Waiting to Be Heard: On Being Deaf and Gay

While the rest of the world finally works to include the hearing impaired in the fabric of society, the deaf have created their own community.

Hands and fingers move through the air with amazing speed and precision. I sit watching, hoping the weak smile on my face will mask my befuddlement. All I see in these movements is a blur; everyone else at the table sees jokes, anecdotes, and answers to the omnipresent dinner party question, “What have you been up to lately?”

I’m at a birthday dinner for a deaf friend of my sister, and I’m only one of two hearing people in attendance who doesn’t sign. The other looks like she has suddenly been transported to a marketplace in downtown New Delhi and she has no idea what to do or how to act.

I imagine as I am sitting there that this is but a small taste of the daily experiences of the deaf. Far too often, they find themselves at the table, so to speak, but excluded from the conversation. In the decade since that dinner party, fortunately, there has been advances in awareness of the challenges facing deaf people, in large part due to efforts to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act in the United States and similar laws elsewhere. Consequently, deaf individuals aren’t excluded from the conversation quite as often, anymore, but still too much.

While the rest of the world catches up and works to include the hearing impaired in the fabric of society, the deaf have created their own community through organizations, social gatherings, and internet forums. In this way, the deaf community is much like the LGBT community, and a substantial body of research that looks at issues of inclusivity and diversity has included sections on challenges facing both deaf and LGBT individuals, as they are often the same. However, scant research has been done on those individuals who are both LGBT and deaf. This is surprising, considering what my sister, an interpreter for the deaf, has told me: “You’d be surprised how many deaf people are gay.”

How many exactly? No one is quite sure, as there has yet to be a definitive study to measure the population. According to DeafQueer.org, though, there are about 2.8 million deaf LGBT persons in the United States alone. However, their methodology for arriving at this number isn’t quite scientific. Using the questionable Kinsey estimate that ten percent of the population is gay or lesbian and the fact that there are 28 million deaf or hard of hearing people in the US, they conclude that 2.8 million of them – or ten percent – are gay or lesbian. My sister, who has only anecdotal evidence, would maintain that percentage is probably higher.

The LGBT deaf community hasn’t stayed totally hidden, however. On occasion, a deaf LGBT individual finds him or herself in the news. Season four of The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency featured Martin Ritchie, a handsome gay deaf man who made the cut to the top 12 and got to live with the other contestants and Janice herself (doesn’t the man have enough to deal with without subjecting him to that?).

In 2002, Sharon Duchesneau and Candace McCullough made headlines. A deaf lesbian couple, the pair went to great lengths to ensure that their second child would also be deaf, selecting a sperm donor with five generations of deafness in his family. Their actions caused an ethical debate as to whether it was morally responsible to knowingly create offspring with disabilities.

Two years earlier, the murder of Gallaudet University freshman Eric Plunkett made headlines and put the deaf school’s gay community on high alert. The killer turned out to be a friend with whom Eric had had a disagreement.

It would seem that these three incidences occurring within a few years of one another would generate more interest in this demographic. A 1987 article by Jean Phaneuf, “Considerations on Deafness and Homosexuality”, came to the conclusion “The dearth of literature and research data on deafness and sexuality only points to the need for research.” (American Annals of the Deaf, March) Based on my scan of numerous academic databases, that research hasn’t happened in the 26 years since Phaneuf’s study.

What little research is out there devotes itself to helping social workers assist deaf LGBT clients, which is a good thing, but it doesn’t do much to help the rest of the world learn how to help or accept deaf LGBT people. As recently as 2007, Alison Beth Klinger noted that there was still a lack of research in this area in her dissertation, The Social Development of an Invisible Minority: The Deaf Gay and Lesbian Population.

Perhaps because of the lack of widespread attention, though, the deaf LGBT community has developed its own subculture. Several organizations exist to help facilitate the spread of information about LGBT persons with hearing impairments and to bring together the community as a whole. Among those organizations is the previously mentioned Deaf Queer Resource Center, whose primary function is the dissemination of information about and for deaf LGBT individuals.

