Last week, I went on an Alternative Break trip to DC that I wrote about here. I am currently taking introduction to ASL (American Sign Language) and the only Deaf university in the world, Gallaudet, is in DC. I took this opportunity to explore some of the intersections of academic and personal interests. I’m very interested in exploring the intersections of marginalized queer and Deaf identities. I emailed people involved with the LGBTQA Resource Center at Gallaudet. On our second to last day there, I heard back from the wonderful coordinator of the LGBTQA Resource Center, Cara. She offered to have lunch with me on campus and with whichever students happened to be around during Spring Break.
Entering the campus gates, I was nervous about my abilities to communicate and uncertain about how to comport myself in an unfamiliar culture. The first thing that happened when I entered the campus was the loud clanging of a church bell. Such a loud auditory experience caught me offguard. I was so tuned into my eyes and other senses, that I wasn’t prepared to be so emphatically reminded of my hearing. I got a little anxious as I tried to find our meeting place, because 1. there were no maps to be found, 2. no people around due to Spring Break, and 3. I wasn’t sure if I would even be able to communicate my confusion with anyone I might happen across. But it was nice to sit with that discomfort and I found where I was going by just walking and exploring.
I walked around the Student Academic Center while I waited for Cara. I couldn't find her at first, so I wandered around. It was so fascinating to observe the way people communicated casually in this common space. There were many unique and diverse kinds of conversation. I saw one man speaking verbally and casually signing to a friend who responded only in sign. I saw a table of friends eating and signing while several Hearing Ear Dogs lounged next to them. The dining hall staff were speaking to each other verbally--often in Spanish--and simultaneously communicating non-verbally with their customers. There was visual information everywhere: lots of posters and graphics with many colors and words. It was a lot to take in. One poster that I found particularly interesting alerted people to “noise: visual and auditory” within a room. I haven’t really had to think noise in this way before. I bought my lunch by signing with the cashier, and it all went smoothly. Those little moments of real interaction where your skill level isn’t questioned are always my favorite parts of learning a language.
Cara brought me to the LGBTQA Center to chat with two other students. We stopped to talk with one of them on the way into the lounge and I got very flustered because I was holding things and trying to explain a complicated concept that I didn’t know the signs for and I got overwhelmed. Cara suggested that we go settle in the lounge and continue the conversation later. After that point, I felt pretty confident in my ability to communicate myself, even when I didn’t know the right signs or when I had to ask them to repeat themselves, slower, a few times.
It's really difficult to describe the people that I met in written English, because we discussed complex gender and sexual identities and I never heard them use Spoken/Written English gender pronouns or labels for themselves. We talked about what I had done that week and I learned signs like days of the week and activist. I learned so many new signs in the moment, but I decided not to pause and write down everything like I’ve done in the past, because I wanted to be part of a fluid conversation. I have already forgotten some of the signs, but I stand by my decision to be present in the moment. It led to a more rewarding and real conversation.
Sometimes one of them would go into a longer story and I did my best to follow along, but I would lose track because of the speed and variety of signs. Cara is deaf and offered to vocalize the longer stories for me, but I told her that I would prefer to practice signing and figure things out non-verbally. Sometimes I would let the moment pass, but sometimes I would let them know that I didn’t understand and we would figure it out together, slower and clearer. They were all so kind and patient. When I’m seeing a word that I know being fingerspelled, my brain easily processes and sounds it out and I can anticipate the rest of the word. When that’s not the case, it’s a lot harder for me to process and understand. It becomes a game of short-term memorization that I’m not very good at.
We talked about queer life at NYU versus Gallaudet and it was really interesting to see the ways that our experiences were different and similar. For example, both communities are currently fighting for gender-neutral bathrooms. One of the students told me some of the ways that being both Deaf and queer is easier and harder. On the one hand, they(I’m not sure what pronouns they use!) told me that the Deaf community is generally more open-minded towards queer people because of their lived experiences in an oppressive world. But on the other hand, it can be very hard for queer--and especially trans folks--because it’s not really possible to start fresh with a different identity. Because the Deaf community is so small, it’s nearly impossible to live without past baggage following along everywhere. There really isn’t an escape from an “out” narrative, no matter where you go.
Also, there are gendered words for different family members, like brother/sister or father/mother. There aren't signs for sibling or parent. But at the same time, the language is generally less gendered, because there are no pronouns used to describe people. It's all spacial, so talking about someone specific has a lot to do with pointing and gesturing in specific directions. Also, many people have signed "nicknames" that make it just as quick to refer to them by their name than by any other sort of gender/appearance marker.
It was also really cool to talk to them about their studies and see our common interests. One of them also studies French and the other also studies theatre. I was worried about holding a real, complex conversation, because I only know casual small talk from the first half of this semester. While imperfect, I was thoroughly inspired and satisfied with the conversation I was able to hold. On my way out of the building, I asked someone where the bathroom was and they told me in ASL and I found it perfectly. That moment was such a perfect real life practice of what I’ve been concretely learning in class. During my visit to Gallaudet, I learned new things as a person and I hope I can continue learning ASL and learning about Deaf Culture throughout my life and time at NYU.
NB: I used the lower case "deaf" in my title because all of my blog titles are lower case, but the correct usage in this case is the capitalized "Deaf". Here's some information from the Gallaudet website clarifying this distinction.
deaf with a lowercase "d" is usually an audiological description of a person's hearing level. It most often refers to a person who is unable to use his or her hearing for the purpose of understanding everyday communication. Being deaf does not mean the person can not hear anything at all. Not all people who are deaf identify themselves with, or participate in, Deaf culture.
Deaf with an uppercase "D" refers to deaf adults and children who share the use of American Sign Language and Deaf culture-common values, rules for behavior, traditions, and views of themselves and others (Padden & Humphries, 1988). People who identify with Deaf culture and describe themselves as Deaf may also have a range of hearing levels.