PETER'S STORY
Deafness, Gayness and Identity

by Jitka Sinecka

 

My experience of being gay and disabled is of unrequited and fulfilled desire, pride and embarrassment. It is a tableau that I cherish for what it has taught me, and how it has allowed me to express who I am.
-Philip Patston

Introduction

Deaf people form a cultural and language minority. Being deaf and homosexual suggests a double identity and a double exclusion from a society dominated by those who are hearing and heterosexual. What follows is my examination of a deaf young man's and his family's perspectives on the issues of family relations, communication, friendships and partnerships, framed by the individual experiences of some deaf gays and lesbians in the Czech Republic. In the following discussion I render "deaf" with lowercase "d" to indicate physical impairment. An uppercase "D" denotes those who choose to identify themselves as part of a cultural, social and linguistic community. They share common history, experience of oppression, and a separate education, and employ Czech Sign Language as their primary means of communication.

During 2003 and 2004 I got to know five Prague families with deaf children. I wanted to learn how different members of those families, especially parents, responded to various issues of deafness, both emotionally and practically, and I wanted to contrast their views with how the deaf family members themselves reacted to those same experiences.

To learn about Deaf identity coupled with homosexuality, I needed to find the answers to many questions: what are the implications of living in two minorities, for example? How does a family react when they discover that their child is gay? How inclusive or exclusive are heterosexual deaf people toward deaf gays; likewise, how do hearing gays respond to deafness? What does deaf experience tell us about the possibility of having a hearing partner, and about that partner's tolerance of deafness and Czech Sign Language (CSL)?

This article responds to these questions by portraying one story, the narrative of a young deaf man I call Peter. During my study I interviewed Peter, his brother, who is four years his senior, and his mother. Peter's father refused to talk to me.

Being Deaf and Gay in the Czech Republic

Because Peter's is a Czech story as well as a personal one, we need to look briefly at some recent history. Under communist control, between 1945 and 1989, gays and lesbians were not recognized, and deaf people were also oppressed. The government banned Deaf clubs and organizations as well as nonprofit entities. CSL was forbidden in schools, and people with all kinds of disabilities were hidden in sheltered workshops and other institutions. After 1989, during the transition to democracy and an open society, minority issues were opened to public discussion for the first time in a long period of time. Nevertheless, even nowadays prejudice against gay and deaf citizens remains prevalent, and stereotyping is still common. Such attitudes strike at the very humanity of those who occupy these minorities.

Today there are ten thousand deaf people in the Czech Republic, approximately one percent of the total population, and about 250 thousand hearing-impaired individuals. In Prague, the capital, with a population of one million, there are only about ten deaf persons, who, to date, have identified themselves as gay or lesbian. This small group, characterized by various ages, different levels of education, and different interests and occupations, meets regularly in their own club; they also maintain a website. Given the number of deaf gays in the country, it is very hard to find a deaf partner.

The Discovery of Peter's Deafness

Peter, now twenty-five, grew up in a hearing family. When he was about a year old his mother compared his development with that of her sister's child, who was the same age, and started to suspect that Peter could not hear. She talks about a period when her suspicions and her need to believe that all was well were in constant conflict. She noticed that Peter did not react when she called him, for example, but when he turned his head in reaction to thunder and lightning, which he probably sensed as vibrations felt through the wooden floor, she calmed down. Only after Peter's grandmother insisted that something was wrong did his mother take him to a doctor, who discovered his deafness.

The family's reaction was shock and anger, similar to the stages Elizabeth Kuebler-Ross defined when she observed how people respond to terminal illness. In the beginning, Peter's parents were not able to accept their son's deafness; instead of learning to cope with it they tried to find ways to cure it. His brother told me that they even visited a healer, who told them to put cream cheese on Peter's ears.

Peter's mother says: "It was a shock, cruel for both of us, because we all loved him, my husband loved him then more than the older son, because he did not hear, he was such a poor boy."

