Are queer people welcome in deaf political organizing spaces? Like the Florida Association of the Deaf?
Content Note: There is discussion of disordered eating and suicidal ideation/self harm.
Hi. I’m Octavian Robinson. I’d like to talk about the recent vlog from the Florida Association of the Deaf (FAD) signed by Tim Wood. The Florida Association of the Deaf video can be found here. (10:13 with captions). The person signing in the video is Tim Wood. Wood, representing the FAD, opposes the NAD’s recent video, which affirmed support for non-white and queer people by articulating opposition to Florida’s recent laws opposing the teaching of Critical Race Theory and about LGBTQIA+ issues: the so called parental rights bill. NAD President Melissa Draganac-Hawk affirmed the NAD’s support to anti-racism and anti-homophobia/transphobia efforts. The video can be found here on Facebook.
Ricky Taylor, frequent commentator, has responded to FAD’s video. In addition to sharing personal experiences, he also offered a thorough critique of FAD’s actions in a half hour commentary. [Among other things], I agree about the value of personal stories. Personal stories can help us understand why this kind of legislation or action is harmful.
I’m writing from multiple positions. As a queer and trans person. As a scholar whose training was in women’s, gender, and sexuality history. As a historian who specializes in the political organizations of the 19th century and 20th century U.S. deaf communities- largely dominated by white deaf people. Those political organizations includes the NAD, various state, regional, and local associations of the deaf. Those histories help us understand why things are the way they are now and allows us to understand that this video from FAD is an entrenchment of white supremacy rooted in normative body politics [ableist, racist, and all kinds of queerphobic].
This is really painful to witness. I was born into a hearing family. When I enrolled in a deaf school at age 2, I found my home. I formed kinship networks with deaf people through deaf schools, mainstream programs, Gallaudet. My kinship networks were rooted in a shared language and orientation to the world. In a sense, this was a chosen family. Of course, it wasn’t perfect. There are problems and dysfunctions. One such issue was the rejection and marginalization of queer deaf people.
When I was younger and we did not yet understand the notion of transing genders, I still understood myself as queer. I experienced bullying and othering. In high school, I was well liked as far as academics went and I had a cool roommate who lubricated my social relations, but I still was an outsider. People were still clearly uncomfortable with my queerness and distanced themselves from me. There were still people who were nasty about queerness. Even at Gallaudet. Queer students weren’t fully embraced, there were a lot of rumors and commentary about us. When people came out as trans, some of the community discourses were outright vile. Those same comments were directed at and about me when I came out as trans. It was awful; some even came from deaf gay men themselves [who I assumed would be natural allies]. It was tough to experience and witness that kind of commentary and behavior from people in my linguistic community, in my “chosen” family, in the kinship networks that had cradled me since I was an infant. That cocoon of networks pushed me out when I was marked as Other. As different. That was painful. To see the contemporary adult deaf community do this kind of thing, for the FAD to do this, to inform queer deaf youth [remembering that 90+ of deaf children are from hearing families and so where are they to turn?] that they are not welcome in deaf communities or deaf political organizing spaces. That we are not welcome in your political activism. That’s just one harmful message of many sent by that video.
I want to share a personal story so we can understand what kind of lasting harm is done to a child when their understanding of themselves is erased and denied within the family and within other social structures.
Flashback to sixth grade. Our class, composed of fourth through sixth graders, had a weeklong health education class focused on the reproductive system and puberty. We sat in a semicircle with the visiting teacher. My best friend, Joey, sat next to me. I saw him as my mirror double. We had a common future and we were alike in many ways. Gender included. When the teacher described the male body and puberty, I nodded along, enthusiastically. Exciting futures awaited. Then suddenly, the teacher pointed to me and other students in the class. They marked us as girls and eagerly told us, “this is your future!” They went on to describe breast growth, body shape and fat distribution, hips, periods, pregnancies. I remember when they pointed at me, everything sank. My world was turned upside down, things went black, and I felt out of my body. Betrayed. I wasn’t there anymore. I mechanically joined the group to go to lunch when class ended. I remember the walk to the cafeteria thinking I needed to fix this somehow. That body was not the future I wanted or could see myself occupying.
