Supporting LGBTQ+ People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

By Pauline Bosma

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Hello! I’m Pauline Bosma. I grew up in a small, country town in Massachusetts. When I was young I was considered a boy with slight mental retardation. In addition to a disability label, at the age of four I also started to have questions about my gender. I didn’t know how to express these feelings and I kept them hidden. When I got older, I continued to struggle to figure out who I was and it was turmoil. Dressing as a man made me feel stressed, but if I was getting dressed up as a woman, I felt relaxed. I would go out to buy women’s clothes and I would wear them in private but then I would feel ashamed and throw them away. With time and support, I finally came to accept that this was a gift that God gave me: in my brain I was feminine and a woman.

When my mother found out about my identity as a woman, she was not happy and she told me “you would make an ugly-looking woman”. I was very depressed. Later, on her deathbed, she forgave me and she told me she loved me no matter what. My siblings have disowned me and I still do not talk to them. I have also had service providers who did not accept me as a woman and tried to change me. I still worry when I go out that someone might insult me or attack me for who I am.

LGBTQ+ people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), like me, deserve to be accepted and supported for who they are. LGBTQ+ people and people with disabilities are both much more likely to be bullied or discriminated against. Many family members and professionals do not understand or accept when a person with IDD is LGBTQ+. LGBTQ+ people with IDD are sometimes not allowed to express their gender or sexuality, which can make them feel lonely and ashamed. I believe that we need to support LGBTQ+ with IDD so they can express who they are and live happy lives.

In 2004, my friend and I started to spread the word about our new Rainbow Support Group for LGBTQ+ people with IDD in Massachusetts. He and I sat in a room every month, just the two of us, hoping for more people to join our group. Now it is 17 years later and we have five groups across the state with hundreds of members. I have also connected with other groups from different states and countries and I lead trainings about how to support LGBTQ+ people with disabilities. With Elevatus Training, I teach people how to support healthy sexuality for LGBTQ+ people with IDD. I am lucky to have a lot of people in my life now who understand me and support me and to have a great job where I can advocate for LGBTQ+ people with IDD.

Pride month is a great time for all of us to show acceptance and support for LGBTQ+ people with IDD. Here are some things that you can do:

  • Listen and believe what they say about their gender and sexuality
  • Have an open mind — there are many different ways that people identify and their identities might change over time
  • Send messages of support and acceptance
  • Teach them about gender, sexuality, and LGBTQ+ identities so they can figure out who they are and have the words to describe their feelings
  • Support them to determine for themselves how they want to express their gender and sexuality
  • Call them by the names and pronouns that they want you to use
  • Connect them with a support network of LGBTQ+ people, including people with IDD, like the Rainbow Support Groups
  • Give them the education and resources they need to be in healthy and happy romantic and sexual relationships

What you say to people and how you treat them really matters. Pride month is a time when many people feel inspired to come out and tell others about their LGBTQ+ identity or ask questions about the LGBTQ+ community. With Katherine at Elevatus Training and the Rainbow Program Support and Elevatus Adjunct Trainer, Oscar Hughes, I created a handout that gives examples of how to respond if someone comes out to you or has questions about LGBTQ+ identities. Please download this handout and share it with others so that LGBTQ+ people with IDD will be supported when they share their true selves with the world.

Download PDF handout Here

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Pauline Bosma is the founder and coordinator of the Rainbow Support Groups, a network of support groups for self-advocates who are members of both the intellectual and developmental disability community as well as the LGBTQ+ community. Pauline identities as a transgender woman who is labeled with an intellectual disability. She has extensive experience offering training and presentations on issues related to the LGBTQ+ and disability community. Pauline works for Massachusetts Advocates Standing Strong, where she continues her work with Rainbow, works on the Awareness & Action peer-to-peer training to help people with disabilities recognize, respond to, and report abuse and works with the Mass Rights for Change project to develop a program to support people with disabilities that have survived sexual abuse.