She was 11 years old the first time she was raped.
A stranger grabbed her in an alley and pulled her into an abandoned car. At 13, a family friend began molesting her in her own home. At 17, she was raped by a bus driver — twice. Nicole McBride is a member of one of the LGBT community’s most vulnerable groups. She is a woman. She is a lesbian. She is developmentally disabled.
But Nicole is also a badass. When I offered to use a pseudonym to protect her identity she said, “Why? I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Studies show as many as 83 percent of women with an intellectual disability are the victims of sexual assault. Think about that for a minute. (83 percent!) Guess how many are reported? Less than 3 percent.
I first met Nicole when she was 20 years old and in foster care. The people the state paid to care for her were forcing her to “pray away the gay.” Driven to a fundamentalist church every week, she was told she would burn in hell. She was called an “abomination.” An alarm on her bedroom door prevented her from spending time with other women in the house.
Melisa Kraai works with people who are developmentally disabled (DD) and she says a lot has changed since she started 20 years ago. Right now, she knows a person who is transitioning and says when peers found out, they were curious at first. “We called a group together,” she says, “and each shared something that made them feel different from other people.” When Melisa explained why and how a person transitions, she says they welcomed the transgender person with open arms. “It’s a really accepting community.”
But the problem isn’t the people in the system — it’s often the people who work in it. Most live in state-funded host homes that function like adult foster care. Even though caregivers are paid to provide room and board, they’re still allowed to have house rules that prohibit people from having overnight guests.
“I was 20 years old and wasn’t allowed to have anyone in my room,” says Nicole. People may leave host homes if they don’t agree with the rules, but they often don’t know their rights. “It’s really easy for providers to manipulate people with intellectual disabilities,” says Melisa.
Nicole is no longer easily manipulated. “I know my rights,” she says. She’s 4’11, but looks much taller as she sits up, pushes back her curly brown hair, and looks at me intensely with the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. When we first met, she whispered because she was embarrassed by her speech impediment. Today she loudly declares, “Don’t ever intimate me!” I know she means to say, “Don’t underestimate me,” but I like it pronounced her way. I also like the ferocious woman she’s become. “I have a job, I have friends, I have a nice place to live,” but she says there’s still one very important thing missing: “I wish I had a girlfriend.”
She’s not alone. “I know a lot of people who identify as LGBT within the community, and I can’t think of one of them that’s in a relationship.” This, Melisa continues, “is a failure on the part of service providers and the LGBT community itself.” Being a lesbian herself, Melisa is particularly upset. “We have mentors, we have youth groups, we have groups for older people, but we don’t have anything for people with disabilities. How are they supposed to meet someone?”
It’s even more difficult if a person lives with parents or providers who don’t approve of their lifestyle. Melisa is frustrated “there’s such barriers and limitations for people with disabilities … they can’t drive, they don’t have money for dates” and, if they live with their parents, “they [often] can’t have privacy in their own rooms.”
Nicole tells me it’s not for lack of trying. “I used to go to Charlie’s every Friday,” she says. “I would sit at the bar and try to meet people, but there were never other disabled people there.” Once, a woman gave Nicole her phone number. “I called her right after the bar closed to make sure I got the right number and she got mad,” Nicole says. “A person with a disability like mine wouldn’t get mad.” There are monthly dances for people within the DD community to meet each other, but she’s also struck out there.
“Do you know how hard it is to find a gay person who’s also disabled?” Nicole asks.
Melisa describes it as circles getting smaller and smaller. “Our circles are already small,” she says. “If you identify as LGBT, your circle gets even smaller. If you also have an intellectual disability the circle is extremely small.” That, she says, is why both caregivers and the LGBT community need to do more to bring people within this circle together
As for Nicole, she’s a survivor. “I’ve been through a lot” she says. “I deserve someone to share my life with.” She stops and thinks about it for a second, then adds: “She’s out there somewhere. I’ll find her.”