Who to tell, what to say?

“Good services will help people with learning difficulties develop
opportunities to form relationships, including ones of a physical
and sexual nature. It is important that people can receive
accessible sex education and information about relationships and

This statement from Valuing People, the government white
paper on learning difficulties, represents an important challenge
to services. Policy documents in Wales, Scotland and Northern
Ireland contain similar messages.

Lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people with learning difficulties
may have additional needs or face particular barriers in this area
of their lives, including prejudice and discrimination in wider
society, as well as from staff, services, family and friends. But
until recently the stories and experiences of LGB people with
learning difficulties have been largely hidden. Finding out more
about their lives represents a crucial step in working out how best
to offer support, services and information.

Researchers at the Norah Fry Research Centre, University of
Bristol, worked in partnership with Terrence Higgins Trust and
Regard, the national organisation of gay, lesbian and bisexual
disabled people. A three-year study, funded by the Big Lottery
Fund, aimed to find out more about the experiences of gay, lesbian
and bisexual men and women with learning difficulties.

The research involved interviewing 71 staff in 20 learning
difficulties services across the UK about their views and
experiences of working with people with learning difficulties who
were, or may have been, gay, lesbian or bisexual; and interviewing
20 women and men with learning difficulties who were having, or
wanted to have, a same-sex relationship.

The people we interviewed told us a lot of distressing messages.
Much of it reflected the experiences of non-disabled LGB people but
some differed. For example, in relation to “coming out”, people’s
fears of rejection from friends and family were strong, but among
people with learning difficulties it was exacerbated by their
concern abut “coming out” to staff and services. They were worried
that if they did so, services would be taken away, or even that
they would be asked to leave the places where they lived.

Mark talked about why he did not want people at his day centre to
know he was gay: “They might start being funny with you, saying,
‘Well, you shouldn’t be that, you know, you’re not that, you’re
just being silly’. They might even say, ‘If that’s the way you’re
going to start acting then you’re not coming to this organisation
any more’. You might even get dropped from the centre.”

Unfortunately, the fears that people had about coming out to staff
were sometimes well-founded. Interviews with staff showed that most
services were reluctant to engage with gay, lesbian or bisexual
people. Some of this was homophobia; sometimes a fear of doing work
in the area without the support of policies, training or
management. But often it was because only a few staff did things
that sent a message to others that it was all right to be lesbian,
gay or bisexual.

This quote from a worker in a day service speaks volumes: “The
local day centre found a couple of men having sex in the shed and
guess what they did to deal with the problem? They took down the
shed. I think that says it all.”

However, a few services that we visited as part of the research
were doing thoughtful and effective work. This was often no more
than putting up pictures of same-sex couples on the walls of
offices and services. In two services where this had been done, gay
men with learning difficulties had said it made them think that it
would be safe to come out. Paul said the pictures made him feel
that it was “all right to have anybody you love”, while Jim said
the pictures that were around at his advocacy service made him
think “everyone’s equal here so I’ll come out”.

A report by gay equality organisation Stonewall in 1996 found that
LGB people experienced high levels of verbal and physical abuse. In
our group of 20 people, 19 said that they had been bullied, called
names or assaulted. Much of the verbal abuse came from close family
members. Four people told of serious discrimination and harassment
in their places of work. Half of the people we interviewed had been
physically or verbally abused by strangers on the street or on
public transport. Christine told us about children in her
neighbourhood who had called her names for being a lesbian.

“Some of them do call and spit at us and stuff, and I hate that.
They are not as bad now, they lay off a bit. But when I first moved
they used to call over and hit the ball at the door and chuck
stones and stuff.”

Finally, the people we spoke to had a lot to say about love. People
wanted boyfriends and girlfriends to fall in love with, do
day-to-day things with and to have sex with. A few people were in
relationships but most were not. They told us about some of the
barriers they faced – prejudice, difficulties in meeting other
people, hostility when they used gay pubs and clubs.

Ann spoke at length about her isolation and depression – a theme
common to almost all of the interviewees. She longed to meet
another lesbian and was on medication to suppress her sexual
feelings: “My mum had to get me tablets to calm me down.” But two
young women, Angelique and Sarah, who had met each other through a
magazine, spoke at length about how much in love they were.

LGB people with learning difficulties were clear about what they
wanted from staff in services. They wanted staff to be supportive
and non-judgmental about their sexuality. They wanted practical
help to achieve important goals such as going to places where they
might meet other LGB people. People wanted help and information to
think about the emotional aspects of relationships, and clear
information about sex which makes them feel like adults and not

Stephen offered an eloquent and robust challenge to ambivalent
staff: “It’s actually taken me a while for staff to understand I am
who I am and let’s get on with it. It’s all right in my life, it is
me that’s dealing with the issues, and all you do is support me
with my issues. And that’s been hard work. Just say it. If you’re
not happy with who I am, just say it. I’m not going to change who I
am to please you. Tough luck! Get on and like me for who I am, or
go and find a different job.”

This research has uncovered much of what was previously hidden in
the lives and experiences of people with learning difficulties.
What we can keep with us as we move forward are the words of one
man, simply and clearly expressed:

“I suppose my ultimate dream is to be with someone who I’m going to
be with for the rest of my life.”

Don’t we all have similar goals for our lives? 

Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to
guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl
and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on
a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a
service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered

This article reports on research into the problems and
prejudices lesbian, gay and bisexual people with learning
difficulties face when they come out to professionals, family and

Further information
D Abbott and J Howarth, Secret Loves, Hidden Lives?
Exploring Issues for People with Learning Difficulties who are Gay,
Lesbian or Bisexual, Policy Press, 2005. Available from Marston
Book Services on tel 01235 465500; fax 01235 465556; e-mail direct.orders@marston.co.uk.

A summary of research findings and information about resources for
people with learning difficulties and for staff is available on the
Norah Fry website: www.bris.ac.uk/Depts/NorahFry

Contact the author
By e-mail: David Abbott at d.abbott@bristol.ac.uk

Joyce Howarth at joyce.howarth@bristol.ac.uk 

David Abbott is a research fellow at the Norah
Fry Research Centre, University of Bristol. He has worked for the
past three years with co-researcher
Joyce Howarth, exploring issues for lesbian, gay
and bisexual people with learning difficulties.

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