Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender People with Developmental Disabilities and Mental Retardatio
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Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender People with Developmental Disabilities and Mental Retardatio

Stories of the Rainbow Support Group

John D Allen

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eBook - ePub

Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender People with Developmental Disabilities and Mental Retardatio

Stories of the Rainbow Support Group

John D Allen

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About This Book

Experience the birth of the first support group for sexual minorities with developmental disabilities! Reflecting an unprecedented development in the disabled and sexual minority communities, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender People with Developmental Disabilities and Mental Retardation: Stories of the Rainbow Support Group describes the founding, achievements, and history of a unique group providing support for people with developmental disabilities or mental retardation (DD/MR) who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. In this pathbreaking book, group founder John D. Allen describes the Rainbow Support Group's beginnings in 1998 at the New Haven Gay & Lesbian Community Center in Connecticut and the ways in which it has been shattering myths and stereotypes surrounding people with mental retardation ever since. From the author: Not only are people with DD/MR full human beings with the same needs and desires for intimacy and healthy sexual expression as people without intellectual disabilities, but the group is evidence that some people with DD/MR have an understanding of sexual orientation as well. Acknowledging that people with mental retardation are sexual is a new development in the human service field, but one that is still in the pre-Stonewall days 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 a sexualitylet alone a homosexuality. Members of the Rainbow Support Group discuss the same concerns as other gay people, but in a support system that recognizes their unique perspective. This insightful book shows how membership in the Rainbow Support Group addresses the very real fears and concerns of its members, including:

  • being forced into heterosexual social situations, since that is the only available option for socialization
  • dealing with being outed to peers and staffsince many DD/MR people are not their own legal guardians, this can lead to removal of privileges, various kinds of abuse, and other negative consequences in their day-to-day lives
  • being ridiculed by unsupportive staff
  • being excluded from family functions because of their sexual orientation

It also illustrates the purely positive aspects of membership in the group, which provides:

  • a place to learn appropriate ways to meet others, hear messages about safe sex, and feel empowered to advocate for their own intimacy needs
  • an increased chance of finding a like-minded partner (although the group is certainly not a dating service)
  • an avenue for members to connect with others like them and with the larger gay community in the area
  • events to participate in, such as holiday parties, field trips, movie nights, and gay pride celebrations

The author continues: What is exciting are the positive outcomes displayed once an individual enters the group. Members quickly develop a sense of ownership and wear rainbow-emblazoned clothing to meetings. Everyone has joined the host community center to begin receiving regular mailings and event discounts. Supervising staff report that members perform better at work, have fewer behavioral issues, and experience a greater feeling of contentment. For people with mental retardation, just to be able to say the words 'gay, ' 'lesbian, ' 'bisexual, ' and 'transgender' in an affirming environment is a cutting-edge breakthrough. What the group has accomplished and will hopefully continue to illuminate is the understanding that people with DD/MR are entitled to a whole life experience, including discovering and enjoying their sexuality.

