S
wans in an Ugly Duckling World

by Raymond Luczak

One of three keynote addresses
Presented at the First International
Queer Disability Conference
San Francisco State University
June 2 & 3, 2002


Looking at all of you, I am struck by how much I've changed since the days I spent standing by the brick wall of the Ironwood Catholic Grade School watching my hearing classmates play Nerf football.

They called me the runt of the class and made me the brunt of their cruel jokes. I was not only the only deaf child in my family of nine children but also the only deaf child I knew of in my home town of some 6,000 people. It didn't help that I had to wrestle with doubts over my growing sexual attraction to men. And my family didn't encourage talking about feelings.

I knew I was different.

I had become mute in more ways than one. I could speak well enough to be understood in class, but I had no vocabulary for the differentness that gnawed at me from within.

I could lipread well enough to follow most teachers in class, but I had no friends to make me feel like a part of their world.

I had to sit in the front row in order to lipread the teacher, which meant two things: The teacher would keep an eye on me, and the popular kids sitting in the back would all watch me and snicker.

I waited and waited while my ears seemed to become me and nothing else. I felt at times that I was born to hide and wait.

But wait for what?

I still had no words for what I wanted, but I knew it had to be more than wanting to have a friend to call my own.

Loneliness was my friend in those days. My friend had no name, but he slept with me, his arms holding me tight and his face breathing inchoate dreams into my waiting head. I made love to Loneliness, but he didn't want me. He wasn't in love with me. He hurt my feelings, because if Loneliness, that runt of all human life, didn't want me, who did?

I was so ready for anything, but I didn't know what anything was.

My parents didn't want me to learn sign language. They were told that it would interfere with my speech. There was an older deaf man in town who was a high school dropout and who washed dishes at the local Holiday Inn outside town, but I was forbidden to interact with him.

I was fourteen the summer when I finally dared to make my way, unannounced, to that deaf man sitting outside a tavern. He lit up when he saw me approaching him; he'd apparently heard about me from others, so he beckoned to me to sit down on his bench. I didn't know what I was looking for, but I'd somehow sensed that my hands held the key to my happiness. He showed me how to fingerspell, and how to look into each other's eyes, not at each other's hands while signing.

My parents were very displeased, but like most parents, they'd forgotten what it feels like to be a child growing up and wanting to explore the world. This is important to remember, because parenthood has a very weird effect on people's own views about sexuality. They forget that they "played doctor" during their own growing up years, so they lash out when they catch their own children naked. They forget that puberty is an awkward time of sexual awakening, and they seldom dare to discuss it with their children.

Society is afraid of sex, and would prefer to neuter us, would prefer not to know that, yes, most disabled folks get horny and want to get laid just like anyone else. It seems like common sense, but it appears that you have a little more common sense than most people: You managed to get here, to this conference, to a place where others could approach you and let you know how sexy you are, rather than being that oh-so-nice wheelchair guy who is never asked whether he has an active sex life.

Eventually, I transferred to Houghton High School, two hours away, where there was a program that used sign language as part of the communication mode. There, I had some deaf friends, but they, hadn't learned the language of being happy with their own deafness, either. I felt something missing, but I had no words for it.

Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, changed my life completely for a few reasons. It was the last time I saw my old friend Loneliness, and it was the first time I knew fully what I wanted from my life. I wanted never to be ashamed of what I was—a deaf gay writer—and to make friends with people who would accept me as I am, as I had accepted myself.

I continue to want that as I make my way through the world. I am no longer that skinny boy standing by the brick walls of Ironwood Catholic Grade School, wishing to hear as well as the others. Instead, I am a man standing here before you, a group of strangers those jock kids would've run from, telling you that anyone who's afraid of differentness of any kind is a coward, a wimp, a fraidy cat.

What would I tell them if I ran across any one of them on the street now? Nothing. I have chosen to break free of their suffocating expectations. I see the tiredness of being heterosexual, with its many unspoken expectations, in the circles under their eyes.

I had an interesting conversation with a deaf straight friend of mine the other day. He went on and on about how much he loved having sex with women but what a drag it was to get them to sleep with him, and I simply said: "I'm so glad that I'm not straight." He seemed insulted by that.

I said, "If I want to have a quickie, I don't need to buy him flowers."

When you are gay and disabled, it means only one thing, boys and girls. The expectations of the heterosexual and able-bodied world are worthless, because they are still thinking in that able-bodied and straight mode. They think the world is theirs, but it's an illusion that continues to disappoint.

Disability is not just physical; it is a peculiar frame of mind that says: No limitations. When you are able to think, act, and feel "no limitations," regardless of how the world may see you, you've accomplished a great deal more than most people would do.

I am not a fan of those "I-once-was-disabled-but-then-Jesus-saved-me" autobiographies, because using religion as a solution is a cop-out, a way of avoiding the fact that we are in complete control of how we choose to live our own lives. How we choose to feel about ourselves is how we choose to live. There is no separation between the two, and relying on religion puts up a barrier between ourselves and our true selves.

