I understood who I was. I knew I wasn’t gay, but I was really confused that if I wasn’t gay I must have been straight. I really didn’t feel I was straight.”

Unfortunately, Erin’s experiences are not uncommon. Speaking to disabled young people, Alex learned that RSE education is primarily focused on reproduction. Participants in Alex’s research would like to see more relationship-based education, alongside the message of normalisation: normalising all gender identities and sexual orientations, regardless of disability.

Denying young disabled people this education can have evident negative consequences. 

“Exclusion and denying young disabled people information about RSE and LGBT+ lives has a wide-reaching impact in their everyday lives,” emphasises Alex. “It could threaten future relationships, affect wellbeing and mental health and exclude them from spheres of social life to which everyone has a right to access.”

For Erin, the education she craved was one she had to discover herself. Now well versed in LGBTQ+ history and rights, Erin’s debut novel Queerly Autistic will share her experiences and the experiences of other disabled identities to help cement a new wave of RSE for the disabled community.

RECOGNISE

Erin enthuses: “I wanted to give young people something they could use to pinpoint things in their lives because it is so important.”

But, Erin has faced backlash for her comments previously. “There was an assumption that sex and relationships didn’t happen if you are disabled,” explains Erin. “I think there is an issue with infantilisation, an urge to shut down the thought of autistic people having sexual relationships. Just because it makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t mean you should neglect to have the conversations you probably would have with a neurotypical child.”

Alex concurs: “There needs to be a re-evaluation of the views people hold, and why people hold such views about young disabled person.

“The consistent denial that young disabled people cannot be LGBT+ or are going through some sort of phase reveals a good deal of ableism and misunderstanding about sexuality and gender identity.”

Approaching Pride – celebrated during the month of June, commemorating the Stonewall riots which occurred in June 1969 – it is still a much-needed event to highlight the lived experience of the disabled LGBTQ+ community.

Beth, a member of the young disabled LGBT+ Researchers Group (a group of young people who work together with Alex to design and conduct research) emphasises: Months such as Pride are incredibly important in the disabled and LGBTQ+ community because not only do they celebrate differences, but also they make visible the hidden groups of ‘other’ in society, and make a statement that we exist and are refusing to be ignored, marginalised or ashamed for what and who we are.”

Erin adds: “I think it is really important that young disabled queer people get as much chance as anyone else to celebrate their identity. Particularly because the world would rather they didn’t have a sexuality at all.”

It is evident, a lot is still to be desired when it comes to RSE and LGBTQ+ education. However, thanks to the vital work people like Alex and Erin do, partnered with other members of the community sharing their lived experiences and Pride month, it is hoped the conversation around disabled people in healthy, loving relationships of all identities will change for the better.

Support and advice are available from Stonewall and BrookSPARK+ has been launched specifically for young LGBTQ+ people. You can purchase Queerly Autistic online and follow Erin on Twitter.