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Section II:
The Members

Chapter 3

Scooby-Dooby Doo, where are you?
We got some work to do now.
There is a significance to 1969 that is not lost on Andy. For many gay people, it was during that infamous summer—June 1969 to be exact—that the modern gay movement began. More important to Andy, 1969 was the year he was born and the same year Scooby-Doo, his favorite cartoon debuted.
Andrew, who likes to he called Andy, is easily the member who has progressed the most. A founding member of the Rainbow Support Group who has faithfully attended every meeting and event, he was almost not allowed to participate in the group following its initial meeting. Andy's support staff felt he was too immature and unable to grasp the core premise of the group, which has always been to discuss what it means to be a person with a disability and also a member of the sexual minority community.
During that first meeting in September 1998, the facilitator went around the room giving everyone an opportunity to say something personal. Members took turns speaking and each was able to demonstrate that he or she had a self-awareness about his or her sexuality. They shared a sense of relief for finally being in a queer space—the New Haven Gay & Lesbian Community Center—where they were able to discuss their feelings. Mostly, they stated they felt alone and desired companionship. Companionship and loneliness are among the most popular themes at RSG meetings, and everyone that evening was able to articulate the reason they were there and what was going on inside of them.
Andy has difficulty speaking and being understood. He slides over his consonants, similar to the speech of the Great Dane cartoon detective, Scooby-Doo. When it was Andy's turn to speak, it was as if he was completely unaware of where he was and what others had just shared. He began talking about having a spaghetti dinner the previous night, when a staff person interrupted and reminded him of the topic. The moment caught the group off guard and, unfortunately, left the staff questioning whether he should continue meeting with the group.
Since he was a young boy, Andy has always known that he liked other males. He had his first sexual experience at age fifteen with a roommate at a now-closed state-sponsored residential school for children with developmental disabilities. The roommate was a streetwise boy three years his senior who liked to smoke cigarettes and easily engaged Andy in youthful exploratory sexual play. Andy said the participation was mutual, it occurred only a few times, and that he liked it. Although he did not identify the play as gay sex, he knew he could not tell the school staff at the time. So strong was the taboo for sex between people with developmental disabilities, and especially homosexual sex, that even now as an adult he still required assistance from his sister and legal guardian, Leslie, to retell the experiences. Andy actually seemed pleased when recalling those moments but had difficulty finding the right balance of words to express the pleasure he remembered and the shame he felt obliged to display for having participated in gay sexual play.
When Andy first came to the group, he identified as bisexual, since he had a platonic relationship with a woman he called his girlfriend. Shortly after joining the RSG, Andy began exploring how he identified and would at times refer to himself as gay.
"I told her that I go to group," said Andy in a matter-of-fact manner. "I told her my group is the Rainbow Support Group and it's for gay people. It's for men who like other men. And I like other men, I'm part of the Rainbow Support Group."
His girlfriend immediately broke off their relationship. The two have remained casual friends and Andy has devoted his attentions to developing relationships with other men, mostly within the group.
Andy's staff knew the RSG was appropriate for him since his actions explained what he could not express in words. Several years before, he had been caught engaging in sexual activity with another man in a public facility and had gotten himself in legal trouble. Many men, and not just those with developmental disabilities, who want to enjoy a shared sexual experience may feel the only outlets they have are opportunistic encounters in such clandestine locations as public rest rooms and parks (Blumenfeld, 1992). Unfortunately for Andy and others in similar situations, he was involved in a sting operation that resulted in a criminal record. He has since been sufficiently instructed to use a stall instead of a urinal when he goes into a men's room, even when he has only to urinate, since urinals are usually less private. Someone will check on him if he does not finish in an agreed-upon time.
Born into what seems like a typical baby-boomer family living in a medium-sized, working-class suburban community, Andy is the youngest of five children, whose ages range from thirty-three to fifty. He has two brothers and two sisters. His parents, who are both living, were married in 1951 and divorced in 1973. While he is emotionally close to his mother and guardian sister, Leslie, and maintains friendly relations with the rest of the family, there are darker moments in his family history.
Like many of those with developmental disabilities who attend the RSG, Andy has a history of sexual abuse. During the time he was sixteen to eighteen years old, his stepfather—his mother's second husband—molested him. Andy's sister, Leslie, said that in retrospect the family realized the stepfather was gay and coerced Andy into sexual encounters.
"My stepfather, sometimes he would come in my room and close the door," said Andy with a concerned look on his face.
Andy knows what was done to him was wrong, but he now feels that all gay sex is wrong, especially when combined with the incidents that got him into legal trouble. He grapples with the legacy of abuse and his desire to express his authentic sexuality in the present. To him, gay sex was what his stepfather did to him, and while he may or may not have enjoyed it, he clearly feels shame when reliving the experience.
Over the years of getting to know Andy, I have been profoundly impressed with his capacity for meeting people and maintaining friendships. Persistent and sociable, he is among the first to greet new members and, when given the opportunity, will incorporate a new friend into a regular routine of phone calls.
One of the ways I was convinced Andy had internalized the message of the RSG was his deliberate effort to maintain a scrapbook. He has become a strong advocate of the group and has assumed an unofficial role as the RSG's historian. He has saved every piece of literature and flyer relating to the group and has filled pages with photos that he coaxes from other members when they are passed around at meetings. He'll frequently rewrite RSG newsletters and newspaper clippings in longhand or on his home computer, which clearly gives him a greater sense of ownership in the group. By copying a newsletter or flyer, Andy further demonstrates his strong connection to the group.
Andy is quick to adopt current trends and is aware of fashions. He has a pierced ear and enjoys wearing contemporary jewelry. His favorite activity is to go to the movies. He is usually among the first to see newly released blockbusters and has a long list of favorite music groups, which are mostly boy bands such as the Monkees, NSYNC, and the Backstreet Boys.
To say Andy has a fascination with the cartoon Scooby-Doo is an understatement. When Andy is infatuated about something, he can go slightly overboard but in an innocent and fun way. He has a Scooby-Doo knapsack, Scooby-Doo notebooks and pens, and even boasts about wearing Scooby-Doo underwear. Although the infatuation may seem juvenile, it is not unlike any other infatuation people have with their hobbies. In the context of some other gay icons—Judy Garland, Barbie, Jackie Kennedy, even Tupperware—Andy's infatuation is understandable. He doesn't have to explain it, nor should he. Andy likes Scooby-Doo simply because he does, but like any other projection, we know that Andy sees himself in the friendly fun-loving character that never turns down snacks and always comes out the hero by the end of the show.
The cartoon centers around four teenaged detectives and a humanlike Great Dane named Scooby-Doo, who has a scratchy voice and a comical laugh. The gang travels the country in a van solving dangerous mysteries. Scooby, as he is affectionately known, has many human qualities and is far from a perfect dog. He is something of a coward but manages to end each episode unscathed, praised for his coincidental genius, and, most important, the center of attention.
"I like Scooby-Doo, because he helps solve the mysteries," said Andy. "He's kind of a chicken, but he's really brave."

