"The challenges of being both bi and deaf or hard of hearing (DHOH) and how our communities have a common interest."
Trigger warnings: Discussion of biphobia and ableism.
I am hard of hearing (HOH). I am also biromantic-bisexual. I`m not deaf - unless people want me to listen to their biphobic rants - so I`ve sought out as much information as I can on engagement from that point of view. I am profoundly deaf in one ear and have reduced hearing in the other. What this means is that one-to-one conversations in a fairly quiet environment are fine for me usually but anything more than that is difficult. I cannot sign, not least because I don`t know anyone who can sign so it wouldn`t be much use anyway but I can lip read a bit.
At first glance these two traits may seem worlds apart, but there are aspects that connect them. In general culture erasure and being used as a punch line is a big issue. That is to say that it can be hard to get people to take me seriously unless I repeatedly bring them up. As I`m not completely deaf or `completely gay` people often assume that I am playing up for the sake of attention. I don`t think I`ve ever encountered a character in any media or even a famous real-life person that is DHOH and bisexual or even MOGAI of any flavour. Ever. So people tend to wash over this combination because it`s rarely brought to their attention (I can count the number of times my local bi group has discussed disability at all let alone hearing impairment specifically on the fingers of one foot).
As many of you are no doubt aware bisexuals are only ever sneaky and changeable villains in fiction and real-life persons will have their bisexuality erased ruthlessly. The only DHOH main characters I can think of are Gil Grissom and Hawkeye, who aren`t bad characters in themselves but it`s hardly a large selection (and Grissom has his hearing surgically restored anyway). How many well-known deaf people can you name? Beethoven, Helen Keller and that`s probably it. You may be interested to know there is a deaf lady who is considered an early (medieval) feminist; she wrote a scathing but effective feminist polemic because critics said that her first book was too good to be written by a woman! Her name was Teresa de Cartagena , but I doubt she`s ever been mentioned much in history classes. Much like bisexuality, hearing loss and DHOH people are often dropped into works for comic effect. `The deaf people are signing and a character can`t understand hahaha.` `The bisexual is gonna steal your datefriend hahaha.` The character appears for a scene and then disappears forever to stop distracting from the `real` characters.
These are damaging stereotypes, as I`m sure everyone is aware by now. Outside of media though, the effects of being bi and DHOH are much more sinister. Those DHOH people who were not born to deaf parents can become incredibly isolated by this single aspect of themselves. Naturally this brings to mind the isolation that many of us may have felt when we come out to someone as bi only to have it thrown in our faces. Perhaps we have those people we dare not come out to for fear of being isolated – I`m not generally out so I assure you I do. Both of these parts of my experience are ones I rarely reveal to people I know unless it becomes absolutely necessary but this is a luxury deaf people do not have. I can shake off the occasional biphobic comment or being jokingly called deaf as a post when I have to ask for multiple repetitions from my manager (don`t do this by the way, I KNOW I`m making you repeat yourself and I`m sorry) but how could you possibly fake an entire sense? More to the point, why should you ever be made to feel ashamed about it anyway? It`s not shame as such that makes me hide my HOHness or my bisexuality but I`m never sure what reaction I`ll get: `You`ve just got selective hearing, we all get that from time to time`. Sound familiar? Around 88% of hearing parents of deaf people NEVER learn sign language to communicate properly with their children. Read that again, "88%". Around 68% of homeless MOGAI youth are that way because of family rejection or fear thereof.
Clearly, there are parallels here. As so much of intersectionality (all?) is, this is about `normalness` and more importantly denying any deviation from it. A lot of research has concluded that the parents who are forcing their DHOH children to communicate only through speech are doing so to try to deny they have different needs because of their deafness. This has a long tradition by the way, sign language was essentially banned until quite recently after a conference in Milan in 1880 determined it was destroying the education of DHOH people. Problems of communication are not an alien concept in bisexual circles either. Raise your hand if you`ve experienced people only ever asking about potential different gender partners and changing the subject if you mention same gender ones or trying to redefine the terms of your identity to make them comfortable. Once again the denial of expression comes from outside forces. The oralist (proponents of lip reading and speech as the only communication for DHOH people) and the heteronormative both seek to deny agency to us by not allowing us to express our feelings or control our own experiences. DHOH people were denied an entire language, while bisexuals have had all allusion and description of their experience systematically scrubbed from public consciousness.
