Being young, disabled and LGBT+

  • Dr Alex Toft - Principle Investigator. Research Fellow, Centre for Innovative Research Across the Lifecourse, Coventry University
  • Dr Anita Franklin - Reader in Children and Family Research, Centre for Innovative Research Across the Lifecourse, Coventry University
  • Emma Langley - Research Assistant- Centre for Innovative Research Across the Lifecourse, Coventry University

Dr Alex Toft and colleagues’ Dr Anita Franklin and Emma Langley from Coventry University are working on a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant project exploring sexuality in the lives of young people who identify as LGBT+ and disabled. The project aims to understand how the young people negotiate their identities and the issues they face, particularly in terms of societal perceptions, discrimination, rights and support, information/education needs. In this short editorial we focus upon how the young people negotiate their identities in relation to societal perceptions and access support/information. It is important to note that the project as a whole explored identity from an intersectional perspective, with a focus upon micro, meso and macro factors within these systems, and as a result is more detailed. We will be publishing a series of articles exploring this in greater detail; however, it is clear that from our analysis these two aspects were particularly challenging for young people.

Young people have to work hard to make sense of who they are as they gain independence and start their journey into adulthood. For young people who are disabled and LGBT+ this journey can be difficult to navigate as they work to make sense of their ‘selves’ but also begin the struggle against a heteronormative, disablist society. For this group of young people, there is an additional layer of complexity in that both these key identities are subject to misunderstanding, which could lead to additional challenges for the young people.

We interviewed 13 young people and incorporated a range of methods to try to ensure that the interviews were accessible and empowered young people. This meant developing a range of innovative methods such as role-playing activities, vignettes and identity cards to help build rapport and allow the young people to express themselves. We tried to let the experiences and thoughts of the young people guide the interviews, as they are the experts on their own lives. We are also aware that previous research has tended to focus upon disabled adults and be conducted ‘on’ rather than ‘with’ disabled people.

Young disabled LGBT+ people feel that society perceives them as being non-sexual. One young person, Edith, discussed this in relation to the amount of independence young disabled people have. She argued that society would label her as being asexual:

Especially with those who are physically disabled, people just assume that they will be asexual, they will remain a virgin, people say you know that they may not have that amount of independence but the reality is, you know, that they can be, and the same goes for people with mental issues, they may have restrictions but they can be. (Edith)

We found that although asexual was used by a number of the young people, ‘non-sexual’ is perhaps more accurate, as there are strong negative connotations being applied to the term asexual here. A number of the young people identified as asexual and had reclaimed the word to refer to sexuality defined by aspects other than sexual behaviour. This complexity illustrates the continued battle for clarity and understanding that a number of the young people had to engage in.

The sexual identities of young disabled LGBT+ people are consistently undermined and denied value, according to the young people. This was most clearly felt in the responses of parents and professionals, who struggled to understand their needs or to accept what they were told by the young people. A number of the young people were forced to live different lives in public and private spheres. Many of the young people also told us that their parents felt their sexuality was a phase. It was also a common feature for young people to feel that those supporting them saw them as unable to be LGBT+ because they did not fully understand what it meant. Again, such a standpoint is exclusionary and potentially very harmful to the young people. It is clear that parents and professionals need support and information regarding sexuality.

The support and information available to young disabled LGBT+ people is inconsistent. We found that the young people are either denied information about sexuality (because they are seen as not requiring it), it is heteronormative with a focus upon biology, or it is inaccessible. One respondent, Wayne, highlighted his frustration with regards to the situation concerning sex and relationship education. He understood that it was his right to receive such education:

If I have the right to it; then it should be standard. You shouldn’t be having to ask for certain things to be taught to you. You shouldn’t have to ask it should just be done regardless, which I think would also help with tolerance. You could argue that it would be difficult for disabled people to understand but, you know, like with normal sex education it can be broken down, it can be simplified, you know it can be adapted, so there is no excuse really. (Wayne)

Without support and guidance, young people felt that negotiating their identities was difficult. The focus is on them to educate themselves whilst working against perceptions of disabled sexuality which are not positive.

We acknowledge that this small scale project has a number of limitations, particularly in regards to sampling and the methods adopted. It would have been desirable to have a broader range of young people take part, including those who are physically disabled and/or who have more complex communication needs. Although it is likely that physically disabled young people who face additional challenges such as heightened exclusion and a lack of access to gay spaces, it is an aspect that needs more exploration. In the short time frame of this work we were unable to develop a fully accessible methodology to include young people with complex communication needs, and so we will continue to develop our innovative methods and look to develop more inclusive techniques of collaborative work in future research.

The team are currently working on preparing a number of academic articles and an edited volume on youth, disability and sexuality. We are working to disseminate the findings at a number of conferences, including the recent BSA conference at Northumbria University. We continue to work with our established networks and are seeking to secure funding to conduct a large-scale national project which will have academic and policy impact and make a a positive difference to the lives of young disabled LGBT+ people and the parents and practitioners who work to support them.  

Contact Details

Dr Alex Toft
Research Fellow
Centre for Innovative Research Across the Lifecourse (CIRAL)
Coventry University
Richard Crossman Building (4th Floor)
Priory Street
Coventry CV1 5FB
Tel: 024 7765 5954
Research Gate: