Raymond Luczak. Deaf with a capital D.
Author: John Morgan Wilson
May 31, 2010
Raymond Luczak (pronounced with a silent “c”), a native of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is the author and editor of eleven books, starting with the Lambda Literary Award-nominated anthology Eyes of Desire: A Deaf Gay & Lesbian Reader (Alyson, 1993). Other titles include Assembly Required: Notes from a Deaf Gay Life (RID Press, 2009) and Mute: Poems (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2010). His novel Men with Their Hands (Queer Mojo, 2009) won first place in the Project: QueerLit 2006 Contest. As a filmmaker, he has had two full-length documentaries distributed on DVD. As a playwright, 18 of his plays have been staged in three countries and four full-length works have been collected in Whispers of a Savage Sort and Other Plays about the Deaf American Experience (Gallaudet University Press, 2009). After living in New York for 17 years, he is now single and living in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
JMW: Your deafness is just one part of who you are, but it must’ve played a significant role in your life. Tell us about that.
RL: I lost much of my hearing at the age of seven months due to a bout of double pneumonia and fever; so I don’t remember living differently. But my hearing loss wasn’t diagnosed until two years later. No one truly figured out that I was deaf because I was the seventh child in a growing hearing family. I must’ve figured out that to survive, I had to rely on visual cues. For instance, whenever an adult came into the room and said something, my siblings always looked up. I followed where their eyes looked just as quickly, so it looked as if I was hearing too.
Once my audiologist confirmed that I was indeed deaf, I was immediately outfitted with a bulky hearing aid that needed to be recharged nightly. I was also set on a path of speech therapy that would last until my high school graduation. Eventually I came to realize that I wanted to learn sign language more than anything. Everyone was told that I was not to sign. Doing so would affect my progress in speech. Yet I instinctively knew that I had to sign, or do something with my hands, because when we deaf kids played together outside the school, and when there wasn’t a teacher around, we gestured more than spoke. We never talked about how we were supposed to communicate. There is no question in my mind that if we had known signs back then, we’d have used them instead of pointing and gesturing.
In my memoir Assembly Required: Notes from a Deaf Gay Life (RID Press, 2009), I talk about learning the manual alphabet in secret. Literally. I stayed in my bedroom closet, with a flashlight roaming over a particular page in my brother’s Cub Scout Handbook, which had mistakenly called it “the Indian sign language alphabet,” and memorizing the 26 hand shapes. Eventually I had to tell my parents that I needed to learn sign language. They weren’t happy, but by then they realized that as a teenager, I was becoming my own person. I eventually ended up going to Gallaudet University, the world’s only liberal arts university for Deaf people. (The capitalization of the word “Deaf” refers to Deaf people who use sign language as a primary means of communication versus deaf people who choose not to sign.) At Gallaudet, I learned ASL and I came out in very short order. I was no longer a wallflower.
I am one of the estimated 25 to 28 million Americans who have some form of hearing loss; this would include senior citizens who have progressive hearing loss due to aging. If I remember correctly, there are approximately 400,000 to 600,000 Deaf people who use American Sign Language (ASL) in America. If you figure that approximately 90% of Deaf people give birth to hearing children, the ASL signing community suddenly becomes quite large. This number does not include the interpreting community.
I’m hesitant to give an estimate about the size of the Deaf gay community in America because to my knowledge, there hasn’t been statistical research in this area. It’s just next to impossible to figure out a more precise estimate based on the research available because some researchers may have differing definitions of “hearing loss.” This may be similar to the problem that some researchers have in trying to guesstimate the size of the hearing LGBT community. Just how many of us are LGBT? In the closet? When can a person be considered LGBT? Does a single act of sexual experimentation count? And so on. Sexuality has many flavors. So does deafness.
JMW: Can you discuss the difference between signing and lip reading?
RL: Signing is much easier in the sense of that I don’t have to work as hard when I speak and lip read. Most people don’t realize that lip reading is a very inexact art; in fact, I recall reading somewhere some years ago that even the best lip reader can catch only 30% of what is being said out of context. In other words, if I’m not clued in to what the person is talking about, I won’t get very much out of the experience. So many words look similar on the lips, so knowing the context alone is half the battle won because we’d know which similar-looking words to disregard while lip reading. There’s another reason why Deaf people prefer to sign: the hands are far much easier to see than through the lips for the tongue placement and throat muscle movement.