For so long we have been denied any role-models or history, but we can at least ensure that we don`t continue the tradition. Thankfully we have all made leaps and bounds in recent years in establishing lines of communication that are controlled by those who need them. However, strengthening the bonds between communities is never a bad thing. The bi community is one of the most actively inclusive I`ve known when it wants to be. For this reason I want it to become known for being a safe community for DHOH people too. If you are active in a hearing bi space maybe consider reaching out to local deaf groups and finding out if there are deaf queer alliances active in your area. Obviously it`s important you aren`t patronising about it, but shared experience and solidarity is always appreciated.
A Word on Making Hearing Bi Spaces Easier to Navigate for DHOH People
As a HOH person, my greatest irritation with queer spaces is that they tend to be oriented around noisy, dimly lit places. For example, in my home city there are a good dozen or so established queer spaces that advertise themselves as being bi-friendly (one of which is bi-centred). Of these, 10 are made up of club nights and karaoke/music oriented bars. The other two are cafes or groups that meet in cafes. Now I know that the idea of these club nights and such isn`t to encourage nuanced communication so I won`t dwell on them except to mention that DHOH people tend to get very tired very quickly in this environment because we are used to keeping visually alert at all times so as not to miss something and the constant stimulus can be overwhelming.
On to the spaces that are meant to be used for more communication then. I realise it is not practical or even desirable for bi support groups to meet in places of absolute silence. That would probably make what is after all quite an exposing experience – the first time meeting with bisexual community – unbearably weird. However, a little consideration goes a long way and patience is a wonderful virtue. I will be asking you to repeat yourself, maybe several times during a conversation. This goes double if there is music playing in the background which will distract me a lot. Allowing HOH people to choose their seating position will go a long way towards eliminating much of my frustration. Personally I have no directional hearing (you need two ears to compare volumes with) and essentially will not be able to hear anyone to the left of me clearly so being able to sit in the corner of square table will mean I can hear as many people as possible without twisting around or asking for more repetition. Asking everyone in the group to talk with their hands away from their mouths and to look in my direction while talking to me is also greatly appreciated as all these things help to reduce stress and frustration.
The other setting that DHOH issues need to be considered is in events such as conferences. There are a number of resources on making venues accessible to those with sensory deficits but the crux of it is that you can never provide too many resources. Written material accompanying presentations, subtitles on all scripted/pre-recorded segments, sign language interpreters both at events and to aid attendees, consistent hearing-aid loops and using reduced visual noise environments wherever possible are some examples of things organisers can do to reach out to the deaf and HOH communities. Thankfully, much of the Bi community is committed to such accessibility. As an example, the 2014 Bicon (The Uk`s Bi Conference) stated that they would provide funding for deaf people who needed assistance from their Equalities Fund. The example used read "Anita is deaf and has asked BiCon if they can help her with hearing people at BiCon plenaries and sessions. The Equalities Fund could be used to hire some equipment for her to use at BiCon." This is a great sign and I look forward to seeing all bi events be proudly DHOH-friendly.
Deaf Queer Resources
I have yet to find any specifically deaf-bisexual groups outside of the bisexual section of Deaf Passions, a dating site for deaf people.
The Deaf-Queer Resource Centre is a good starting point and you can find a certain amount of community on their Facebook groups. Sadly a lot of their site is constantly down for renovations as it`s entirely volunteer-run. The social media outlets are frequently updated and well worth looking at though.
Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA) has an exhibition on deaf lesbians and bisexual women in South Africa, which looks at the many challenges that are faced by this community. Intersections with gender and race are particularly explored in the project which aims to educate about and celebrate deaf lesbians and bi women.