Unlike the ’80s ACT UP slogan, silence does not always equal death. In this instance, it equals empowerment.
Openly gay and deaf essayist, poet and playwright Raymond Luczak is set to take part in the Philadelphia Free Library Festival on April 18.
The seventh in a family of nine children, Luczak lost much of his hearing due to double pneumonia at age 7 months. Growing up gay and deaf might challenge the most resilient individuals, but Luczak had the added weight of being born and raised in Ironwood, Mich., a small mining town in the state’s Upper Peninsula where both gay and deaf role models were scarce.
Upon graduating high school, Luczak went to Gallaudet University, the nation’s leading institution focused on educating deaf and hard-of-hearing students, in Washington, D.C., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English, learned American Sign Language and immersed himself in the deaf and LGBT communities.
In 1988, he moved to New York City and quickly began receiving attention for his writing. His essay “Notes of a Deaf Gay Writer” won acceptance as a cover story for Christopher Street magazine. Soon after, Alyson Publications asked him to edit “Eyes of Desire: A Deaf Gay & Lesbian Reader,” a first-ever anthology of deaf gay voices, which earned two Lambda Literary Award nominations. A second volume, “Eyes of Desire 2,” also edited by Luczak, was released in 2007.
His latest book, “Assembly Required,” is one of his most personal writings to date. Luczak shares stories of his days growing up and offers an in-depth glimpse into what it means to be a deaf gay man who lives between the deaf and hearing worlds.
PGN: Was it difficult finding deaf and/or gay peers growing up in the Upper Peninsula? RL: The first eight years of my educational life were spent in a small deaf program with only six of us students drawn from the entire Western Upper Peninsula. We were not allowed to sign in the classroom. The goal was to develop our speaking, lip-reading and listening skills. I don’t remember whether we truly used our voices with each other when outside on the playground, but the other day, when I went through the school papers from those early years, I came across in a report about me that I was “signing,” which needed correction. Honestly, I don’t remember learning or using signs per se, but I do have dim memories of us students using our hands to gesture on the playground once away from the eyes of our teachers; we’d somehow understood that it was verboten.
As for the gay side of myself, I knew that I was interested in men, though not in a sexual way, back at the age of 3 or 4. I just was. I didn’t realize there was a name for it then, but I’d somehow intuited that being that way was not acceptable. When puberty kicked in, I knew even more that marrying a woman and having children was so not for me. I wanted a man, and I was constantly in love with this or that boy in my class; sometimes I stared at my teacher, whom I had to lip-read anyway. I’d sensed that I was the only deaf gay boy living in the whole world, but that sense of isolation went away the instant I’d spotted the headline “Deaf Gays” on the cover of The Advocate at a newsstand. But I didn’t meet my first deaf gay friend until the summer of 1984, when I came to Gallaudet University.
PGN: Why did you have to learn sign language in secret? RL: My parents listened to what they thought were “experts,” who told them that if I learned to sign, my speech would go downhill. They wanted the best for me, but they probably never thought to ask to meet with deaf adults, the real experts on deafness. Many deaf people may not know the statistics and research that has been done in the field of deafness, but their experiences, in my view, are far more valid — simply because you cannot tabulate a price on living through it, much in the same way that living as a LGBT person carries far more weight in a way that mind-numbing numbers don’t.
Most hearing parents don’t want to hear the fact that most deaf children will grow up to seek out others of their own kind; most straight people don’t want to hear the fact that their LGBT children will seek out their own kind. In both cases, the very act of parents trying to make their own children carbon copies of themselves does the children a grave disservice. Passing on traditions and core values are one thing, but it is totally unfair to expect them to end up just like them. The goal of raising children, I hope, is to enable them to grow into the best individuals that they can be, regardless of their sexual orientation. It is always encouraging when straight friends tell me that they don’t care if their children turn out to be gay. They just want their babies to be happy. As far as they are concerned, that’s all that counts. Every baby should be so lucky!
