The 'Double Rainbow': Creating a Full Life as LGBTQ and Autistic

by Lauren Emily Whalen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday February 13, 2021

Lotus and Chloe on a date in Netflix's 'Love on the Spectrum.'
Lotus and Chloe on a date in Netflix's 'Love on the Spectrum.'  (Source:Netflix/2020)

"I don't fit in the cookie-cutter mold," says Corey Coloma. "I am a unique individual. I am not the conventional person."

Fifteen years ago, an almost-21-year-old Coloma came out as gay to his mother and close friends. The following year he came out to the rest of his family. Some accepted him; others disowned him. Years later, he'd have other, major news to share with loved ones, and reactions were also mixed. Like sexuality, neurodiverse identity is complex, and as Coloma would learn, often oversimplified or just plain misunderstood.

In 2014, Coloma was diagnosed autistic, initially by a nurse practitioner then subsequently by three psychologists. While some thought it made sense, Coloma reveals, others were "telling me I couldn't be autistic [because of] a variety of stereotyped misconceptions about the autistic community." Often, autistic individuals are characterized as introverted, lacking a sense of humor, or focused on a singular "special interest." Even now, Coloma says, "most people ask me what my special interest is. They also see if I can pick up on humor."

Coloma's current job as Director of Operations for Twainbow, a "100 percent autistic-led organization" is all about fostering a community for LGBTQ autistic individuals—and dispelling the many misconceptions they encounter. A portmanteau of "two" and "rainbow," Twainbow advocates for those living under a "double rainbow," or the LGBTQ spectrum.

Through shared resources, an online group and a new "autism pride flag," Twainbow seeks to change the conversation around LGBTQ individuals on the autism spectrum. "We have been contacted from around the globe by people [who] were told it was not possible to be LGBTQI+ and also autistic," says Coloma. "Twainbow creates a place for our community to gather and share experiences. It ensures that people know they are not alone."


When he's not working with Twainbow, Coloma is looking for someone special. As the world now knows, he's not alone. In summer 2020, the Australian reality series "Love on the Spectrum" took Netflix and social media by storm. The series, created and directed by Cian O'Clery, followed several young adults on the autism spectrum — including some who identify as LGBTQ — looking to find a special someone or simply navigate the complex world of dating.

Though the series featured some LGBTQ representation among its participants, "Love on the Spectrum" is only one step toward visibility for a diverse population with varying needs and desires living—as Coloma's organization describes it—under a double rainbow.

Making "Love on the Spectrum"

O'Clery was inspired to make the now-iconic television series for ABC Australia after directing two documentary series about people with disabilities looking for jobs. When speaking with young adults on the autism spectrum, O'Clery and his production team noticed a distinct pattern. "We heard many stories... about the lack of support, and the demand for it, in the area of dating and relationships." Thus, "Love on the Spectrum" was born.

The director and production team would tag along as the featured participants went on dates—a first for some of them—received coaching from sought-after dating and relationship expert Jodi Rodgers, and attended a "dating boot camp" tailored to people on the spectrum and taught by Dr. Elizabeth Laugeson of PEERS, a social skills program developed at UCLA.


Though cameras may sound intimidating, O'Clery found they had the opposite effect for many of the series participants. "[O]ur presence was a kind of support system," O'Clery says. "[Participants] had gotten to know us quite well... [W]e were there with them at all times, they could talk to us at any time if things weren't going well [and] if they wanted to end the date, we were there to give advice and provide support."

He adds, "When you're taking the first steps into a world you haven't yet explored, it can be scary to be out there on your own, and I think our production team being with them along the way sometimes helped. I have spoken to psychologists who work with people on the spectrum who thought the same way."

O'Clery is still in touch with some participants. In reflecting on what he learned from making the series, the director says, "We feel there aren't enough resources out there for people in the dating and relationship space. There are some, and they are starting to grow, but the demand is much higher than the support offered." Though the series explored the double rainbow experience in some capacity, it left some members of the LGBTQ autistic community, like Coloma, dissatisfied.

Dating Under the 'Double Rainbow'
Corey Coloma  (Source: Courtesy of Corey Coloma)

Dating Under the 'Double Rainbow'

Coloma watched "Love on the Spectrum" and found it "extremely stereotypical."

"Everyone fits a certain type, and it felt very scripted," he says. "It pains me to see so few versions of autistic people on TV, in the news and other media." (O'Clery, who is now filming the show's second season, says he hopes "to represent even more diversity within the autism community, including gender and sexual identity.")

A 2017 study conducted in The Netherlands among autistic adolescents and adults and their general population peers found that more people on the autism spectrum report same-sex attraction compared to the general population.

The study also noted that many of its autistic participants reported gender-nonconforming feelings. This includes Coloma: though he sees himself as male and uses he/him/his pronouns, his own gender is more fluid. "Omnigender, which is a more Western culture version of a male-bodied two-spirit, is the closest to what I feel," he says. "I feel a very strong connection to the 'male-bodied two-spirit' as someone with some Native American background. But I don't want to use a label that would offend the culture." Besides Native American, Coloma's heritage is also Mayan, Aztec, Filipino and European.

When it comes to dating, straightforward communication is a priority for Coloma. "[It's] difficult for me to pick up when someone is flirting with me, so I often miss chances when someone approaches me in public."

