It’s National Coming Out Day, and I’m thinking about people with disabilities who are queer, gender nonconforming, or both.
Queer and trans* people around the United States and Canada will celebrate this weekend. Some will come out for the first time ever. Some have been out for years. Some will never be or feel safe to tell people who they really are.
Because of assumptions and attitudes about disability, deciding when and whether to come out is almost never simple for most people with disabilities.
People with disabilities are thought of as nonsexual, as having complicated lives that revolve around our disabilities. People are surprised to know that we work, that we have relationships, desires, interests, human foibles. Often, people don’t imagine that we could be sexual. Or, they’re inappropriately interested in our sexualities. Bluntly put, we’re often seen as genderless and sexless..
Our world is still so dependent on the assumption that most people are the gender they were assigned at birth, and most people want heterosexual relationships. Take someone who is already seen as different, and the reaction to them coming out can be anything from dismissive to dangerous.
Take all of this and multiply it a few dozen times and you’ll have a rough outlines of the attitudes towards LGBTQ+ folks with intellectual disabilities.
People with intellectual disabilities are thought of as not being able to understand sex, sexuality, or relationships, let alone want or think about any of those things. (As if any of us get to say what anybody’s sexuality, or how they feel about another person, should look like!)
A person with an intellectual disability who comes out (on Coming Out Day, or any other time) might hear:
“They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
“Oh, isn’t that sweet.”
“They’re just repeating what they hear other people saying.”
These words are often used to dismiss what a person with an intellectual disability wants other people to know.
When this happens, a boy or man saying he wants to have a boyfriend might be told that he doesn’t need to have one, or that he has lots of friends who are boys, or that only girls have boyfriends.
Dave Hingsburger has written a lot about the barriers people with intellectual disabilities have faced, just for expressing who they truly are, about the difficult history around love and relationships especially.
The stories he tells are sometimes funny, sometimes touching, and usually heartbreaking. When other people have authority over where you live, who you se, what you do with your days (which happens for a lot of people with developmental and intellectual disabilities) disapproval of how and who you love, of who you are, is way more than disapproval. It’s interference, people exerting their will and making you be who you want to be. I recommend taking time to go through his blog archive. What you knew bout the world will be flipped on its head.
As a gay and disabled man himself, Dave’s perspective is especially sharp.
In the following story, Dave gives support to a person with an intellectual disability who is sharing that he’s gay and in love.
I told someone I was gay the other day.
I don’t do this often because I don’t have to – pretty much everyone knows. So it felt odd, pushing the closet door open and letting it bang shut after me again. This time, though, I came out strategically. I was just in conversation with a man with Down Syndrome who was talking with me, struggling with the fact that he was attracted to, and had kissed, another man. He thought he was in love. He was aching with pain, it was all wrong, he was dirty and sinful.
I couldn’t bear watching him. I couldn’t bear remembering the pain of feeling shamed for feeling loved.
I couldn’t bear watching him hurt.
So, I said, “You know I’m gay, right?”