PGN: What was it like for you to go from living in a small mining town to attending Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.? RL: It was great. By the time I’d graduated from high school, I knew that there was a gay world out there waiting for me to discover it. I knew that Gallaudet was a college for deaf people, but somehow that didn’t register with me, at least not until the day I’d arrived there. I don’t know why. I was much more interested in the gay community outside Gallaudet: I just wasn’t sure how I would find my way there, but knowing that it did exist — at least the few gay bars I saw listed in “Frommer’s Guide to Washington, D.C.” — was more than enough to give me hope. What I did not expect, though, was how much being among so many deaf people who signed was incredibly empowering. Suddenly my deafness didn’t make me special as it had all my life. This also happened when I entered my first gay bar. It wasn’t just the sheer number of men that packed the place after work; I was just another guy who walked through the front door. That I liked men wasn’t a big deal to them; in fact, it was expected! Those twin realizations, happening fairly close together, have enabled me to say that I see being deaf and gay as one and the same; I don’t make that distinction between the two. It is that braided into my DNA.
That’s why I said there has been no difference between being LGBT and being deaf. A lot of people don’t want you as you are, so you have to want yourself as you are first. The rest of the world will buckle up and follow. That may not happen right away, but if you continue to stay true to yourself, they’ll eventually catch up. If Quentin Crisp could stay utterly true to himself for decades through conditions far worse than my own, so could I. He didn’t really change; the world eventually changed because of people like him.
PGN: Being part of both the gay community and the deaf community, do you find them equally insular or is one more wary of outsiders than the other? RL: I think both communities are insular for different reasons, some of which are totally justified. Because the hearing gay community does not have to deal with communication issues that the deaf community does, I would imagine that there’s less resistance on the part of the gay community toward outsiders coming in; most straight people coming in would know that they’re on LGBT turf, not their own.
Hearing gay people are considered far more mainstream than deaf people, regardless of their sexual orientation; see, it’s that sign-language thing. Hearing people have always been long fascinated with the notion of sign language, so we deaf people are seen as more of a novelty rather than a linguistic minority with their own language, which is not “English on the hands,” and cultural norms all their own. The deaf community is always open to hearing people coming in, but trust isn’t automatic in the same way that hearing people might deal with a deaf person coming into a hearing world where no one else signs. In order to be accepted, one must earn the trust of others; for the deaf community, it’s a willingness to acquire some mastery of American Sign Language. This requires a lot of patience as well as discarding a lot of assumptions one might’ve made about deaf people in general. Learning what “audism” means would be also an excellent start; according to Wikipedia, the concept simply means “discrimination or stereotypes against deaf or hard-of-hearing people, for example, by assuming that the cultural ways of hearing people are preferable or superior to those of deaf or signing culture, or that deaf people are somehow less capable than hearing people.” PGN: Some in the deaf community have strong feelings against cochlear implants and/or learning to lip-read. Would it be safe to say the deaf community views those things much in the same way that LGBT culture views the ex-gay movement? RL: Ten years ago, I’d probably have said yes. But now? I think most deaf people have realized by now that cochlear implants are not the “cure” to deafness that they’d feared. I’m not opposed to cochlear implants, but my biggest issue is that in order for them to work, the person’s residual hearing must be wiped out first. What if the implants don’t work, and I couldn’t truly hear again? I’ve met a few deaf people who are unable to hear again because the implants didn’t work. I’d much prefer to wait for the day when scientists are able to regenerate the dead nerve endings inside my cochlea. That could be decades from now, however.
The huge downside to having so many deaf children implanted is that deaf teachers, who are potential role models for them, are taken right out of the picture; this is similar to the situation for LGBT youths who don’t have gay-understanding mentors. Hearing parents and audiologists don’t want these deaf implantees to learn signs at all; they must focus on speech at all times. Never mind the fact that hearing babies are often taught ASL signs because research has shown that it’s helped accelerate language development and enable babies to express what they want before they begin to speak. It’s my belief that, as these deaf babies grow up and if they take the initiative of learning ASL themselves, despite what their parents may say, the use and nature of ASL will change, perhaps not as dramatically as some might fear, but it will change. Only time will tell. It’s important to record how deaf people sign ASL now as a record of what we are like now.