When Peter was about eighteen months old, his parents, advised by a doctor, placed him in a residential center where he lived during the week with other hearing children in order to learn spoken language. His parents visited him on Fridays and took him home for weekends. They all cried and suffered so much over this arrangement, however, that the family decided to move to a bigger city, where Peter could and live at home while going to a school for the deaf

Methods of Communication

At home, Peter's family relied solely on oral communication because they were advised to do so by "experts," at a time when CSL was suppressed in schools. By contrast, Peter describes his feelings when he first began to learn CSL:

"A classmate gave me a life. I started to like being deaf. If she had not taught me how to sign and I had been among hearing persons only, I would not have known anything about Deaf community and would not have realized how cool it is to be Deaf. She gave me birth, and now I am a happy man."

As I noted earlier, CSL was forbidden in classrooms, but the deaf children of deaf parents helped spread it among their classmates. Usually this happened outside the classroom during breaks and extracurricular activities. CSL was also spread through dormitories where some children lived while attending separate elementary schools for the deaf. However, officially, children were punished when they tried to sign during class.

In Peter's family communication is limited to mother and son now. Peter's mother serves as a medium and transfers questions and answers between father and son, so although the three live together in a small apartment they don't talk to each other directly. Peter's mother eventually learned some CSL, but his father refused. Consequently family communication is almost entirely oral, based on Peter's abilities to speak and lip-read. Peter had difficulty understanding his father's speech because of his articulation, and because his moustache made lip-reading difficult. This led to the shutdown of communication between the two.

Peter explains: "I have always talked more with my mother. She forced me to exercise my voice. Sometimes I refused, but today I am very grateful that she taught me to speak. Nowadays, I can ask for and talk about anything and I also have Czech Sign Language. With my father, it was different. It was hard for me to understand him and he could not understand me. There was a boundary between us and we both were banging our heads against it. I would rather go and tell mom to go and tell my father something. Or my father asks mom to go and tell me something."

Peter's Gay Identity

Relations between Peter and his father were not always bad. As a child, Peter felt loved by his father, but problems began to emerge when the two could no longer understand each other. This happened around communication issues and especially during pubescence, when Peter's feelings and identity were developing. Their relations collapsed entirely when Peter announced that he was gay. While his mother was able to accept it after a while, his father was not.

Peter's mother says: "My son is gay. He is simply gay. And my husband—it bothers him. There are different relations between men and every man has a hard time coping with the fact that his son is not a man, or is half-man. My husband tries to explain it to me, saying" "I don't understand it, he is not a man, so what is he?" I reconciled myself to it after a while. It was hard, but he is mine and I love him; I could not kick him out of the house."

His mother admits that she recognized something was "wrong" with Peter even before he told her. She started to be suspicious because of faxes Peter received. While his father is unable to accept Peter's sexual orientation, saying that he is not a "man" anymore, Peter's mother learned to cope with the knowledge and loves him as much as before.

She says: "I felt it. First I noticed from faxes that he had meetings with some guys. He opened up after a very long time, when he was really bothered about it. He was very unhappy that he could not tell us that he is gay. He acted very angrily, he was unpleasant and nasty because he was afraid of our reaction. When he opened up and told me, it all changed. And what shall I do? Shall I bite his head off?"

Peter talks about his feelings when he first started to recognize his homosexuality. "I changed how I understood my sexuality. I did not tell my mum anything for a long time, but inside I worried a lot. She knew that I had worries but she did not say anything. After I opened up to her, she was surprised. I went to see a psychologist and I realized that this is the way I am and I felt OK about it. After that I went to tell mum. After three months, she said that it does not matter, the most important thing is that she has a son. She kissed me and gave me a hug. I think I am lucky that my mum is like that. "

Peter reflects on his family situation: "When I was small, I was lonely. My parents did not explain everything that was going on and I felt lost. My father did not care; I don't remember anything of his education and upbringing. He could not bear that first I am deaf and second that I am gay. Therefore our relationship broke down. My dad does not accept that I am gay, just does not accept it!"

