Wingspan’s Rainbow Support Group: Support for People with Developmental Disabilities

For over 41 years, Wingspan Life Resources has served adults with Developmental Disabilities (DD) in the greater Twin Cities area. Based in St. Paul with a Residential Program providing 24 group homes in Ramsey and Hennepin counties, Wingspan also offers an In-Home Program for adults living on their own or with family. The organization’s mission is to help people challenged by age, ability, or health to realize their unique gifts, talents, and dreams.

Wingspan’s Program Staff advise, “In our Rainbow Support Group meetings we find that members are concerned with being forced into hetero-sexual social situations, since that is typically the only available option for them to socialize. Some members are afraid of being ‘outed’ to their peers and staff, which is understandable since many people with developmental disabilities are not their legal guardians. They are acutely sensitive to retaliation from family or others, such as being ostracized from family functions. Members may be reluctant to add another level of stigma by identifying themselves as members of the LGBT community. However, the primary concerns members describe involve an overwhelming sense of isolation, lack of companionship, and lack of support concerning their sexual orientation.”

The purpose of Rainbow Support Group is to provide 1) peer support for LGBT persons who have developmental disabilities; 2) a supportive space for education and interactive discussions regarding LGBT issues and topical discussions such as: safe sex, dating and intimacy, setting healthy boundaries, issues of consent, pride and self esteem, and coming out to family and friends; 3) a place to feel safe, welcome, valued, and respected; 4) assistance with learning about and accessing LGBT events, resources, organizations, and locations within the community; 5) advocacy and outreach through sharing stories, receiving education about key issues, and learning about cultural and social opportunities; and 6) experiencing the benefits of peer support.

Rainbow Support Group (RSG) is for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to help them be comfortable with who they are. RSG gives them a safe, comfortable environment to talk about their issues and feelings, decide when they are ready to come out, and how to come out to other people. Wingspan’s Chief Operating Officer, Therese Davis, believes, “I think it is important to have Rainbow Support Group because there used to be no support within the intellectual disability system for people who use services and are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning their sexual identity. It is our responsibility to help people with intellectual disabilities be safe in their exploration of their sexuality. Participants discuss the same concerns as other gay people, but they do it in a support system that recognizes their unique perspective.”

How Wingspan Hopes To Impact Social Change

According to Wingspan’s RSG Program Director, Maureen Merrill, “Two key areas we focus on are reducing isolation and increasing safety.In the past, LGBT persons with disabilities did not know each other and were sometimes kept away from each other or anyone they were interested in or had a relationship with. Some of these adults are forbidden by their families to even consider having a loving, intimate relationship with another person. Many of these families would be even more condemning of a same-sex relationship. The group gives our members a chance, often for the first time, to be surrounded by other LGBT persons and to talk about common experiences. Many members have never said ‘I am gay,’ or ‘I am a lesbian’ before.”

The group’s current ages span from 18 to mid 40s, though the range has been as high as age 70. One of the youngest members of RSG, Sam, says, “Rainbow Support Group changed my life. My parents are very supportive, but I felt isolated and alone and this group has really helped me in so many ways.” Sam will be graduating from a Transition Program in June. His passion is music and he attributes this to his mother—a music teacher who encouraged musical experiences at a young age. Sam has shown leadership in Wingspan’s recently formed Glee Club which includes several of his peers from Rainbow Support Group. Although RSG is not intended as a dating group, relationships have sometimes formed; Tim and Bill from Wingspans’ In-Home Program met at Rainbow Support Group and have been dating for three years.

People who have developmental disabilities are, by definition, vulnerable to people who may take advantage of them in different ways. There are many horror stories of people with developmental disabilities having been abused physically, emotionally, and/ or sexually. Heterosexuals with developmental disabilities are more likely to have had some family members try to talk to them about safe touch, strangers, and relationships. Parents or family of LGBT people with developmental disabilities may be more likely to simply forbid discussion about relationships and sex altogether.

In his book Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender People with Developmental Disabilities and Mental Retardation, Dr. John Allen, MS wrote in 2003:

“Although the process of coming out is complicated, it is doubtful that even those who are most understanding can imagine the obstacle of trying to navigate the intricacies of sexual orientation discovery by a person with a developmental disability. Acknowledging that people with mental retardation are sexual is a new development in the human service field, but one that is still facing pre-Stonewall mentality regarding those who are gay. Although people with mental retardation are given unprecedented freedom to make personal vocational decisions, there is an unfounded expectation that they do not have sexuality—let alone homosexuality.

As antiquated institutions are closed and residents are moved into more mainstream settings, some human rights issues have been inadequately addressed. Perhaps it is because of an enduring paternalistic attitude that people with mental retardation are childlike and require protection from adult experiences. Personal biases of support staff and guardian family members also serve to restrict individual freedoms. With great strides being made in human services, hopefully a new understanding is emerging which recognizes that healthy sexuality is a natural component of being an adult.

Just as heterosexuals do not have a monopoly on sexuality, the potential for having a relationship is not limited to intellectual privilege—it is part of what makes us human.  What the Rainbow Support Group has accomplished and will hopefully continue to illuminate is the understanding that people with Developmental Disability are entitled to a whole life experience, including discovering and enjoying their sexuality.”

With LGBT adults who are developmentally disabled, family, staff or guardians may not know they are gay or may not want them to admit or talk about it. The persons with disabilities may be left with odd ideas about how gay/lesbian/bi or transgender people conduct their lives—based on whatever they have gleaned from movies, pornography, or stereotypes. In Rainbow Support Group, members reinforce for each other wise, safe practices and ways of dealing with relationships, strangers, etc.

A first-time grantee of PFund, Wingspan will utilize grant dollars to expand opportunities for Rainbow Support Group to participate in more LGBT community events and to advance its social change mission in advocating for the group. Rainbow Support Group currently meets on the last Wednesday evening of each month at its program office in St. Paul, and sessions may include outings such as a summer pool party, attending gay pride festivities, a haunted hayride in the Fall, going to a One Voice Mixed Chorus concert, and other LGBT community events, and holiday celebrations. There is no fee for participation, and the group is open to LGBT adults with developmental disabilities who are not Wingspan residents or clients.

For more information about Rainbow Support Group, please contact Program Director, Maureen Merrill, at mmerrill@wingspanlife.org or 651-644-2665 X 102

Written by Darolyn Gray, Development Officer, Wingspan Life Resources
dgray@wingspanlife.org 651-646-3846 X246

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