That said, I’ve done an interview with a deaf ex-gay man for my anthology “Eyes of Desire 2: A Deaf GLBT Reader.” He said, “Some straight people would like to divorce and embrace the gay lifestyle. But why can’t it be OK for some gays to give up and enter the straight lifestyle?” Do I agree with the ex-gay movement? Of course not, but he does have a point.
PGN: Do you think after reading “Assembly Required,” readers will come away with an understanding of some of the issues that are unique to the deaf LGBT community? RL: Yes, I believe so. I’ve structured the book so that even if you didn’t know anything about the deaf community, you can still follow along. It’s my hope that hearing readers will be a bit more willing to approach deaf people as equals rather than just people to learn some ASL signs from. For instance, if you ask a deaf acquaintance in a bar what some of the dirty signs are, they’d know that you’re a novelty seeker looking for laughs. Put another way, how would you — as a LGBT person — feel if a straight stranger on the street asked you within a few minutes of meeting whether it’s true that some LGBT people enjoy hardcore anal sex, and whether you’ve engaged in kink? Being reduced to just what we like to do sexually is truly demeaning to the LGBT community as a whole.
PGN: When you participate in events like the Free Library Festival, do you get a sense of how much of the audience is deaf and how much is hearing? Also, do you have a preference? RL: It really doesn’t matter to me. I’m always delighted when people who’ve never heard of me show up. I truly enjoy making new friends because it’s my hope that the more they meet other LGBT folks as myself, the less they will discriminate against us and be more supportive of us out there in the hearing community. Of course, I refuse to discriminate against any hearing person who doesn’t know any signs; if the person is willing to accommodate my communication needs — staying out of darkly lit areas, asking if the music’s too loud for conversation or writing down a certain word that I just can’t lip-read after repeated attempts, for instance — I am far more than happy to accommodate her or him so that I can be equally understood. Communication is all about listening with one’s heart and accommodating each other. This has nothing to do with hearing loss.
PGN: Is there any more or less discrimination in the deaf community against LGBT people than in the hearing community? RL: I think there’s less discrimination because so many ASL interpreters are LGBT or very gay-friendly; I’ve had the luck of working with many great interpreters who happen to be LGBT. I think many LGBT people feel a strong affinity with the deaf community for a lot of reasons, but the primary one, I think, is that most of our parents don’t want us as we are, so we understand that about each other. It’s very interesting to note statistically that 90 percent of deaf children have hearing parents, and that 90 percent of LGBT children have straight parents. In some ways, it’s easier to be a deaf LGBT person than a deaf straight person in the hearing world. A small number of deaf straight friends have expressed jealousy over the fact that many hearing LGBT events have ASL interpreters whereas the hearing straight world simply doesn’t care as much about such information accessibility, even if there are more deaf straight people than deaf LGBT people out there.
PGN: You’ve written some plays that have nothing to do with deaf culture. Do you trust those plays to just any producer or do you have to have a creative rapport with whomever you hand them off to? RL: If the play’s been produced before, I usually have a conversation with the producer and director, find out what they have in mind for the show, and then show up on opening night. But if the play’s never been performed, I’d prefer to be there during the early part of the rehearsals for the rewrites. Just because I’m the writer doesn’t mean that I have all the answers. The script is only a blueprint for the show. It is during the rewrites that we finalize the little details that make the construction of a house that much stronger and stable. My job as a writer is to “listen” to the actors and director working with the script, and figure out why a line or a scene isn’t working for them. Almost always after I return with a rewrite, they’ll say something like, “Yes! That’s what I was looking for, only I didn’t know how to express what I was looking for.” If my audiences are willing to “listen” to my stories onstage, I have to be as willing to listen. Truly, that’s what I strive to do as a writer, regardless of the genre I work in.
Raymond Luczak hosts a reading at 1 p.m. April 18 at the Free Library Festival at Central Library’s Independence Foundation Poetry Corner, 1901 Vine St., Room 108. For more information, visit www.raymondluczak.com or www.freelibrary.org/bookfestival or call (215) 567-4341.