LGBTQ+ and Disability: Working with Persons with Intersecting Identities

Welcome to our discussion, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Plus (LGBTQ+) and Disability: Working with Persons with Intersecting Identities.  We'll be joined on 11/16-11/17 by DJ Ralston, who will be helping us unpack their recent work on the LGBTQ+ and Disability Training Series

DJ is a Senior Technical Assistance & Research Analyst with the Center for Rehabilitation Counseling Research and Education, at The George Washington University.  In August 2020, DJ facilitated the first in a two part series of webinars on working with LGBTQ+ clients for Vocational Rehabilitation practitioners.  The information in these series is important for the adult education community, and DJ has agreed to join us in support of translating this information for the needs of our community. 

DJ and I invite you to watch to the webinar, if possible, in advance of our conversation on 11/16 - 11/17.  I have highlighted some sections of the webinar below, which you might want to focus on if your time is limited.  If you're not able to watch any of the webinar, don't worry.  You'll still benefit from the conversation and hearing what DJ has to say about ways to support greater inclusion of the LGBTQ+ disability community in your program and classroom.

Join us back in this thread on Wednesday, 11/16, as we begin our discussion with DJ.  


TIME              TOPIC

14:10              LGBTQ+ Acronyms and Definitions

16:12              Gender Identity

20:15              Orientation vs. Identity

22:45              Language and Gender

26:50              Pronouns 101

29:15              Importance of Language

45:05              Creating a Welcoming Space

58:30              Intersectionality




I'm pleased to introduce DJ Ralston, who is joining us for our two day discussion based on the LGBTQ+ and Disability Training Series.  DJ facilitated the first in a two part series of webinars on working with LGBTQ+ clients for Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) practitioners.  Many VR clients are also served by adult education programming as part of their plan for employment.  Based on our shared work with VR professionals, the information in this webinar is valuable for adult educators as well.  

I want to begin our conversation with DJ by asking about the discussion around the term 'intersectionality' as it relates to LGBTQ+ individuals with disabilities (58:30).  Would you walk us through what that term means, why it's important, and how educators can begin to see their learners through a lens that includes these different identities?

Intersectionality, which was originally coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, is an analytical framework that was used to address a court case in which a plaintiff sued as a result of being discriminated against for being both African-American and a woman. Intersectionality is now more popularly used for understanding the impact of social identities and the overlapping and independent systems of discrimination and advantage that accompany certain social identities. When we talk about intersectionality we are really referring to when someone inhabits two or more marginalized social identities and the compounding marginalization that creates, for example, the fact that Hispanic women make on average 58% less than white men, while Black women make 66% less than white men, whereas white women make 80% less than white men. In other words while all women are shown to make less, when you add an additional social identity, such as race, into the mix the disadvantage is compounded. (Note: Data shows median earnings for full-time, year-round civilian employees 16 and over in 2018. Source: UC Census Bureau. 2018 American Community Survey. Business Insider.)

It is important for educators to consider the additional barriers that arise as a result of this compounded disadvantage as this may impact the learner’s participation in programming as the learner may not immediately trust the educator and/or feel safe in the environment. Additionally, the learner’s experience of compounded disadvantage or discrimination may result in low self-esteem and/or apathy which is often mistaken for disinterest or laziness by those who are not aware of these additional challenges the learner faces. In essence, it is important that educators are aware of the impact of intersectionality and work to ensure they create an environment for those who experience this compounded discrimination and disadvantage that does not perpetuate or exacerbate the experience of discrimination or disadvantage the learner has already faced. 


Thanks, DJ.  These examples helped me think about all of the identities (sex & gender, sexuaity, race, disability, etc.) we each bring to any interaction.  Individuals with historically marginalized social identities face compounding marginalization when we consider each of these identities. 

You talk about creating a welcome space for adults in the Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) setting (45:05).  This is also something adult educators work incredibly hard to do for new and returning learners.  Specifically, you highlight the importance that language and gender play in creating these spaces for LGBTQ+ individuals (22:45). You introduce us to common LGBTQ+ acronyms and definitions (14:10) and the use of pronouns (26:50). 