Chapter 4

"I've been out with so many of them, but it doesn't last long. We don't know who we want," said Joe, throwing his hands up in the air in a mock gesture of frustration.
"They have all considered each other," said Adrianne Prioleau, a residential counselor who has worked with Joe for five years. "It's a very small circle. If more members come, then they'll hook up with them, too. It's their only options."
The house where Joe lives is a tidy, sprawling split-level in one of the better neighborhoods of a medium-sized college town. With a well-maintained lawn, landscaping, and freshly painted siding, nothing seems to give away that this typical family homestead is now a group home for three men with developmental disabilities.
In many ways, Joe is an average guy pursuing the American dream. At first glance, he does not appear to be a person with a disability. Physically fit, always well dressed, and with a pleasant personality, Joe could easily pass as another considerate neighbor in a nice community. On one hand, he seems content with his station in life, and the fact that he has a disability does not seem to get in his way of enjoying himself, but Joe is resolute in his desire to have a boyfriend.
Joe is a quiet person and displays good manners. He is content hanging around his house and takes great pride in his room, which is comfortably decorated with furnishings he bought with his own money. Spacious and neat, his room is the master bedroom at the top of the stairs with a private bathroom. The room has an oak rolltop desk and an entertainment center with a stereo and a television where Joe can go for those moments he wants to have privacy. Over the dressers are posters of Ricky Martin and a Chippendale dancer.
"I like to shop, lots of shopping," said Joe, describing one of his favorite pastimes. "I like to wear clothes."
Hardworking and dedicated to his job as an attendant at a fast-food restaurant just down the street from the group home, thirty-seven-year-old Joe is able to make enough money to indulge his passion for shopping. Mostly, his shopping involves searching for trendy clothes, accessories, and music, but with his focus on finding a partner, his purchases have expanded to include small gifts of beaded bracelets and rainbow trinkets.
The phone has been a primary link for all of the RSG's members in their attempts to woo one another, and Joe is no different. On occasion, he has had his own phone and can easily spend hours talking with friends and potential mates, but the phone has also caused him financial difficulties. He currently does not have a phone and said it would be best for him to find a partner that lived nearby.
Joe said his residential staff helped him arrange a date with Ron, the youngest and newest member of the RSG, who lives forty miles away. Joe's staff drove him to pick up Ron, brought the two of them back to Joe's for dinner, and then took Ron home.
"I've never dated men before," said Joe, referring to his second date. "I've only dated men in the RSG. We picked up Ron and brought him here for dinner. He had a great time."
Joe said his first date with another man was a year earlier when he invited Andrew over for dinner for a similar evening. Joe's staff drove him to pick up Andrew, brought them back for dinner, and then drove Andrew back home.
"They have all considered each other," said Adrianne Pnoleau, a residential counselor who has worked with Joe for five years. "It's a very small circle. If more members come, then they'll hook up with them, too. It's their only options."
Joe explained that part of his inability to develop a long-term relationship with one of the other members is they are all exploring and honing their relationship-building skills. The reason they alternate so quickly between one another is that they finally have a network of eligible men to practice dating and intimacy, even though their activities so far have all been rather innocent, since staff keep a close watch on any sexual content.
"I've been out with so many of them, but it doesn't last long. We don't know who we want," said Joe, throwing his hands up in the air in a mock gesture of frustration.
Prioleau felt the dating mélange perhaps added a diversion to an otherwise routine schedule. "This has turned into such a drama in their lives because there's not much else going on," said Prioleau. "I just want them at least have some of the same opportunities as anyone else."
Joe grew up in the same town where he now lives. His parents, both deceased, left his older sister as guardian and he has a close relationship with her. He rarely sees his two older brothers. Joe said he has had two long-term relationships with women—the first lasted eight years and the second five years—but they were both strictly platonic. The relationships served their purpose for companionship and conformity, but now that Joe is older and more confident in himself, he is able to more fully discover his personality with the assistance of understanding staff.
When Joe began acting on his same-sex desires, his staff recognized that he was more interested in connecting with men. Joe fully understands what it means to be gay and is candid in revealing that he has acted on his sexuality when opportunities were presented. Although he does not have a definitive coming-out story, Joe said that, in retrospect, he first learne...

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