Deafness, Gayness and Identity
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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 husbandit 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
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. "
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
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
Friends and Partners
Although Peter had ordinary childhood relationships with girls,
he realized when he was eighteen that something was "wrong" with
"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
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.
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 lifechildhood,
adolescence, adulthood, old age."
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,
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
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
· Using sign language with Deaf friends for
easy and comfortable communication
· Struggle with majority spoken and written
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).
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).
Let us know what
you think of this BENT feature.
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
A Journal of CripGay Voices/November 2005