Would you tell us more about how understanding these definitions and the importance of respecting a person's pronouns can help to build that welcome space?

Sure, that is a great question. 

Being familiar with the basic definitions and language used by and around folks who inhabit LGBTQ+ identity is essential. This is a key way in which an educator can validate the identity of their learner and demonstrate that they respect the learner for who they are. Using someone’s specified pronouns and chosen name are one of, if not the most important, ways an educator can help create a learning environment conducive to thriving and success for a learner who is Transgender or Non-Binary. By using the learner’s specified pronouns, chosen name, and understanding the basic terminology, the educator demonstrates their understanding and acceptance of the learner often helping the learner to feel more comfortable which, in turn, creates a positive learning environment anchored in mutual respect. Additionally, another way an educator may choose to create an inclusive environment is by introducing themselves by stating their name and pronouns and inviting (though, not requiring, as you don’t want to unintentionally out someone) others to do the same. This also demonstrates to the group that the educator is aware of the significance of respecting pronouns and chosen names. To learn more about pronouns including what and why they are important check out the following link 

Thanks, DJ.  I want to invite others to ask any questions, either about the webinar or intersecting identities in general. 

  • What experiences have you had with learners with intersecting identities? 
  • How have you worked to create inclusive learning spaces that respect and reflect these identities?

Welcome to our second day of conversation with DJ Ralston on LGBTQ+ and Disability: Working with Persons with Intersecting Identities.  

DJ, in the webinar you also talk about some of the generational differences that you've seen around the use of different acronyms and terms used to represent members of the LGBTQ+ community.  Yesterday you shared a great resource for educators to learn more about pronouns: 

Today, I'd like to talk more about how adult educators can understand which acronyms and terms are appropriate when working with learners across different generations and identities.  Do you have any resources or advice for how to approach intersectionality with respect to generational differences?  

Honestly, this is where I would advise you to really listen to your learners to hear how they refer to themselves and others from the community. LGBTQ+ or LGBTQIA and/or LGBTQIA+ are all pretty standardly accepted acronyms though there tends to be different ways, in which, people define the Q - some stating the Q can be for Queer, others who see the Q as for questioning and some who say it can be either. One of the best ways to determine where people stand on the language is, as I said above, to listen to them and listen for how they describe themselves and others in the community and then mirror that language. Another option would be to ask someone how they would like to be referred to. This can also be addressed by doing some of your own research, for example, looking at information from the Human Rights Campaign 

It is impossible to make a blanketed statement about which words should be used with which generations because there is so much variability and nuance. While there are differences, if the educator starts from a place of affirming that everyone’s experiences are valid this can help smooth the way for conversations about how and why folks may see it differently. Ultimately, what it comes down to is ensuring that we endeavor to be supportive and affirming of folks. To learn more you can check out this article from the Policy Journal for the Institute of Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies 


Thanks for these resource from the Human Rights Campaign.  In the webinar, you use what's called the Gender Elephant (16:12) as a way to explain the differences between gender, assigned sex (at birth), and sexual/affectual orientation.  I wonder if this resource could also be used by educators with learners to gain a better understanding of how they identify these three domains in themselves?  

I think using the Gender Unicorn or variations of that resource (i.e. elephant etc.) are great resources regardless of age as a means to help explain the difference between gender identity, sex assigned at birth and sexual/affectual orientation. You can access the Gender Unicorn in a variety of languages (like more than 10 languages) from this link 

As we discuss in the training, because gender identity and sexual/affectual orientation are lumped under the larger LGBTQ umbrella and, because the dominant social norms assume that someone’s assigned sex at birth determines who they are mostly likely attracted to, there is often a lot of confusion around this area. In reality, someone’s gender identity is a person’s most inner sense of the gender she, he, or they are, while their sex assigned at birth is the phrase the doctor shouts when a baby is born or during an ultrasound that is based purely on the presence of certain features. Sexual or affectual orientation is who someone is attracted to, to put it rather bluntly, “one’s gender identity is who one goes to bed as, while one’s sexual orientation is who someone wants to go to bed with”. Check out Norman Spack’s Ted Talk to learn more about that. 

