I’d be lying if I said that growing up deaf wasn’t a challenge.
It bothered me that I had to pay more attention in class to understand my teachers and felt excluded in group outings because I missed out on much of the conversation. But what really irked me was having to deal with ignorance from people who assumed that deaf people had other intellectual or emotional challenges. That we couldn’t drive, speak clearly, or even read.
I took comfort, though, in the knowledge that many other people identified as part of one minority group or another, and that I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t until high school that I truly began to feel like I’d been given a raw deal in life: During my freshman year, I developed my first crush and realized that I wasn’t just deaf but gay, as well.
That realization certainly complicated matters. There are similarities between being deaf and being queer that compounded my sense of alienation. For example, most LGBT people have heterosexual parents—likewise, only 5 to 10% of deaf people have deaf parents. My parents have been incredibly supportive but it was difficult for me to accept that there was not one, but two fundamental differences between us.
Moreover, deaf and queer individuals both have the experience of having to “come out” repeatedly. I not only had to think about when and how to tell people I was deaf, but also when to disclose my sexual orientation.
Fortunately, my experiences in college and afterward allowed me to gain confidence in both of these aspects of my life. Many of my friends now are deaf and gay, and I realize there are just as many advantages as disadvantages to this dual identity. The common struggle of facing discrimination from many directions has fostered a tight-knit sense of camaraderie among deaf queer people.
“Queer-deaf culture values greater acceptance of divergent ideas and people,” my friend Robb Dooling explains. “We’re the ‘rainbow sheep of the family.’ We have two reasons instead of just one to stick together.”
But there are downsides, too—most noticeably how small the community is. “Gossip spreads more easily compared to how it would in the deaf or gay communities alone—so there is more pressure to protect your reputation,” says another friend, Noe Turcios.
Noe admits we’re kind of limited, romance-wise: “My dating pool consists of the deaf gay men in my area and hearing men who happen to be fluent in American Sign Language. People who are straight or hearing have significantly more options.”
One question that comes up often: Is it harder to be a gay man in the deaf community or deaf in the gay community?
To be honest, I feel more comfortable being gay in the deaf community. By and large, deaf people are very accepting of my sexual orientation. But being deaf in the queer community has, at times, created a sense of isolation and low self-esteem. Gay men can be unaccepting of those who don’t fit a certain mold: If you’re not handsome, fit and white—and able—you tend to get shunned.
Being a deaf gay man has also been difficult just in terms of communication and cultural understanding. Most hearing gay guys can’t sign and know nothing about deaf culture. The deaf community values—even requires—expressiveness in hand movements to communicate. In contrast, I’ve noticed that using your hands to communicate is looked down upon by some gay men, because its so strongly associated with femininity. Perhaps due to internalized homophobia, they’re less comfortable with guys who are expressive in this way. So it’s harder for me to be my true self with other gay men.
Regardless, being both deaf and gay has shaped my identity for the better. If I were straight and hearing, I wouldn’t have as much of an impulse to help others, or be as tolerant or culturally sensitive. I wouldn’t have crossed paths with so many amazing people.
Instead of seeing these two parts of my identity as negatives, I view them as qualities that make me unique. I am blessed to be part of such a vibrant, tight-knit community and wouldn’t trade it for anything.
And as for my future partner? I’m more than willing to bide my time and wait for someone—hearing or deaf—who accepts all the parts of me.