by Darold Gray
For 48 years, Wingspan Life Resources has served adults with developmental and other disabilities in the greater Twin Cities. In 2001, Wingspan started Rainbow Support Group (RSG) to support one of the most marginalized groups in the disability community– LGBTQ adults with developmental disabilities. Speaking from personal experience as a member of the LGBTQ community, coming out to family, friends, and coworkers in my 40s was emotional, daunting, and stressful. I cannot imagine navigating that course as a person with intellectual and developmental challenges. The love and support available to me is not always available to others, especially to adults with developmental disabilities.
Among the person-centered programs I admire most at Wingspan is Rainbow Support Group. “The group’s focus is on providing information and peer support, reducing isolation, and increasing safety,” says my colleague, Program Director Deb Hofbauer, who manages the RSG Program and also supervises four Wingspan group homes.
We started our group after connecting with Dr. John Allen, who pioneered a Rainbow Support Group in Massachusetts. In 1998 he wrote, “Although the process is complicated, it is doubtful that even those who are most understanding can imagine the obstacles of trying to navigate the intricacies of sexual orientation discovery by a person with a developmental disability.”
My wife and I have been guest speakers for RSG, and Deb and I connect regularly to talk about how things are going. Rainbow Support Group meets one evening per month and is open to non-Wingspan members as well. Due to COVID, the group had to switch to Zoom meetings over the past year. They are eager for the opportunity to resume in-person sessions. Deb says, “Working with this group has been a real blessing. The ability to offer a safe place for discussion, information, and resources is so important to their well-being. In Rainbow Support Group they are seen, heard, and valued.” We know that more people could benefit from the education and support that RSG provides, but we are aware not all guardians, family members, or staff of other providers welcome any such discussion.
Kyla Sisson, an RSG volunteer for the past 7 years, says, “When I learned about Rainbow Support Group, I was working at a Day Program where people were dating each other or interested in having relationships, but didn’t have any support for doing it in a healthy way. I noticed that people with disabilities are often treated like they don’t have a sexuality and their relationships aren’t taken seriously, and that led to a high rate of experiencing abuse or even harming others. People were sneaking off together to kiss and getting in trouble, or experiencing abusive dynamics in their relationships, because they hadn’t had support learning about healthy boundaries and self-advocacy in relationships–and they didn’t have space to explore relationships safely. I started looking for any resources available and learned about RSG. The first time I went to a meeting, I heard peers encouraging each other to respect themselves and to speak up for what they needed in their relationships. I was impressed by the space the group held for people to be treated as full human beings who have a right to express their genders and sexualities. As a volunteer, I wanted to help people with intellectual disabilities become more integrated into, and connected with, the broader queer and trans community. LGBTQ people with disabilities are navigating all the normal stressors of dating or being single, deciding how and when to come out to family members–coming to understand your gender, on top of figuring out how to be a self-advocate in a world that often underestimates your capabilities. RSG is a place where people get to be themselves and they know no one will judge them. The members make each other laugh, comfort each other during difficult life events, and celebrate each other’s milestones. I always leave our meetings feeling a little more hopeful, because it’s one place in the world where everyone is completely welcome.”
We’d really like to offer support to more members, and we welcome calls or emails. For more information, visit www.wingspanlife.org or email Deb Hofbauer at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Darold Gray is development director at Wingspan.