[Since I did not know trans people existed or could exist nor that hormone interventions were possible,] I turned to the one solution that seemed sensible. I was in a race against time to hide what puberty was about to do to me. I asked the cafeteria servers to serve me doubles of everything. The meal. The cake. The milk. I requested chocolate. And that was the beginning of a lifelong eating disorder [that I still pay the price for]. Later came the suicidal ideation and self harm. All because of things that the FAD seems to support — like the parental rights bill. What this bill does is tell queer children, just as an FYI, recent statistics show about half of youth identify somewhere on the queer spectrum, and this tells queer children that we’re wrong, unnatural, evil, immoral, sinners, that we are inherently broken and in need of cure. That we must contort ourselves to fit into what society expects of us. And the refusal to comply with what is expected of us brings consequences. Like being rejected from our families and feeling like a disappointment to the adults in our lives. Imagine that burden.
Perhaps you’ll sympathize somewhat if you understood that the underlying logics of ableism, transphobia, and homophobia have much in common and are mutually constitutive. As deaf people, society demands that we perform hearingness, to conform to society’s expectations as to how we should use language and how we should ‘be’ in the world. And the refusal to accept those cures, those fixes? Makes us feel bad, feel inferior to hearing people, that our signed language and ways of being isn’t as good as English/spoken languages, and so on. They aren’t perfect parallels, the deaf experience and the trans experience, but I’d hope that we have some mutual interest in resisting compulsory abledness, which also demands heteronormativity. Both being deaf and being queer are natural, normal states of being. There’s plenty of science and theory showing us that our understandings of gender as binary- men and women- is wrong. Many of our ideas about gender is rooted in old, outdated ideas that have no basis in science. This is for Tim Wood and his ilk. This is uneducated ignorance at work. Willful ignorance.
As a historian of the white U.S. deaf community and its political leadership, I can say that this comes as no surprise. Deaf politics tends to the conservative because the leadership, comprised of white, otherwise abled deaf people, are eager to buy into the benefits and protections of white supremacy at the expense of nonwhite, disabled, queer, and other multiply marginalized deaf people. Those efforts to align with white supremacy is clearly racist, homophobic, and transphobic. What FAD is doing with this video is clearly racist, homophobic, and transphobic. Much of the latter two is rooted in racism and ideas of whiteness.
I could go on for hours about both deaf history and queer theory. Instead, I offer you some further reading so you can educate yourselves to understand gender and sexuality, to understand what natural and normal really means. And it’s important to remember that all of this is rooted in ableism and deficit views of bodies.
I shared this because I want you to think about what it means to be both deaf and queer. Further, to think about what it means to exist as a deaf queer person within political activist spaces in the deaf community that does not welcome you or see you as fully human. The pain in being rejected, not fully included in both the hearing world and to confront that among deaf spaces as well. I didn’t want to become too academic. I hope those stories help you think about what you’re doing and why you want to hurt your fellow deaf denizens.
If I had seen as a child that transgender and queer people were normal and natural, that options existed to delay or shift puberty, I would have been a much happier person. Can you imagine what a thriving deaf community and what we’d achieve in terms of political activism we’d have if we were in solidarity with each other?
The parental rights bill is really about imposing white Christian theocracy on everyone else against their will. I have no interest in living in a Christian theocracy. The US was not founded as a Christian nation and was never intended to be one. Enough. I’m not interested in you imposing your faith on me or in our public school system. The school system has an obligation to teach the truth with integrity- as much as is possible- that truth includes the fact that there are many genders and sexualities that vary widely. That exists in the world. We know that the rejection of gender and sexual variant is rooted in white supremacy and settler colonialism. The goal was to consolidate power in the hands of a very small group of people [no pun intended].
Florida Association of the Deaf. That’s what you’re doing.
Further Resources for your Learning:
Barker, Meg-John and Jules Scheele. Queer: A Graphic History Paperback. 2016.
Barker, Meg-John and Jules Scheele. Gender: A Graphic Guide Paperback. 2020.
Cartwright, RL. Peculiar Places: A Queer Crip History of White Rural Nonconformity. 2022.
McRuer, R. 2006. Compulsory Able-bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence.
Robinson, O. 2010. “We Are of a Different Class: Ableist Rhetoric in Deaf America, 1880–1920,” in Deaf and Disability Studies: Interdisciplinary Perspectives edited by Susan Burch and Alison Kafer.
Robinson, O. 2012. The Deaf Do Not Beg: Making the case for citizenship, 1880–1956. dissertation, The Ohio State University.