Monday, August 13, 2007

Having a Voice.....

It's been such a gift to have the time to write, even though I haven't written as much as I could have (so far). I'm still in the early stages of a book project about my Uncle Jerry--who was born deaf--and my own experiences in the Deaf community. I'm also thankful for having my Bay Windows column, and getting the chance to actually finish some short pieces--and to know that some folks are actually reading them!

Here's my latest piece, about Jerry and my connection with him.

The Cost of Silence

By Judah Leblang/2007
Word count: 895

A few months ago, I went to an all-day workshop at Northeastern University in Boston. The workshop was offered as part of the university’s annual ASL Festival, and focused on storytelling in American Sign Language. As a writer, I’ve always been interested in stories. I’d spent many years studying sign language; now after a gap of seven years, I was back.

The workshop was taught by a deaf professor from Gallaudet University, and was conducted in ASL, without English “voicing, ” or translation. As I watched the beauty of the professor’s signs, I was reminded of my only uncle, Jerry, who was also deaf. Today, from my own perch in middle age, I realize that my connection with deaf people wasn’t just a coincidence, but a legacy of my uncle’s life, and my own sense of being different.

I’ve spent about half my adult life working in the Deaf Community, as a dorm counselor at the Tennessee School for the Deaf, a teacher of deaf children, and a sign language interpreter. By working with deaf people, I’ve come to understand the challenges my uncle faced in a less enlightened era.

Jerry was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in December 1930. By the time he was a year old, my grandparents suspected he was deaf; visits to several doctors confirmed the diagnosis. Because my grandparents wanted a “normal” son who would be successful in the world, they enrolled my uncle in an oral program for deaf children. For the next 15 years, my uncle would undergo intensive training, so that he eventually developed intelligible speech. At the same time, he was isolated from other deaf people, and though he picked up a bit of sign language, he rarely used it. In fact, I never saw my uncle sign.

Eventually, Jerry went to a public high school with no program for deaf children. (His education there was spotty, at best.) He played varsity basketball, went to school dances, and by all accounts, had lots of friends. It seemed that high school was the high point of his life; everything that followed was a downhill ride. Still, given the constraints of living in a hearing world, without interpreters, without much connection to other deaf people, it seemed that Jerry did quite well. He graduated from high school, and with my grandfather’s help, found a job as an assistant draftsman, working for a local architect in Cleveland.

And yet, it never seemed like enough for my grandfather. I can remember Papa Ben explaining something to my uncle, a vein in his forehead throbbing in frustration, and saying in a familiar refrain, “How many times have I told you…” as if Jerry were stupid or mildly retarded. (My grandfather had a scruffy moustache, which would have made lip-reading him almost impossible).

Growing up, I felt a special sense of connection with my uncle. As a gay boy, struggling with feelings I couldn’t and wouldn’t name, I felt like an outsider. Jerry was an outsider, too. No matter how hard he tried, my uncle couldn’t live as a hearing person — his jarring, flat speech marking him as fundamentally different than those around him.

Jerry married a deaf woman and had a hearing daughter. But my uncle, who had been taught that sign language wasn’t a “real language,” refused to sign to his deaf wife. Instead, he used his speech and gestures, both with his wife and on his visits to the local deaf club. After high school, my uncle’s hearing friends married and moved away, occupied with their own families, and Jerry found himself without close friends, marooned between the hearing and deaf worlds.

Many years later, as I worked with deaf people, I discovered the parallels between the deaf and gay experiences. Ninety percent of deaf children are born into hearing families. Like my uncle, they must find their community — people who sign, people who view them as whole rather than simply as folks who can’t hear — outside of their families and immediate neighborhoods. In a similar vein, I had to search beyond my family and friends to discover a community of gay men in which I finally came out in my late 20s. Fortunately, I’ve had the time and resources to find a sense of community in my life here in Boston, and to claim my identity as a gay man.

Sitting in that workshop, watching a deaf professor — a linguist—teaching a room full of hearing students in ASL, I wondered how my uncle would react to this scene. Unfortunately, I couldn’t ask him. Jerry, a slim, athletic man with a natural physical grace, died of a massive heart attack in June of 1975, at the age of 44.

My uncle learned to speak, and yet, ironically, his true voice -- using his large, expressive hands to “sign ASL” -- was suppressed. I believe this suppression led to his heart attack and early death. Today, when I see ads for “straight-acting” gay men, I think of my uncle, and the price he paid for trying to be something he was not.

When each of us lives authentically -- finding our communities, using our voices -- we empower others. My uncle’s experience has empowered me to use my voice as an “out” gay man in the broader world. The cost of silence is too high.


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