NOTES OF A DEAF GAY WRITER 20 YEARS LATER (excerpt)
Old writings that never see the print of day have a peculiar future ahead of them: they are just plain bad, or possibly interesting forecasts of the writer yet to mature, or truly great stuff that the writer didn't think was good enough for publication. We writers know how it is--we often write more than we should, and we often find it even more difficult to get anything published.
What, then, should a writer make of an old piece that had, in hindsight, introduced him into the larger national discussion of what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT)? The essay in question is my 1990 piece "Notes of a Deaf Gay Writer," which appeared as the cover story of Christopher Street (Issue 152), widely considered the gay New Yorker of its day. I'd just turned 25.
Twenty years ago, when that was published, I was just another writer wanna-be in New York City. Even though I'd graduated from college two years prior, I had been writing, though very rarely for publication, for more than a decade. I realize now that a part of me had long felt that as much as I had wanted to get published, I didn't feel truly worthy. It was quite a surprise when the editor of Christopher Street called to say that he wanted it.
What follows is that entire essay with my 2010 commentary following each previous section throughout.
* * * **
ONCE, WHEN I was walking through midtown to my office building, I noticed a gorgeous man with a thick mustache looking back at me across Third Avenue. We continued slowly on our paths with those appreciative glances until he finally sauntered up to my corner. As we shook hands, he heard my nasal speech and saw my hearing aids; he left me standing there, glancing at his watch and mumbling something about how late he was for an appointment elsewhere.
2010: Some younger readers may forget that if one wanted to meet another LGBT person in the early 1990s, one had to go out--as in offline--to the bars or events where they congregated. The notion of hooking up with another person online hadn't entered the larger national consciousness.
* * * * *
OR: WE MEET. His eyes dart in spite of themselves between my eyes and my hearing aid; I tell him it's just there to help me hear his sexy voice. Then he laughs nervously. And I know it will not lead to anything.
2010: Online has changed the rules of the game dramatically. We have retooled ourselves into commodities, as if we are specially marked packages on the shelves, waiting to be fondled and considered, hopefully without having to be returned. In my case, I'm upfront about my deafness online; if I'm going to get rejected, I might as well get it over with.
I've learned growing up that most people don't want a Deaf and/or gay person. Instead of striving for universal acceptance, I hope instead for the individual acceptance of one man I'd like to call my own. (The capitalization of the word "Deaf" refers to Deaf culture and sign language; the lowercase label "deaf" often refers to deaf people who do not associate with other deaf people and see their own deafness as a medical condition. Back in 1990, though, I didn't capitalize the word "deaf.")
* * * * *
OR: HE THINKS it's cool, nodding enthusiastically when he tells me how beautiful sign language is and how wonderful deaf people are. When he reaches that point, I know he's not being real. Deaf people are just like anybody else: they can be incredibly sweet, and they can be unspeakably cruel.
No one should date a deaf man because he is deaf but because he has a nice body, a wonderful belly laugh, or a wry sense of humor--qualities that go beyond any disability.
2010: While I keep my friend's comments in mind ("The Internet is a wonderful place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there"), I find that the faceless ease of creating an identity that may not even reflect the creator's actual reality has enabled far many more people to feel less guilty about giving a potential trick or even a date the boot. After all, we've repackaged ourselves into commodities for the picking. We're in the habit of scanning products on sale and rejecting most of them while shopping, so why should prospective dates be any different from these products?
I think in some ways, this attitude has become very demoralizing for many gay men, especially those who'd like a long-term relationship. People are not replaceable, and that assumption has truly hurt everyone--disabled or not--in the long run.
* * * * *
WHEN I MEET hearing men who have met other deaf men, their first remark is almost always, "You have good speech!" In such moments I can understand how a black person feels when the lightness of his skin is commented upon.
2010: I still feel the same way today, except that I am always encouraging of any hearing acquaintance who tries to fingerspell her name by way of introduction. While I've had sixteen years of speech therapy learning how to speak properly, far too hearing people don't even bother to try coming halfway on the bridge between Deaf and hearing people. They assume that because I can speak, I must be doing all right.
For me, sign language is not an option. It is a necessity in the same way that most gay men find being with another man a prerequisite to their happiness. I do not separate deafness and gayness; they are both the one and the same to me. Over the years I've become more aware of how unable I am to let go of this duality. I am both Deaf and gay, period; and yet I am far more than my inabilities to hear well and feel sexually attracted to a woman.