Much like gay people who know they’re different and yet not allowed to be themselves while growing up, I’ve had the unfortunate experience of not being allowed to sign while growing up. It was felt that if I learned to sign, my potential in speaking would decline. I didn’t understand at the time that this was another way of telling me that I shouldn’t be different. I must speak only because everyone speaks. This is parallel to how gay people have often felt: They must be straight only because everyone is that way. You and I know this is not so, and thank God. I sign because I want the world to know that I am Deaf in the same way that many LGBT people want the world to know that they exist. Coming out isn’t just for LGBT people. Deaf people need to come out more so that hearing people can’t assume that speech is the only way to communicate. We hearing Americans unfortunately live in a monolingual culture. Being Deaf in America can be problematic compared to being a tourist in Europe. Over there, English wasn’t the only foreign language they heard all the time, so even if I didn’t use my voice, it wasn’t an issue. I was just another tourist who didn’t know their language. They didn’t freak out or treat me differently. I pointed to what I wanted and gestured my questions (as in rubbing my fingertips to ask, “How much will this cost?”). I had absolutely no problem asking for whatever I wanted in Germany, which had very little English anywhere, and I didn’t know any German besides “achtung” (as in U2’s Achtung Baby and “auf wiedersehen”!
JMW: Do you feel your hearing loss impelled you toward writing?
RL: When my grandmother suddenly passed away in October 1977, I felt lost and confused. I was number seven in a hearing family of nine children. I was not even 12 years old. No one sat down to explain to me what death really meant. It was as if you had to talk about it indirectly. I wasn’t given a glossary of terms explaining what it meant to lose someone.
Around the same time, my speech therapist thought it would be a fun exercise if I wrote a few limericks, a five-line poem with a specific rhyme scheme. The Sunday after my grandmother died was the day I did my speech homework. Something inside me snapped. I couldn’t articulate at the time, but writing became an act of self-preservation particularly when I entered my adolescence. If no one thought I was important enough to listen to, I would write.
I didn’t think I would end up becoming a writer. It is ironic that while I share my work with the world at large, most of my family ha not read my Deaf LGBT work. As long as people continue to use the word “lifestyle” as a way of elevating themselves above their gay relatives even when they invite them for visits, they are not going to overcome their own homophobia.
JMW: You write poetry, fiction, plays, film, articles, and essays, and much of it focuses on deafness and queerness. Do you feel pigeonholed or restricted in any way?
RL: Early on, when I considered the depressing fact that at least 50,000 books are published yearly in America, and that a tiny minority of those titles crack the New York Times’s bestseller lists, I knew that I had to stand out in order to compete. A little talent and a huge ambition wasn’t enough. The fact that I was deaf and gay had to mean something out there, simply because I saw there weren’t others like me. It was virgin territory, so I staked my claim with the Christopher Street magazine’s publication of my cover piece “Notes of a Deaf Gay Writer” in late 1990. (The piece eventually inspired my memoir Assembly Required: Notes from a Deaf Gay Life, which RID Press published in 2009.)
That piece also led me to having Sasha Alyson, the founder of Alyson Books, to offer me a contract to edit what became the anthology Eyes of Desire: A Deaf Gay & Lesbian Reader (Alyson, 1993), which turned out to be the very first title in the world to focus on the deaf LGBT community. I was quite surprised—and disappointed—when other deaf LGBT writers didn’t try to get their work published. Eventually, I decided that I’d try again. In 2007, I brought out Eyes of Desire 2: A Deaf GLBT Reader (Handtype Press, 2007), which included the international Deaf LGBT community from all over the world. My other Deaf gay titles include my novel Men with Their Hands (Queer Mojo, 2009), the first place winner of the Project: QueerLit 2006 Contest, and my third poetry collection Mute (A Midsummer Summer Night’s Press, 2010).
I’ve never felt limited by the Deaf gay label. I knew I needed to stand out somehow, so if that was how I could attract people to my work, so be it. Twenty years after my first major piece in Christopher Street, I have already begun writing other things that have nothing to do with the Deaf LGBT community. I think it’s important to expand one’s horizons especially if one wishes to leapfrog among genres. The fact that I’m a Deaf and/or gay writer is becoming less of an issue now that some hearing gay writers have found mainstream success with their work. I think that being gay is an asset more than ever because sexuality is such a potent force in our culture.
It’s my hope that readers will look beyond my own ears and enjoy my work for what it is in the same way that film lovers look beyond Martin Scorsese’s Italian-American heritage as a filmmaker and discover universal truths in his work. Being Italian and sharing that experience is only a framework for exploring the larger truths in what we are, so I would hope that being Deaf and sharing that experience is really no different.
JMW: Has being published as a deaf writer been a special challenge?
