It’s challenging enough to be a young person navigating through the world without being ignored and discriminated against, but that’s the reality for many young people who identify as disabled and LGBTQ+.
Research on disability and LGBTQ+ has previously centred on adults,” explains Dr Alex Toft, whose work at Coventry University focuses on giving young disabled LGBTQ+ people control and agency on the issues and concerns that they face. Although there is an increased awareness of the LGBTQ+ community in the classroom, Alex has found that young disabled people are being left out the conversation when it comes to sexuality.
Disability and sexuality are already taboo subjects for many, and Alex found that young people felt they were treated like they should be non-sexual. Being ignored and discriminated against (whether through violence, micro-aggressions or being excluded) was an everyday occurrence for many.
The sex education pupils receive in school across the UK tends to be heteronormative – meaning that educators only include straight experiences and information – and it focuses on biology and reproduction rather than relationships and sexuality. Young disabled people believe (whether rightly or wrongly) that the LGBTQ+ community isn’t open to them due to their disability. They feel there is nowhere for them to go.
Many feel they have to disguise that part of their identity. “You often can’t hide disability, but you can choose not to show your LGBTQ+ identity,” says Alex. “For young trans people, it’s more complex because it’s visible, so they go into “stealth” mode, hiding part of themselves for safety reasons.” As transphobia is on the rise, young disabled LGBTQ+ people feel increasingly uncertain about their future.
Being visibly disabled and LGTBQ+ can mean that there is a target on your back. Abigail*, 19, has been physically attacked on the street several times and has contemplated suicide. It’s no wonder that people feel the need to hide their sexuality. Alex has found that while parents can be supportive about disability, they may see coming out as a phase and not accept it. There is no refuge, even at home.
Not being part of a community and being left in the dark regarding the issues that face them can be dangerous. Many disabled LGBTQ+ young people are at risk – and not just from discrimination and violence. “If you see people as non- sexual beings and you don’t give them information, it can lead to them making risky decisions as they explore their sexuality without any guidance,” explains Alex. “We need to stop desexualising disabled people,” he says.
Overprotection or treating a disabled person coming out as a phase means that their sexuality is not valid – and they’re not being taken seriously.
Clearly a lot needs to be done to change perceptions of sexuality and disability.