Until the able-bodied start to think in that disabled mode, you are absolutely free to create your own expectations and meet them on your own terms. Let them feel pity for you because it's not about you; it reflects how they'd wish for someone else to feel pity for them if they suddenly became disabled. Let pity fall like raindrops splashing off a duck's back; they have absolutely no idea of how easy it is to swim across the big pond of life when you have only your own expectations to deal with. We are all swans living in an ugly duckling world. But our time will come. We will show able-bodied people that it is they who need to change, that it is they who need to become more like us.

If we are true to ourselves, we will expose their hypocrisy far more easily without having to do a single thing. If they run away from us, we already have proven our own power.

When you allow yourself to be different instead of trying to conform, you discover how much more energy you have left for the other more important things in your life. Many people have remarked that staying in the closet is far more draining than staying out. I love my own deafness. I love the fact that it makes me far more different as a person than if I had stayed hearing. I love the fact that I am immediately much more at home with a deaf total stranger than with a hearing total stranger because that experience of growing up different bonds us immediately in ways that most hearing people cannot comprehend. I love the fact that it's given me the power of heartfelt appreciation of a language that's continued to defy oppression for generations. When I am told to speak, even when it's far too difficult for a person to understand me in the middle of a noisy bar, I learn to find new ways of expressing myself through my hands.

I love my own gayness. I love the fact that it makes me far more open to the fluid spectrum of sexuality. I love the fact that it's enabled me to stop judging others—straight and gay—who might get off on kink or other things foreign to me. I love the fact that being gay means embracing the very gray areas of sexuality that lie between open relationships and monogamy. My openness freaks out many heterosexuals raised on a black-and-white view of their sexuality, one that makes no separation between love and lust. When a straight person tells me I cannot kiss another man on the street, I learn to kiss fear on the lips.

Labels are a waste of time. Yes, people may think of me as that deaf gay writer, filmmaker, producer, poet, and playwright who's a recovering Catholic from a small mining town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula—but you know what? I never think of myself in labels. I am just me, enough to forget my own name when I celebrate my own deafness and gayness however I do so.

But here in San Francisco, at this conference, I believe we all have to start afresh. Labels may be useful as a way of discussing our individual situations, but far more important is our need to recognize intellectually and to understand emotionally that differentness is a beautiful thing. We all want very much to love as we are and to be loved as we are. If a gorgeous able-bodied creature flees from us because we don't accommodate his or her vision of love and lust, that's just fine.

After all, we don't have a lot of time to waste once we know we don't want cowards as partners, do we? We all know firsthand the painful price of cowardice, and the cost is much higher than a fixer-upper house over in Silicon Valley. Prejudice is the defining birthmark of a coward. We all have been guilty of prejudice at one time or another. We are only human. But if we can look truth in the eye, we are forced to change for the better.

Beauty is skin-deep. We've heard this over and over again. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A hearing person might see a deaf man signing lazily and assume that he's slow-minded, whereas I could see him as incredibly sexy because he's so laid-back. I fell for my first deaf boyfriend because I found the nuances of his signing so breathtaking—in the same way that a hearing person might fall for another person because of his sexy voice.

In this regard, I'm so thankful for the progress that the bear community has unintentionally enabled the disabled gay community to make: Suddenly, we don't have to accept the smooth California blond surfer boy as our physical ideal. Thank God. I used to suffer years ago from the agony of wondering if a tall, skinny, furry, red-bearded, strawberry blond deaf guy could be considered remotely attractive to anyone when all I saw were clean-cut preppy friends my age getting picked up in bars every weekend. Turned out that I was looking for love in all the wrong places. (Duh!)

When we all finally reach an understanding and appreciation of our differences, it opens all of us to accepting other people as they are, and not wishing that they'd fit into some prescribed ideal that the media's shoved down our throats. I honestly don't see any difference between being deaf and being gay; they are one and the same to me. I hope that you too won't see any difference between being disabled and being gay, because I really don't see it.

I'd like to quote something Sam Edwards said. He was a deaf dancer who died in 1989, and this sums up what I've said today: "Deafness and gayness are not my problems; they are those of people who do not accept themselves, and therefore do not accept others." I think it's very true for all of us "disabled."

All of these are the thoughts I'd sought to articulate in those days when I stood alone next to the Ironwood Catholic Grade School during recess, wondering whether I'd find my rightful place on the playground. When you discover you are not alone in your emotions, it's an amazing feeling of redemption. And I know I will continue to feel that thrilling feeling here, right now, with all of you at this conference.

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RAYMOND LUCZAK has seen eight of his plays produced or workshopped around the country. His most recent, "A Pair Of Hands: Deaf Gay Monologues," was produced at the HERE Theater last month.

He is the editor of "Eyes of Desire: A Deaf Gay & Lesbian Reader" (Alyson), and the author of "St. Michael's Fall: Poems."

His next two books, "Silence is a Four-Letter Word: On Art & Deafness," and "This Way To The Acorns: Poems" will be published by
The Tactile Mind Press (www.thetactilemind.com) this month.

Luczak has directed the renowned ASL storyteller Manny Hernandez in "Manny ASL: Stories in American Sign Language," due out at Deaf Way II this month. He is completing his first digital feature, "Ghosted, a deaf ghost story. You can read excerpts from all his books and see clips of his work at his Web site, www.raymondluczak.com.

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/July 2002