N Touch
Friday 6 December 2019
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Commentary

Signing together

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I’ve long recognised the kinship between people who are told by others and the state what we can and can’t do with our own bodies sexually and people who struggle to get society and the state to recognise the dignity and worth of bodies that look and function differently from others. Also with those who are told they are sentenced to be what their bodily appendages dictate despite the powerful sense in their souls of their gender.

I’ve always been troubled that people in TT living with HIV, especially middle class gay men, have rejected those connections, buying into a sense of shame that resists the idea that living with a life-threatening immune condition is not fundamentally a disability. Communities living with HIV elsewhere have found disability a very productive political framework.

When I started out campaigning to “Add All 3” — age, LGBTI status and health conditions — to the protections of the Equal Opportunity Act, all at the same time, I never imagined how they’d all come together in my body as an ageing gay man living with cancer.

I’m incredibly excited that in the run-up to the next general election both LGBTI and disability communities will be putting forth concrete agendas for those who aspire to government about how we respect bodily rights and create a nation where differences are treasured instead of stigmatised. Visions for how the needs of people’s bodies can be respected and enabled by the state, whether it’s the gay boy’s sway, the Afro-Trini girl’s hair, or the autistic student’s classroom needs.

Over the past few months, I’ve also been working more with deaf people. After the nation went a little crazy when the courts decriminalised consensual homosexuality, folks in the US who hadn’t invested much in LGBTI organising and change-making here offered TT groups some money to address LGBTI safety issues. We created an effort, Safer Together, to listen to ways in which we could change how we protect and look out for each other, how we do work on cultural norms around risk and mutual vigilance, as well as concrete things we could learn from rape and gender-based violence prevention work others have already done, how women are taught personal practices from small that we could replicate.

We picked a diverse group of community organisers who weren’t the usual heads of organisations to help us listen, based on their different networks. One is a sign language interpreter; and one in every seven people who showed up to our sessions was deaf.

We asked them a simple question: what’s the most powerful action that could address homophobia in deaf communities. Their answer was both a surprise and totally logical:

When hearing people learn to sign.

Deaf people can’t hear spoken language, whether it’s standard English or creole or Spanish. They’ve developed a rich expressive visual language for communication. But fundamental language barriers exist between them and those of us who are hearing. Unlike arriving Venezuelans, they can’t learn how to hear; so we’ve got to learn to sign.

For many deaf people, sign language interpreters are powerful gatekeepers to the hearing world of services and justice and social networks. Because deaf people require interpretation to communicate with others about sensitive personal and emotional matters (eg, sexual health, domestic violence), they can become victims to their interpreters’ values, biases and sense of shame. Locally, many people come to interpreting through a missionary calling of faith, and this can easily lead to behaviours that deprive their clients of autonomy.

Opportunities for deaf LGBTI people, eg to enjoy the LGBTI community and access the services and programmes provided by LGBTI organisations are similarly stymied by language barriers.

And so we listened. We’re full of inexperience and missteps and, hopefully, contrition. But teaming with leading deaf organisations, I hope to be spending time next year pulling together some key gatekeepers in the social service and justice systems with LGBTI organisation leaders to become basically fluent in TT sign language. We’ll learn about deaf culture, and teach others about LGBTI culture. We’ll reach out to existing interpreters to increase their understanding and strengthen their ethics.

Deaf LGBTI people also want to learn skills as peer counsellors, so we’re going to work on that too, so they can better support and link each other to services and justice.

And we want to get all these groups talking together about how we can all fight for justice and rights. For each other.

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