Rainbow Support Group: An Intersectional Safe Space

Program Director Deb Hofbauer talks about Rainbow Support Group on KFAI Radio 10/19/2023 Disability and Progress

The following article was published in Lavender Magazine, June 1 2023

“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,” says Darolyn Gray, Development Officer at Twin Cities based organization Wingspan. The fear of and potential for negative ramifications after coming out is only compounded for members of the disability community, which is something that Gray has seen first-hand. “The love and support available to me is not always available to others, especially to adults with developmental disabilities. Many guardians, family members, or even staff refuse to recognize that people with developmentally disabilities, too, are sexual beings. Dating in general is often prohibited, and the concept of same-sex relationship may be inconceivable.”

This unfortunate reality is what inspired Wingspan to create Rainbow Support Group (RSG). Wingspan, which is based in the Twin Cities, has been led by Executive Director Therese Davis for forty-six of its fifty years, and provides support, community, and a wide range of experiences to adults with developmental and other disabilities. Its mission is “To inspire community by empowering people with disabilities to live their best life”.

Part of that mission means making sure that Wingspan’s LGBTQ members get the support that they need. Gray explains “Wingspan started Rainbow Support Group in 2001 to provide education and peer support to LGBTQ adults with developmental disabilities– perhaps the most marginalized individuals in the LGBTQ community.”

RSG was not the first group of its kind. “[It was] patterned after, and started with the support and blessing of, Rainbow Support Group of CT founded by Doctor John D. Allen in 1998 at the New Haven Gay & Lesbian Community Center in Connecticut,” explains Gray. Even today, more than 20 years after its inception, “Wingspan remains in close contact with the original group.”

The need for a group like this one is easily apparent and was summarized by the originator of that original group: Doctor John D Allen. “[I]t 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.”

Longtime volunteer Kyla Sisson noticed that many of the people in the day program where she used to work were not being provided with the kind of information that they needed and they suffered because of it. “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.”

This was not unique to LGBTQ relationships, but the problem is worse. Heterosexual people with disabilities are at least slightly more likely to be equipped with tools to protect themselves than their LGBTQ peers. “Heterosexuals with DD (developmental disabilities) are more likely to have had family members to talk to them about strangers, safe touch, and relationships,” says Gray, “Parents or family of LGBTQ people with DD are more likely to forbid discussions about relationships and sex altogether.”

RSG is a safe place for those conversations – which is especially important for people whose families are not supportive of their LGBTQ identities. “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,” says Sisson, “RSG is a place where people get to be themselves.”

Late last year the vital work of RSG was recognized by the Minnesota Department of Human Services with a $99,000 HCBS (Home and Community Based Services) Provider Capacity Grant to expand its outreach. RSG provides many tools and opportunities for group members and ultimately, according to Gray, their “Two key focus areas…include reducing isolation and increasing safety.”

Reducing isolation builds community and helps individuals feel comfortable exploring their identities. “The members make each other laugh, comfort each other during difficult life events, and celebrate each other’s milestones,” says Sisson.

Increasing safety means learning about LGBTQ identities and relationships in a healthy setting. Wingspan Program Director and RSG facilitator Deb Haufbauer explains, “People with [developmental disabilities] may be left with odd ideas about how gay/lesbian/bi/transgender people conduct their lives—based on whatever they have gleaned from movies, pornography or stereotypes. Or, sadly, people with DD may conclude they are undeserving or may believe they are simply unlovable because of their disability.”

RSG provides a space for people to talk about their LGBTQ identities. Conversations often center around self-acceptance and healthy boundary setting. “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,” says Sisson, “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.” Members of RSG continue to find value in the group over time. Tim, pictured above, is the longest running member and has been a part of the group since it began. The group not only offers time and space for conversations, but also includes outings to Pride events, game nights, dinners, and more. Members have ranged in age from early 20s into their 70s.

Wingspan offers many other programs in addition to RSG. “Wingspan goes above and beyond to offer as full and meaningful a life as each individual is able to achieve,” says Gray, “Many clients attend Day Programs for socialization or employment [and] Wingspan offers numerous enrichment programs throughout the year.” This programming includes a Glee Club, a Spoken Word and Poetry Club in collaboration with compass.org, and a French Club in collaboration with Alliance Francaise.

If Rainbow Support Group sounds like it might be helpful for you or one of your loved ones – or if you are interested in being a guest speaker or volunteer, please reach out to Deb Hofbauer (email below) for more information. Participation in RSG is not limited to current Wingspan clients.