A presentation by Simon Hesselberg and Iain Poppett in 1999 at WFD Melbourne

The paper Deaf Gay Men – Positive Diversity in British Deaf Community was written by Simon Hesselberg and Iain Poplett, looking at the history of gay and lesbian groups from the 1960s to the 1990s.

“DEAF GAY MEN – POSITIVE DIVERSITY IN BRITISH DEAF COMMUNITY”

Simon HESSELBERG and Dr. Iain POPLETT

C/o Deaf FLAG 7 Victoria Avenue, Sanderstead, South Croydon. Surrey CR2 0QP. U.K.

INTRODUCTION

The two researchers for this presentation, Iain Poplett and myself have been involved with the Deaf gay community since 1978 and represent the organisation Deaf FLAG (Federation of Deaf Lesbian and Gay Groups) in the United Kingdom.

BACKGROUND

Before 1978, many Deaf gay men existed in the Deaf community and society, but they were unable to identify themselves to each other except to very few people. The fear of being outcasts in the Deaf community was a major contributory factor. They often led lives in the periphery of the hearing Gay society, switching / mixing between the Deaf community and hearing gay scene (bars, discos and meeting places)

A theatrical group called British Theatre of the Deaf gave shelter for many talented Deaf gay men to meet and fraternise, although this was not the purpose of the group.

The group had been in existence since 1960 (Deaf Arts UK Magazine, spring 1999) and it remained a closed shop for a few talented Deaf gay men.
The decriminalisation of homosexual sex for consenting males at 21 and over occurred in England and Wales in 1967.

Several years later, many Deaf gay men met and got to know each other at theatrical events, but this contact was limited to those who had expressed an interest in culture and the arts.

It was and still remains today the Deaf creative/ artistic theatre that has a large number of talented Deaf gay members. These Deaf gay men are working alongside other Deaf people at a high professional level. This can be certified as the earliest positive diversity in the Deaf community and remains the first milestone of the Deaf gay history.

The second milestone occurred in 1978, when Deaf gay men and lesbians across Deaf society first met at a church hall in Marylebone road, London. This was organised by two hearing gay men. Two months later, the First Deaf Lesbian and Gay club was formed as the Brothers and Sisters Club as this demonstrated a sign of the positive acceptance of their Deaf and gay identities. Since, the Brothers and Sisters Club has continued steadily with regular monthly social evenings with one or two large functions each year. Brothers and Sisters club has never expected to become such a large organisation with unprecedented popularity.

Originally, the Brothers and Sisters Club had members from all over the country. The long distance and problems with accommodation in London led to two regional clubs with similar activities being set up. The first one established was the Central Rainbow based in Birmingham and the West Midlands and the second was the Triangle Club based in Manchester.

The growth in number of Deaf gay clubs contributed the need of Deaf gay men to meet outside the Deaf community and also in the hearing gay scene. Otherwise they would on a personal level find the Deaf community ethos suffocating and have to face the creating tensions.
Again the positive diversity is important to note here.

At the same time, British Sign Language emerged to become an accepted language, Deaf gay men and lesbians took increasingly part in British Sign Language teaching, research and establishing standards, as they were able to find the time and develop skills in these areas. Gay Sign Variant (GSV) of British Sign language was discovered by a number of Deaf gay and lesbian researchers. It is now one of the recognised variant by CACDP (Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People), a British organisation for standards/ examinations in British Sign Language. This development remains the big achievement for Deaf gay men and lesbians in the Deaf community.

Prior to 1985, there were many Deaf organisations but no programmes were available in Deaf Health and Well Being. In 1985, the ascent of the HIV/ AIDS programme led to such a programme set up by a consortium of Deaf organisations. This was known as AIDS AHEAD. Many Deaf gay men became volunteers and Deaf gay men chaired the organisation. Due to some concerns over funding, AIDS AHEAD, eventually became a part of the British Deaf Association (BDA) Health Promotion Unit.

As a result of the skills being transferred from Deaf gay men to the Deaf community, a number of Deaf Health and Well Being programmes were set up.
This is another positive diversity and an important initiative by Deaf gay men in the Deaf community.

However, there was still a need for an exclusive Deaf gay programme covering HIV/AIDS.

Deaf MESMAC (Men who have Sex with Men, Action in the Community) was formed as a result in 1993. Its programme covered workshops, training courses, creating sexual health materials for Deaf users and organising counselling for Deaf male clients. Deaf MESMAC, in addition, arranged the care programme of Deaf people with HIV/AIDS.

Since Deaf MESMAC relied heavily on funding from the health authorities, the low priority of funding for HIV/AIDS education resulted in the demise of Deaf MESMAC. However several Deaf gay trainers were at this time about to operate on a freelance basis in Deaf schools and youth centres.

Together, British Sign Language and AIDS AHEAD gave many Deaf gay men opportunities. They never had to prove their value as Deaf individuals in the Deaf community. In part this helped to open doors to other Deaf gay men on coming out.

At the height of the growth of Deaf gays coming out in 1992, there were 15 Deaf lesbian and gay clubs and organisations. Now there are three fully functional clubs (all mentioned above BS, CR/ TC) and three non- – functional ones Why has the decline occurred? A number of factors, one is access through the media that has vastly improved in the past 10 years such as Internet, communication and the fast changing technology. Whilst the problems of Deaf gay men in the hearing gay scene remains due to use of hearing interpreters etc. The shortage of interpreters in a big city such as London is problematic and adds as to the impracticality of using interpreters due to personal relationships and dating. The acceptance of Deaf gay men in the British Deaf society has now become almost complete. More Deaf gay men attend large mainstream Deaf events such as conferences, rallies and social functions where Deaf gay role models are highly visible. As a result, more Deaf gay men came out, and continue do so.

Within the Deaf gay clubs, big events organised by Deaf gay clubs provided breathing space for Deaf gay men away from the Deaf community. It also proved the opportunity for international meetings for Deaf gay men from overseas to meet British Deaf gay men. From this point many British Deaf gay men were able to acquire international sign language, vocabulary and expand their social circles.

SUMMARY

Deaf gays are involved in 4 main areas.

Deaf theatre / entertainment

British Sign Language

Deaf society / community

Health and Well Being programmes for Deaf community

How can the Deaf gay man access the Deaf community, at national and international events?

He can so do by: –

Attending Deaf gay clubs

Meeting Deaf gay role models at Deaf clubs

Access the Internet

Obtain information provided by DLAGGS ( Deaf Lesbians and Gay Groups established in 1990)

© S. Hesselberg and Iain Poplett