The two brothers get along OK. Peter's hearing brother does not consider deafness a handicap and they understand and can talk to each other well. Peter speaks loudly with him and also lip-reads, and in fact his deafness is a matter of jokes for his brother and some of their hearing friends. For example, his brother begins to shout when Peter is looking at a computer screen and does not pay any attention, which, obviously, does not work. His brother says that when Peter signs, nobody understand him, so why bother with CSL anyway.

Friends and Partners

Although Peter had ordinary childhood relationships with girls, he realized when he was eighteen that something was "wrong" with him.

"I dated a girl when I was eighteen. She was in love with me, but me? I did not feel anything, I dated her for fun. Girls wanted me but I had weird feelings. I had problems, but that changed when I was twenty-two and went to see a psychologist to talk about my feelings."

Being gay among Deaf people who form a language minority within the dominant hearing society means that Peter belongs to a minority within a minority. The likelihood of his finding a Deaf partner in his own country is very small. Today in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, there are only ten to fifteen Deaf men and women who self-identify as gay. Within this small group characterized by Deafness and gayness, age, education, interests, and social class are varied. Thus Peter maintains contacts with Deaf gay men in other countries, exchanges e-mails and faxes, and even travels to visit them. He doubts he can find a hearing partner who will accept his deafness sufficiently to learn sign language, someone who will not only understand Deaf culture but embrace it.

"And my chance to find a partner here in Prague? Small. Deaf gays meet in a club, but we have little in common, they have different intelligence. With regard to hearing people, I have a bigger chance to meet somebody, but there is a communication problem with them. Even if some would like to learn sign language, I feel that their motives are not 100 percent authentic, they want to have sex with you first. I refuse to have a hearing partner, because hearing people sometimes view Deaf culture with disdain, without respect or understanding. They don't like our culture. My future life, relationships and everything, it is a big question."

Another Deaf man from Prague, Ian, also 27, found a hearing partner several years ago. His partner learned sign language because of him and now works as a professional interpreter.

"I had difficulty finding a Deaf partner and knew that I would not find one in the Czech Republic," says Ian. "Here I could only find a hearing partner, but the success of our relationship depended on his willingness to learn my language, sign language, because you cannot write messages forever. To be honest, hearing gays are much better then hearing heterosexuals, because they do not view us as 'disabled' in terms of our homosexuality, but it all differs from one person to another. I would say that around 90 percent of hearing gays do not have a problem being with deaf gays. They have always accepted us and tried to engage with us. However, the truth is that they mostly do it out of curiosity."

Pride and Identification with the Deaf World

Now, five years after Peter told his family he was gay, his mum is proud of her son. She is still uncomfortable that he is deaf and gay, but she loves him "as he is" and is happy that she has "such a great son." On the other hand, Peter's father remains unable to accept his son's being gay, and relations between the two men have broken down entirely. They neither talk to each other nor understand each other. His brother says that Peter is happy the way he is and would never allow surgeons to try and restore his hearing. Peter's newfound self-confidence comes from the ease and beauty of sign language communication and his discovery of a sense of community among those who identify with Deaf culture.

Peter has come to believe that Deaf friends and sign language are essential to his happiness. They are what keep him alive. He maintains that being deaf among hearing people would be frustrating enough to kill him. He never thinks about how it would be if he had been born hearing. This suggests that Peter has fully accepted his deaf identity thanks to his deaf friends and sign language, just as he was able to accept his gay identity with the help of a psychologist's counsel. Thus Peter has achieved a sense of equilibrium within the two minorities, deaf and gay, that define him.

Conclusion

In this article I hoped to contribute to an understanding of the double identities of two marginalized groups, and to reveal the foundations of those identities. Peter's story reveals the particulars of how deafness is received in a hearing society, and how gayness is accepted in a world defined by deafness.

Although it is said that Deaf identity results from a combination of family background and educational history, Peter's story suggests that Deaf identity develops and continues to change with exposure to ongoing relationships, new friendships, and to Deaf culture. In "So Human an Animal," Rene Dubos argues, "the subtle sense of identity is an evolving configuration that emerges in the process of complex adjustments which continue during each stage of life—childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age."

