LGBT Rights and Disability Rights: LGBT History Month tells us we’re not there yet.

February is a wonderful time: LGBT History Month. A month when the opportunity for reflection “in the community” can help us to see where we’ve come and where we need to go. It’s a good time for exploration, culture and conversation and the third sector in Leeds has an important part to play. But still, something you might not hear much about during History Month (or at any time of year) is the experiences of LGBT people with learning disabilities.

Community within a community
According to the Office for National Statistics, 2% of the UK population identified themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual in 2016 (note that robust data on trans identities is completely absent). The ONS also says that at least 1.5 million adults in Britain have a learning disability. What this data can’t do is give us any insight in to how LGBT people with learning disabilities navigate their lives.

Luckily for us in Leeds, our own LGBT+ Mapping Project has shone a light on the experiences of this community within a community. The project has confirmed what we had suspected long before: there aren’t enough inclusive spaces and resources for LGBT people with a learning disability either on the commercial gay scene or in the (shrinking) world of disability support. If you work in health and social care you already know the challenges facing us in accessing good quality, well-resourced activities for learning disabled adults.

Existing between two worlds
Despite the historical connection between Britain’s Disability Rights and Gay Liberation movements, the commercial gay scene and its associated ‘community’ continues to exclude people who are living with a disability. Wheelchair access seems to be ambitious, let alone inclusive communication and safe space policy that respects neurodiversity and supports learning disabled customers. Befriending and dating groups for disabled adults might not be any better for lesbian, gay or bi people. I know of one agency for in London that ‘couldn’t offer’ a woman client its service once she’d clarified that she was seeking dates with other women.

Living in the ‘Straight World’, many of us are familiar with the experience of being presumed to be heterosexual until declared otherwise. But the Disability Rights Movement spoke out about this particular experience years ago as people were being denied the right to enjoy sex and relationships on their own terms. Why is it that people living with a disability are presumed to be uninterested in romance and intimacy, but especially same-sex desire?

All too often we hear people with a learning disability being reduced to their experience of disability or their medical condition. In fact, health issues are often underdiagnosed in learning disabled adults because the focus is on their disability as being their ‘main issue’. This same logic appears to disqualify disabled adults from having a sexual orientation or gender identity.

Moving forward
LGBT people are disabled. Disabled people are LGBT. Systematic disadvantage holds us all back and we need to get better at working with individuals to create well-resourced relevant services that we can all be proud of. It’s not good enough to set out in earnest with a ‘one size fits all’ approach any more.


Thanks to Eleanor Broadbent for supplying this story
Eleanor has an MA in Gender Studies and has lived and worked in Leeds for eight years with jobs in the public and voluntary sector. She has researched the intersections between socialism, feminism and lesbian identity and has been involved with a number of community projects on the LGBT+ scene. Eleanor focusses her activism in the Rape Crisis movement and is a Trustee at SARSVL, the Rape Crisis centre for Leeds. Eleanor also works for St Anne’s Community Services with responsibility for inclusion and service user involvement.