* * * * *
IN 1984 I graduated from high school, left a small town in the Upper Midwest for Washington, D.C.--a city I had never seen in my life, discovered the deaf community, and came out to my family.
I remember more than anything else that hot August morning shortly after I arrived in Washington, seeking out the gay bookstore Lambda Rising, then on S Street, and being overwhelmed with so many books on it. I spent every penny in my pockets, and even then, the salesclerk--what a sweet saint he'd seemed when he dug around in his pockets!--gave me money to take the bus back to Gallaudet University across town. That afternoon I wept and laughed with the seven books I'd bought, and by nightfall, I knew I had to come out. Just like that: only one day, from a morning in Lambda Rising, to an afternoon in my dorm room, to an evening of announcing, "Don't you know that I'm gay?"
So many deaf straight people were shocked when I dared to sign that question openly in the Abbey, or in the cafeteria. "But you don't look like them." I got so tired of hearing that statement that I took to dressing more outrageously, and it was then I learned how much of a political statement that could be. One day I wore all black; the next, all pastel colors; the third, a red T- shirt and old jeans with a spiffy Harris Tweed jacket I had found in a thrift shop somewhere. I even grew a full beard to confound them even more.
2010: A few years ago, when I was walking up the steps from the basement to the main floor of the Gallaudet library, I was a bit shocked and flattered to see a young woman reading my first book Eyes of Desire: A Deaf Gay & Lesbian Reader on the landing's sofa between the two floors. She was reading my book right out in the open; she wasn't hiding its cover! I couldn't resist walking up to her and waving for her attention. She didn't know who I was, but I simply pointed to the back of her book where my photograph was. She looked at it, and then at me, and then back to the cover.
I simply said, "Thank you for reading my book."
I tried not to laugh at her look of shock when I continued up the stairs.
* * * * *
THEN, WHEN I checked out all those gay bars around Dupont Circle, I discovered why some of them came up to me when they saw that I signed. They had heard deaf men were really the best in bed. I wondered for a long time why they felt this way.
One evening in J.R.'s, as I watched a deaf man put a hand on one chest of two men talking to him at the same time, it struck me. A lipreader could only read one person at a time. Yes, yes! When a deaf man sleeps with a hearing man, he can only concentrate on one thing at a time instead of talking and hearing at the same time, as two hearing men might during sex.
I can't imagine any other explanation why many hearing men have this misconception of deaf men's sexual prowess. Deaf men share the same problem with Italians who are supposed to be fantastic lovers (which can be an aphrodisiac by itself) and blacks who are supposed to be well-endowed.
2010: It seems that most hearing men have lost interest in Deaf men because no one's ever asked me about this online. Maybe it was an urban legend that thrived in the bar scene before online reduced the notion of a one-night stand to a one-hour stand.
* * * * *
OVER THE YEARS, I've met quite a few deaf men with hearing dates, and I've come to pretty much the same conclusion each time. Hearing men have the upper hand almost every time when they get involved with a deaf man. Let's consider these incontestable factors for the deaf gay man:
And what about the hearing person?
As much as I would like to criticize these deaf men for trying to accommodate their hearing boyfriends so much to the point of nodding yes to anything they say instead of being emphatic about their learning ASL, I cannot. I have been there before, and it is scary to have to return to such a hell. Everyone agrees it is always hard to find someone nice, but for the deaf gay person, it is much harder to find someone nice willing to communicate more clearly, especially when so much of gay culture implies that appearance is everything.
2010: The oft-quoted average reading level of deaf Americans seems to be missing a crucial fact that should be pointed out when discussing this, especially if they are native ASL signers. It's hard to master English, essentially a polyglot language with a lot of inconsistencies, if your first language is not English; just ask almost any foreign-speaking immigrant who've had to struggle with understanding English! Not only that, the educational system assumes that the primary means of language acquisition is through the ear, which is why many hearing kids merely build upon what they'd been hearing of English prior to entering school for the first time. For those who were born deaf very young to non-signing parents, learning English is often like learning a foreign language when you don't have a prior language to compare it to. Thanks to the Internet and mobile technologies, the need for a TDD has long since passed; the playing field between Deaf and hearing people have become more level. In fact, I did observe a hearing man and a deaf man "converse" in a bar by texting each other even though they were standing right next to each other! Who needs a notepad and a pen if you've got a textable cell phone?
"Notes of a Deaf Gay writer 20 Years Later" is available iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch with iBooks and on computer with iTunes. For more information, click here .