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Stigmatised Sexuality: Disability and Self Expression

CW: This article mentions themes of body and gender dysmorphia

LGBTQ and The Disabled Communities

Safe spaces for these groups have often provided solace for those living with chronic illnesses and disabilities to simply be given the opportunity to exist without scrutiny

Since the late 20th century, rapid cultural and societal development saw a shift towards a greater significance of self-expression and freedom of speech, and with this, the opportunity for positive change and tolerance towards the subject of sexuality and gender identity.

Intimacy is an important characteristic of the human experience and with the growing celebration of individualism, positive developments have been made in the LGBTQ+ community, particularly in the past decade. 2014 saw the first same-sex marriages in the UK, and in 2019, a rise in education on the history of the LGBTQ+ community and their legal rights.

The increasing popularity and the connective capability of social media has given marginalised groups a platform to share their personal experiences in exploring their sexual identity and a way to reach out to others.

The visibility of the LGBTQ+ community has also had an impact on the perception of disability awareness; the two groups often being entwined through their messages of acceptance and constant strive for change. According to a piece by Disabled World, approximately 36% of women and 26% of men in the LGBTQ+ community suffer from a disability, a higher percentage than their heterosexual counterparts.

It is easy to see why the two groups coincide at times, with safe spaces for these groups often providing solace for those living with chronic illnesses and disabilities. To simply be given the opportunity to exist without scrutiny is something I have also experienced myself.

However, the topic of sexual expression among those living with a disability comes with its own plethora of difficulties and stigmas attached, and many are still struggling to have their voices heard.

The Struggle Against Stigma

“Instead of addressing the sexuality of people with disabilities, we are preconditioned to ignore it – pretending it just doesn’t exist” - Gaelynn Lea Tressler/ The Mighty

The extensive range of disabilities and varying nature of the limitations caused, alongside the lack of societal understanding can be an isolating experience in figuring out the more intimate parts of life.

Many conditions have a great impact on physical and mental capabilities which make the navigation of romantic relationships increasingly difficult.

Furthermore, lingering stigmatisations still exist; with the belief that those with disability are unable to be intimate and express sexual desire. An article for the Centre of Human Policy, ‘Obstacles to Equality’, presents research about the discrimination that disabled women face; “many people with disabilities consider sexuality to be the area of greatest oppression.”

Alongside this, members of the transgender community have found themselves unknowingly associated with disability. An article by Harvard Law Review discusses the issues of categorizing gender dysmorphia under disability laws. “By eschewing arguments narrowly focused on gender dysphoria, transgender rights advocates unwittingly exacerbate stigma toward the condition and toward people with disabilities more broadly”.

With issues of the desexualisation of those with disabilities, the impacts on mental health these stigmas have caused has lead to many suffering with anxiety and self confidence, worsening the body dysmorphia people experience when coming to terms with intimacy and their health struggles.

Gaelynn Lea Tressler, a musician and writer for The Mighty states, “Instead of addressing the sexuality of people with disabilities, we are preconditioned to ignore it – pretending it just doesn’t exist”. For young people navigating disability in particular, it can be a struggle being able to access spaces where there is an opportunity to safely socialise and express sexuality.

The Growth Towards Expression

Growing communication has allowed understanding to bloom and stigmas surrounding disability and romantic relationships is dwindling.

With this in mind, it's important to highlight that positive steps have been made towards more equal inclusion. With more diverse media outlets and community forums championing disability equality, many people are now able to openly share their experiences of navigating intimacy with limitations. Helping challenge and debunk the stigmatisations surrounding the topic.

One of these being The Mighty, a community-contributed space supporting a wide range of disabilities and chronic illnesses that regularly shines a light on intimate experiences and has become an important source of validation and information for many people.

The past few years have also seen the introduction of fully accessible events which can be attended by a greater scope of people, growing communication has allowed understanding to bloom and stigmas surrounding disability are dwindling.

Physical and mental disability impacts every part of an individual’s life and can make romance and intimacy a daunting and intimidating task. But there are countless communities and stories painting a much lighter picture. The experience and perception of sexuality may differ, but the beauty of individualism is that it is unique and as praiseworthy as any other.

The LGBTQ and disabled communities may share similarities and differences in many ways, but they are both groups that have brought those isolated in their experiences together and allowed them to grow, discover and express their true self in their own time and way. Sexuality will always be portrayed in many different ways but is an important part of what makes us human.


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