My examination suggests that it is more of a struggle to be gay in a Deaf culture than to be deaf in a hearing society. D.L. Williams, in "God Bless Text Messages," has this to say about Deaf gay culture: "If I had to sum up Deaf gay culture in three words, they would be drama, directness, and tolerance. There are more deaf-hearing gay relationships than there are deaf-deaf, and why this is so I honestly couldn't say. Who cares?" Ian says: "The problem is that deaf people do not have enough information about homosexuality and view us with prejudice. They consider us to be sick, disgusting, not normal."

Once we recognize that gayness and at least many instances of deafness are inevitable, we can more easily see the wisdom of acceptance rather than change. Peter's story shows us that self-acceptance by individuals and by their families is sometimes difficult. As Ian's comment suggests, the larger challenge may involve the cultural divide that walls off one minority from the other.

© 2005 Jitka Sinecka

 

Notes and Sources

My approach in the preceding article was informed by various concepts of Deaf identity, as examined by scholars in Deaf studies discourse. One of my more important sources was Rachel McKee who, in her online article "Deaf Identity and NZSL," identifies the following constituents of Deaf cultural identity:

Deaf cultural identity includes:
Language identity
Personal identity
Social identity

Language Identity is produced by using
Sign language
Language does not serve only as a communication means; it is an important symbol of Deaf culture. Some authors argue that "language is simultaneously a store or a repository of cultural knowledge, a symbol of social identity, and a medium of interaction"

Deaf Language Identity is based on
Visual communication preference that crosses international boundaries
Using sign language with Deaf friends for easy and comfortable communication
Struggle with majority spoken and written language

Personal Identity is influenced by
Family characteristics and relationships
Social experience with peers

Social Identity arises from
The type of group a person feels that he belongs to or fits into
Sense of belonging
Acceptance by the group, social recognition of membership (e.g. clubs, disability rights movement)

Another aspect of Deaf identity is constituted through identification with a Deaf world and community. The Identification with a Deaf World is based on
Shared experiences (e.g. Schools for Deaf, work experience, outsiders in the hearing world, Disability Human and Civil Rights Movement such as the Deaf President Now movement, Sign language recognition)
Minority experience of "difference" and/or oppression Encounters with hearing people such as communication barriers, marginalization, low expectation ("Deaf and dumb" label, prejudices about low intelligence of deaf people)

I have also found the following sources to be valuable, and recommend them to readers seeking additional information:

Bat-Chava, Jael (2000) "Diversity of Deaf Identities." American Annals of the Deaf, 12.

BBC Disability Website and Disability Magazine, Ouch. (28 April, 2005).

BBC SeeHear, website for Deaf and Hard of Hearing people. (28 April, 2005).

Dubos, Rene (1968) So Human an Animal. Quoted in Schowe, B.M. (1979) Identity Crisis in Deafness. Temple: The Scholar Press.

Gumperz, John (1974) "Linguistic Anthropology in Society." American Anthropologist, Vol 76, 785-798. Quoted in McKee, Rachel (2005) Deaf Identity and NZSL. (26 April, 2005).

Higgins, P.C. (1980). Outsiders in a Hearing World. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.

Leigh, I., Marcus, A., Dobosh, P., and Allen, T. (1998) Deaf/Hearing Cultural Identity Paradigms: Modification of the Deaf Identity Development Scale. In Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, Vol 3, 329-338. (3 May 2005).

Williams, D.L. (2005) God bless text messages. Available on-line at (10 May, 2005).

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A native of the Czech Republic, Jitka Sinecka is a Fulbright Scholar and Ph.D. student in Disability Studies at the School of Education, Syracuse University. In 2004 she graduated with a Master's degree in Social and Public Policy from Charles University, Prague, where she also earned degrees in Anthropology and Humanities. Jitka is interested in comparative disability law and policy at national as well as international levels, and is working on research related to the forthcoming United Nations Convention on Disability. She has conducted research on Deaf issues (her grandmother is deaf) as well as on attitudes of local offices and providers of social services for people with disabilities. This article is a revised version of a paper delivered at the Society for Disability Studies conference in San Francisco, June 2005.

 

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/November 2005