Please remember though it is NOT always appropriate to ask about someone’s gender identity outside of the general intake process. Even then, it should really be framed as "gender" (as opposed to sex) and ideally have multiple options available to choose from (i.e. male, female, non-binary, etc.). Beyond that, there is not really a reason to explicitly ask someone's gender, however, you can ask what pronouns someone uses in a respectful way just like we ask people their names.

Thanks for sharing the link to the Gender Unicorn in multiple languages and Norman Spack's TED Talk.  I have one last question from your webinar.  You talk about the idea of grace also being an important part of any conversation around gender, assigned sex, and sexual/affectual orientation. This struck me as essential for everyone to understand and agree to as part of the ground rules for these conversations. 

Would you tell us more about what we mean when you use the term grace and how we can both ask for it and offer it when mistakes are made?

I think most educators are probably all pretty familiar with the idea of giving grace as I know there are times when learners and educators are challenged by situations that call for them to both give and receive grace. This situation is really not that much different from that. It really goes back to assuming positive intent. If someone discloses they are transitioning and would now like to be known by another name/pronoun, and the educator has known the person for a while it is perfectly reasonable to thank the person for sharing that information and affirm the person’s identity and follow that up with saying something to the effect of endeavoring to do their best but mistakes may still happen occasionally in the beginning. You will notice that this says “in the beginning” and that is because if it has been a month or two and someone’s chosen name and pronouns are still being consistently not used correctly, then the space for grace is likely wearing thin at that point and it is time for us to do some deep reflection on why that is, as well as to spend some dedicated time practicing referencing that person and using their pronouns.

The other part of the “grace” conversation is about what to do if someone corrects you and/or if you realize you have made a mistake. If someone corrects, it is best to thank the person for correcting you, then correct yourself in the context of the conversation and then keep it moving. Likewise, if you are mid sentence and realize you just used “he” when you should have used “she”, simply stop yourself, correct the pronoun and move forward. See examples below:

“Oh yes, I just talked to him - I mean, her, she was coming back from the gym.”

If educators and learners all assume positive intent, that goes a long way, in addition to correcting oneself and/or being open to correction from others in facilitating a situation where everyone gives and receives grace.


Hi everyone - I just wanted to provide one last resource which is a link to the Office of Civil Rights within the US Department of Education's Resources page for LGBTQ students 

While the majority of this page is targeted towards younger students there are a number of resources here as well as a clearly articulated stance from the administration about their support for LGBTQ students including how to proceed if they experience any type of discrimination. As trusted advisors and educators it may help to familiarize yourself with some of these resources and processes should you have a learner who feels they have experienced any discrimination and/or need support in raising and voicing concerns.

Thanks again, DJ, for this insight.  You're right that adult educators are used to extending (and often asking for) grace from our learners.  While it can feel like there's a heightened sensitivity around the topics of disability and LGBTQ+ identity, we all need to move forward in these conversations with the assumption of positive intent. It's a practice that works in both directions, with teachers and learners.  We all have the permission to ask for it while navigating new identities and the vocabulary around them.

I want to thank DJ for joining us in this conversation.  I hope that we can reflect on these topics in the weeks and months ahead.  I invite members to share any questions or experiences that center intersectionality and LGBTQ+ learners.  I hope we can use this space to have conversations that make us all more aware of and comfortable with having these discussions with our learners.

Join us for the latest training in our LGBTQ+ series.  We will focus on supporting LGBTQ+ clients with disabilities in their pursuit of work. Learning objectives will include:

  • Learning how organizations can support the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ identified clients with disabilities through policy and procedures.
  • Increasing capacity to support LGBTQ+ identified clients in their pursuit of work, including how to approach potential employers.
  • Understanding of how to address needs of LGBTQ+ clients when working with agency partners and natural supports (i.e., school systems and families).
  • Identifying what to do in cases of discrimination, including the discernment of legitimate resources.

Learn more and register here.