It was a bright, sunny, beautiful spring day. Hundreds of people were milling about. There was a band playing on the outdoor stage. It was a typical Thursday “college hour” at Sacramento City College – the name we’ve given to the noon hour, which is, for most students, a free hour between classes. On those days, when the weather’s nice, I like to take a walk up to the local coffeehouse, grab a cup of coffee, and walk back to campus through the quad, savoring the energy and the music. I have to say, it’s one of the nice perks of working on a college campus.
A few months ago, on one of those walks, I ran into an acquaintance, A.J., whom I hadn’t seen in quite some time. He had never been my student, but we’d crossed paths numerous times through my interactions with the LGBTQ community on campus. He’s a fun, smart, and energetic guy, and I was thrilled to see him.
“It’s so great to see you!” I smiled. “How are you?”
He gave me a big hug, stepped back, and said, “I’m doing great!” A typical greeting, except for the fact that he also signed his response to me in American Sign Language.
“Are you taking American Sign Language?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “And I’m losing my hearing. I’m going deaf.”
That led to a long conversation that I got so engrossed in that I was almost late to class. More recently, I got to have a more extensive conversation with A.J. about being queer, hard-of-hearing, and the intersections between the two – which will become part of the narrative of my upcoming book, Fringe: On the Edges of the Mainstream Gay Community.
I want to make abundantly clear that I’m no expert on Deaf culture, or on the range of Deaf experiences. I know American Sign Language (with an East Coast dialect) reasonably well, although I’m very much out of practice. However, ever since my coming-out days in the early 1990s, I’ve noted again and again and again how strikingly similar the Deaf community is to the queer community.
Think about it. Deaf people, like LGBTQ people, have been treated like second-class citizens throughout history. Deaf people may not get support or understanding from their hearing family members, just as LGBTQ people may experience rejection from their straight biological kin. Both LGBTQ people and Deaf people have been subjected to efforts to protect children from them (Deaf people through forced sterilization, gay people through “Save Our Children”-type campaigns). Deaf people have been forced to “act hearing” by learning to speak and lip-read, while gay people historically have tried to “act straight” by dating someone of the opposite sex and getting married. Deaf children have been operated on without their consent in order to make them “normal” – and so have intersex babies. And both have formed communities of pride, with activism, resistance, and social justice at the heart of those communities.
But there are other ways in which Deaf communities overlap and intersect with queer communities – and not always in a pretty, nice-and-neat way. For one thing, both communities have disproportionately high rates of HIV infection. Deaf people are more likely to be HIV-positive compared to their hearing counterparts, just like some queer communities have been considered to be high-risk (most notably, gay men and transwomen). And when you look at the interaction, the statistical risks are compounded: According to one study, the gay Deaf community, compared to the hearing community, has a 40% higher rate of substance use – a significant risk factor for HIV infection. HIV infection tends to be more common in marginalized communities, and clearly the Deaf community hasn’t been immune to that.
A second observation is this: Being a member of a marginalized group doesn’t mean that you can’t oppress other marginalized people – and that’s true for the queer community as well as for the Deaf community. For example, while there are certainly safe and welcoming spaces for Deaf people within the LGBTQ community, there are online dating websites for people who fetishize deafness (or blindness, or being in a wheelchair, among others). On the other side of the coin, a 2006 dissertation study indicated that, out of 174 Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, most had at least moderately positive attitudes towards lesbians and gay men – but there were people who held onto homophobic attitudes, and they tended to be very religious. “You get people on one extreme or the other,” confirmed A.J. in his conversation with me. “Either Deaf people are very left and progressive, or they’re very right-wing conservative and religious. There’s no middle ground.”
And those extreme polarities (and intersecting identities) can make for very messy politics. Case in point: The educational epicenter of Deaf culture, Gallaudet University, found itself embroiled in controversy when Angela McCaskill, chief diversity officer for the university, signed a petition against same-sex marriage. Then, when the university placed McCaskill (who is African-American) on administrative leave, the Black student community called out the university on its unresolved racism. Oh, a tangled web of diversity and oppression we weave.
Here’s a third observation. People who are members of marginalized groups often get judged for how they choose to express themselves and deal with oppression. If a gay man decides not to come out at work, he might be judged for acting straight, for pretending to be something he’s not, for “passing” in order to gain heterosexual privilege. If a transperson decides not to have surgery, that individual might be judged within the LGBTQ community for not being “trans enough.” If a deaf person decides to get a cochlear implant (which is a HUGE political issue in the Deaf community), that person might be shunned for assimilating and “playing for the other team,” so to speak.
The similarities between the two communities are striking. But you know what is most surprising to me? Almost NO psychological research exists that focuses on people who are LGBTQ and Deaf. Literally, there is a small handful of studies out there – and some of those studies date back to the early 1980s. Which is a shame. Because what I’m learning more and more as I work on my book-in-progress is this: If you truly want to understand and eliminate oppression, look for where our oppressions intersect. Therein lies a golden opportunity.