RL: I knew early on that like every writer who starts out, I would have my work rejected. That wasn’t an issue since I wasn’t the only one who got the terse thanks-for-trying-us notes in the mail. But I hadn’t realized how my non-medical perspective on deafness—a natural part of myself as much as is my gayness—could be a problem for some hearing editors. Soon after the publication of my cover essay “Notes of a Deaf Gay Writer” in Christopher Street, I met the editor of a national writing magazine at a party. She had read my piece, and she wanted me to write a whole new piece for her about my experiences as a Deaf writer. I was thrilled at the opportunity.
A few weeks later she sent me a note saying that my piece wasn’t what she was looking for. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with my piece. It wasn’t until it gradually dawned on me was this fact: She wanted me to affirm her stereotypical belief that I had truly suffered as a writer because of my deafness. She wanted me to come up with something that would inspire, as in overcoming my “disability,” her readers, presumably hearing and able-bodied, to write. I have never felt that my deafness was something to overcome. I think that my views ran counter to how she’d viewed disability.
Ignorance and prejudice are unfortunately part of the package deal when it comes to being either Deaf or gay. I am totally fine with my deafness, and I am totally fine with my gayness. I’ve never felt the desire to change either way. Why should I? I like walking with my hearing aids turned off and not hearing anything. Silence is a beautiful gift. I like making love in ways that would freak out straight people who’ve reduced sex to the act of copulation itself. Sensuality is a wonderful gift.
Most people are familiar with the concept of homophobia, but many may not be so with the idea of audism. Simply put, it is discrimination against Deaf, deaf, or hard of hearing people because of their hearing loss or their choice to use sign language to communicate. I have a good example of audism: I’ve actually had a hard of hearing person avoid me for a long time at some large Deaf events until he saw me talking with a hearing friend at a bar. He came up to me afterwards and started talking with me. It didn’t matter that he knew ASL! The fact that I could speak had somehow made me “better” in his eyes than those Deaf people who didn’t speak. So it isn’t just hearing people who do not give Deaf people a chance.
That said, hearing (and heterosexual) people’s views of disability and sexuality in general have proven to be far more disabling than my own deafness and gayness. They need to overcome their audism and homophobia. Perhaps if we took the offensive idea of disability as something to conquer and substituted prejudice in its place, I would agree that prejudice and ignorance are the worst disabilities to have.
JMW: Can you offer any advice to other deaf members of the LGBT community, including those who might be exploring their sexuality or just coming out?
RL: I hope I’m correct here, but I get the impression that it’s becoming less of a big deal to be Deaf and LGBT, which parallels how hearing LGBT young folks have discovered, thanks to the greater awareness raised in the media as well as online. When I edited my first anthology Eyes of Desire: A Deaf Gay & Lesbian Reader (Alyson, 1993), so many contributors wanted to hide behind pseudonyms. Fourteen years later, when Eyes of Desire 2: A Deaf GLBT Reader (Handtype Press, 2007) came out, very few people chose to hide pseudonyms; in fact, almost everyone who used their real names allowed the use of their photographs on the cover and inside the book! They were quite proud to be what they are, as they should be. That said, one should go online and check out www.deafqueer.org, www.rad.org, and www.deaflesbian.net.
JMW: Any reading and resource suggestions for Deaf writers or others who might want to explore this further?
There are some anthologies that one should read. They include John Lee Clark’s Deaf American Poetry (Gallaudet University Press, 2009), Tonya Stremlau’s The Deaf Way II Anthology (Gallaudet University Press, 2002), and Jill Jepson’s No Walls of Stone (Gallaudet University Press, 1992). My book Silence is a Four-Letter Word: On Art & Deafness (The Tactile Mind Press, 2002) strives to inspire readers and artists, regardless of the craft they’re in, to think outside their own ears. (It’s unfortunately out of print.) If one wishes to include ASL interpreters at readings and literary festivals, Morgan Grayce Willow’s Crossing That Bridge: A Guide to Making Literary Events Accessible to Deaf & Hard of Hearing (SASE: The Write Place, 2000) is a must-read.
If Deaf writers want to get on the Clerc Scar Deaf Writers’ Listserve, they have to apply to get in by contacting email@example.com. Clerc Scar Books will be launching their Clerc Scar Workshop Series, with the first poetry writing workshop to be led online by Paul Hostovsky. They have plans for future online workshops.
A few Deaf-oriented publications include Kiss-Fist, SIGNews, and Deaf Life magazine. Other general disability-oriented periodicals include Kaleidoscope, Breath and Shadow, Wordgathering, and Disability Studies Quarterly. Deaf writers could also apply for grants from their state VSA chapters.
But the best thing that any Deaf writer can do is not to limit herself to Deaf- or disability-oriented periodicals. The world needs to hear more of us Deaf writers!