More proactive is the Rainbow Alliance for the Deaf (RAD), which advocates for the rights of the deaf and LGBT, as well as having a bi-annual conference. Not only does the conference educate and have workshops, they also name a man and woman of the year, for those individuals who have excelled in advocacy and charity work in their communities. Additionally, they have a pageant with a Mr. RAD, Ms. RAD, and Miss RAD named. (I am assuming, based on the picture of the winners posted on their website, that Miss RAD is for drag queens; if I’m wrong, my apologies to Moana Joseph “Jojo” Lopez, the reigning Miss RAD.)

Rachelle, a friend of my sister, has been deaf since birth and will be celebrating her 25th anniversary with her partner Kareena this October. She has little familial support, being estranged from her mother and stepfather. While they did send her to a school for the deaf, they never bothered to learn sign language themselves. However, it’s the fact that she is a lesbian that caused her intolerant parents to truly turn away; in fact, they refuse to share with Kareena any contact information for her brother and sister. Still, she keeps a positive attitude: “For the deaf community, I am okay being who I am. If people don’t like the fact that I am a lesbian, then so be it.”

Rachelle owns her own business, designing and selling jewelry (she’s very good and really reasonably priced. Check out her stuff here). She’s also an avid animal lover, the type of person who takes in strays off the street. Most parents would be proud.

While Rachelle copes with her parents’ objections to her sexual orientation, she finds that, for the most part, the general population has a harder time understanding her deafness than her sexual orientation. Among the misconceptions, she said that the hearing world has about the deaf are the idea that the deaf can’t drive, they can’t use a phone (they can with the service of a TTY system), and that they can’t go places unaccompanied by an interpreter.

Rachelle is not living the life of a hermit, and according to a 1990 study, neither are most deaf LGBT people. Daniel B. Swartz, in his report “Perceptions & Attitudes of Male Homosexuals from Differing Socio-Cultural & Audiological Backgrounds”, states that deaf gay men are very likely to join organizations and gay rights groups. Further, deaf gay men are happier in their relationships and have more positive self-images than hearing gay men. However, Swartz found that the level of confusion about one’s sexuality was the same for hearing and deaf men who had deaf parents, which suggests a general lack of knowledge of LGBT issues among straight deaf individuals.

Unfortunately, a couple of separate studies found that deaf LGBT persons are more likely to be victims of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse or assault. Gay deaf individuals are also more likely to contract HIV. Klinger concluded that the more comfortable an LGBT person is with his or her identity and feels a connection to the community, the more likely he or she is to have acquired sexual knowledge, although this is more likely among deaf gay men than deaf lesbians.

Of course, those who are deaf and gay aren’t the only ones facing challenges — anyone who deals with both disability and sexual orientation issues must navigate a different path. While there is a dearth of literature on being gay and deaf, it’s an abundance compared to the amount of literature available concerning LGBT individuals who are blind. Fortunately, there has been more research devoted to handicapped individuals who are LGBT. Regardless of how much attention or research has been devoted to them, those with disabilities who are gay or lesbian must deal with an extra burden of both societal judgment and misconceptions.

Recently, I spoke with “Robert”, a gay man in his 30s whose leg was amputated six years ago after an accident. Since then, Robert has become a virtual recluse, preferring to form relationships and friendships online, certain that no one will want him, since he is “damaged goods”. He has even given up his profession, teaching elementary school, for fear that his disability will prevent him from protecting his students in the event of an emergency. He even rejects the idea of being a teacher’s aide, where he wouldn’t be the only adult in the room. Hopefully, Robert will regain enough confidence to return to the classroom and realize that his situation could provide a great lesson in understanding and diversity for his students.

For men and women like Rachelle and Robert, greater social services are needed to help them acclimate to a world that is different from them. Their experiences are distinctive, and their success is contingent upon society providing them with the information and tools needed to succeed. No one I’ve spoken to wants a free hand or feels that the world owes them anything because of their sexual orientation or disability; what they would like is an even playing field.

For a civilized society, that shouldn’t be so hard to achieve.