I’m sure nothing I’m about to discuss is a new phenomenon or a new idea, it’s just something I’m exploring for the first time. Please excuse me while I process my feelings, inspired by this week’s episode of the show Switched At Birth.
I’ve always been intrigued by sign language. When I was very little, my favorite character on Sesame Street was Linda, the woman who signed. One week at the library, a deaf woman came in to talk to us about sign language. I was very young, but I understood. These people couldn’t hear the way we did, couldn’t navigate the world in quite the same way, but they communicated just fine. They just had a different-to-me way of doing it. It never crossed my very young mind that these people could have been discriminated against, treated differently, automatically discarded as “disabled”. Just as my young self was learning that reading was a brand new way to learn and share information, sign language was one too.
I unfortunately never learned sign language; not beyond the ASL alphabet, a few songs like “Silent Night,” and the words we taught toddlers in the preschool I volunteered at (words like “more” and “help” to ease the frustration of those who couldn’t communicate verbally yet). In my very small elementary school, Spanish was the only language offered, adding French as a second option in my only-slightly-bigger high school. But my perspective on sign language has never changed. Maybe it was due to having been exposed to sign language at such a young age, or maybe it’s just my natural tendency towards others, but I was never one of those people who assumed that people who couldn’t hear were any less intelligent than those who could. In fact, I remember one of the first times I heard something like that be suggested and feeling a confused rage at the very notion. I had yet to be fully exposed to the ignorance of the world, I suppose.
As an adult, I’m still not directly exposed to a lot of said ignorance, thankfully. I’ve somehow managed to mostly surround myself with intelligent, caring people who teach me new things every day. While some people who spend their whole lives in a homogeneous bubble fear anything outside it, some of us develop a healthy curiosity. And I like to think we are, by default, great listeners, because there’s so much we don’t know, but it all fascinates us.
I watch a lot of television. While movies and books I usually reserve for my less realistic media – really sadistic horror movies and magically adventurous fiction novels are among my favorites – the television I love tends to be about people, first and foremost. Especially people I have yet to be exposed to. This includes, but is not limited to, firefighters, fairytale characters trapped in the real world, succubi, unnaturally attractive teenagers being stalked and tortured while everyone they know is being murdered around them, doctors, teenagers who like to sing in smalltown Ohio, waitresses trying to start a cupcake business, various facets of the FBI, etc, etc, etc.
I just love learning about these random aspects of life – even though I know they’re highly fictionalized versions of said lives – because they’re not anything I’m normally exposed to.
That being said, I also watch a show called Switched At Birth. It’s about two families from two communities – a rich white community and a middle-class deaf community – whose lives have intertwined because of (you guessed it) a mix-up at the hospital. It took them 16 years for the swap to come to light, so now you have these two teenagers, who had been fully engulfed in their own communities, trying to find their place in the opposite one.
It’s occasionally over-dramatic, but I love it. It’s two communities I have little-to-no first-hand experience with and I really enjoy watching them exist on their own and interact with each other. Plus, it ties back in to my early fascination with sign language, the deaf culture being one I haven’t really experienced first-hand since that one day in the library when I was very small. Unless you count watching marathons of Sue Thomas: F. B. Eye or shipping Jodi and Bette on The L Word (even though Bette and Tina were endgame).
And while I’ve always had a fascination with sign language, as well as an appreciation for the deaf culture and for actresses like Marlee Matlin, in this week’s Switched at Birth, I gained a new…understanding.
Coincidentally, in an episode during which a recurring character was revealed to be interested in girls (with no repercussions…yet), a teacher at the fictional school-for-the-deaf, Carlton, asked a thoughtful question. She asked the students, if they could take a pill tonight and wake up tomorrow able to hear, how many of them would take it. When none of them raised their hand, she asked them why they wouldn’t.
Their answers are what struck me, and are the reason for this post.
Student 1: Because being deaf gives you friends anywhere you go.
Student 2: And a way of seeing the world that’s different from anyone else.
Student 3: Hearing kids don’t know who they are. We do. We’re deaf: First, last, always.
What struck me was that these are all the reasons I love being a lesbian. Yes, some people consider it a “minority”. Though maybe not to the same extent as being deaf or hard-of-hearing, some would even consider it a sort of disability. Some people view homosexuality as something being “wrong”, just as people are often labeled as having something “wrong” with them, just because they speak ASL.
And though I know I’m very fortunate – I live in New York City for goodness sake – being gay still isn’t always easy. It’s something that, for me, just like for Daphne on Switched At Birth, isn’t always physically obvious, so it isn’t always assumed. So I sometimes have to tell people, and then be prepared for the moment of surprise. And even when the following reaction is positive, there’s that feeling deep down that reminds me that the fact they reacted with even a moment of shock means that you are not what they consider “normal”. There’s also that regular reminder – that news story, that recounted tale – of someone in your community being persecuted. Even if it wasn’t you, wasn’t someone you know, or likely to happen anywhere near where you are…that sense of community is strong, and when someone who is part of it is hurt, you hurt, too.
It took a long time for me to get where I am today. I suspected I was different starting when I was very young. I knew it for sure when I was 13. I thought I could hide it or fight it or change it or stop it until I was a few weeks shy of 23. But in the past 3 years, I’ve grown and learned more about myself and about others than I did in the first 23.
Yet, I still feel the same way as the kids in that (albeit fictional) class did. If I could take a pill tonight and wake up straight, I wouldn’t take it. Why not?
Community. Perspective. Identity.
And while I’m not saying our struggles or triumphs are exactly the same, I am saying that I have a better understanding and appreciation of the struggles and triumphs of the deaf community now. Because of that one conversation, I feel a stronger connection to them. I know a term applied to both the homosexual and deaf communities is “minority” because our numbers might be smaller compared to the percentage who aren’t deaf or gay, but I hope the world can someday understand that just because we are smaller in number doesn’t mean we are lesser as people.
And the sooner that day can come, the better.