Though Coloma attended social events before the pandemic, he doesn't care for large crowds or clubs and is more direct when online. "I really don't care for small talk and the standard array of questions people ask when you first meet someone," he admits. Instead, he says, "I look for people I will have deep and meaningful connections with online, and then pursue them more in person."

Coloma would have liked to see on "Love on the Spectrum" a situation akin to his own experiences: dating a neurotypical individual who doesn't initially realize the person they are with is autistic. Several times, Coloma has gone out on dates with a neurotypical person who then "disappear[s] from my life" once they discover he is on the spectrum. Coloma says, "People without what others call a disability do not know what it's like to be treated as a second-class citizen... There is so much ableism in the world that it can crush someone's soul."

Resources, Support and Advocacy
Lydia X.Z. Brown, Esq., AWN's Director of Policy, Advocacy and External Affairs  (Source: Colin Pieters)

Resources, Support and Advocacy

Double-rainbow lives like Coloma's aren't an anomaly. According to a 2018 study conducted through Australia's Deakin University, whose results are similar to the Netherlands study, research suggests that "people on the autism spectrum reported higher rates of homosexuality, bisexuality, and asexuality, but decreased heterosexuality." In the study's lay summary, researchers encourage increasing awareness of non-heterosexuality in people on the spectrum, among the individuals themselves as well as medical professionals and caretakers, to "increase support and inclusion." The 2017 Netherlands study makes a similar recommendation.

A breadth of organizations provides support and advocacy for individuals on the spectrum, and not just for dating and relationships. One such organization for those inclined to the performing arts is Theatre Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), a professional Off-Broadway company founded in 1979. The company produces shows by acclaimed playwrights and new works and has received favorable mentions in The New York Times and New York Post.

"Since disability is the only diversity that exists in every population," says Artistic Director Nicholas Viselli, "it is essential that we provide a common ground where all voices are equally represented."

But what about life's necessities that can be near-impossible for LGBTQ individuals with autism, especially during a pandemic—like seeing a doctor or therapist? Finding community, artistic outlets, and positive expression empower the double rainbow population to lead full lives. However, a happy, healthy existence can be nearly impossible without the support and infrastructure to navigate medical needs and other social services.

Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network (AWN) saw such a gap and took action. In late October 2020, the Nebraska-based nonprofit and the National LGBTQ Task Force released "Before You Go: Know Your Rights and What to Expect at the Doctor and in the Hospital."

"The biggest reason this guide exists is that autistic trans people exist in a system that is harmful to us just to get basic needs met. Many autistic trans people don't have use of resources and knowledge of how to advocate for ourselves in health care settings," says "Before You Go" coauthor Lydia X.Z. Brown, Esq., AWN's Director of Policy, Advocacy and External Affairs, along with Founding Executive Director Sharon daVanport and Victoria M. Rodríguez-Roldán, Senior Policy Manager for AIDS United. "Having information in advance can help us prepare emotionally and cognitively in an environment that can be exacerbated for autistic people."

Brown, who has been involved with AWN for over a decade as a volunteer, board member and now part-time employee, received their autism diagnosis at age 13, which they claim is early for an autistic person of color. "Many autistic POC never receive a diagnosis at all because the path is monetized by medical professionals," says Brown.

Illustrated by AWN Art Director Erin Casey—in a color scheme intentionally reminiscent of the trans pride flag—"Before You Go" covers a range of essential topics, including finding a doctor or therapist for the first time, disclosing one's trans and/or autistic identity to a medical professional, navigating sliding-scale fees and insurance and knowing when to visit urgent care or call 911. At the end of the guide, a list provides other helpful resources, such as the National Queer & Trans Therapists of Color Network and a COVID-19 protocol toolkit.

What's unique about this guide, Brown says, is that it's written by autistic people instead of neurotypical family members or advocates, which they say can come off as patronizing in tone. "We wanted to make sure it would be a usable guide, accessible and easy to understand, speaking to our community members and our peers," says Brown. AWN plans to distribute the guide to self-advocacy organizations, LGBTQ centers and youth-serving organizations nationwide.

When asked who will benefit most from "Before You Go," Brown lists the many possibilities from "an autistic person living on their own, even with a supportive family, who have to deal with their own insurance for the first time," to autistic trans individuals dealing with housing insecurity or abusive relationships who are seeking therapy or medical care. "All will benefit greatly from different aspects to this guide because it offers so much to so many different people in our community," says Brown.

And this includes medical professionals, neurotypical and otherwise. Brown hopes that through this guide and other resources, that autistic trans individuals' "needs and genders deserve to be respected, [and] you don't need to understand us to help us be healthy and well on our own terms, moving through the world as disabled people."

For AWN, Brown says, the "Before You Go" guide is not the end-all-be-all but a positive step for the autistic LGBTQ community. "Even though we have this guide... all autistic trans community members will still face barriers to accessing care and support," they say. "Part of this work includes reshaping the medical profession, so, 20, 30 years from now, it's unrecognizable... maybe you'll walk into a clinic and your doctor will be autistic and trans, too!"

Lauren Emily Whalen is a writer and performer living in Chicago. Her second novel, "TWO WINTERS," a queer YA retelling of Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale," will be released by Bold Strokes Books in September 2021.

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