By: Alex Lu
If you frequent queer spaces in certain cities, you may have noticed social media posts and flyers advertising American Sign Language (ASL) classes targeted towards queer and trans people. The casual observer may write these classes off as a curious but incidental pairing of two communities. Yet, these classes are independently popping up all over North America, from Vancouver to Chicago to Toronto to Washington, D.C. It is apparent that queer ASL classes are not an isolated trend. But what draws Deaf and queer communities together so consistently? There are a surprising number of parallels in the narratives of being Deaf and being queer. Just like how queer people are for the most part raised by straight-
identifying parents, most deaf children are born to hearing parents. These parents are frequently unable to provide a framework for understanding the experiences of oppression that their children will have. Consequently, many of these children will grow up to seek shared experience later in life, forming rich communities that become sources of culture, connection, identity, and pride. However, as both Deaf and queer communities stand outside able-bodied and straight standards of acceptability, both communities have to fight against politics that push them towards invisibility and conformance as opposed to visible identity.
Zoée Montpetit, founder of Queer ASL in Vancouver and the president of the British Columbia Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf, thinks that these parallels may be why queer people are drawn to her classes. “Before I got involved in the hearing queer community,” says Montpetit, “I struggled to expand my signing community. But queer people understand how it is to be marginalized. Once they start to learn about ASL and Deaf culture, I think they start to recognize aspects that they relate to.” Montpetit says that her queer and trans students are motivated by a sense of solidarity with Deaf communities. “There is a real sense of kinship, a desire to increase access, and an ability to understand how hearing people can oppress Deaf people, just like how straight people can oppress queer people.”
Michelle Bourgeois, founder of Hands on ASL! and ASL literacy teacher in the Toronto elementary school system, echoes Montpetit’s statements. “Queer communities in Toronto are more connected,” she says. “I’ve taught classes for both queer communities and the general community. After students graduate from general community classes, I rarely ever see them again. Whereas with graduates from my queer ASL classes, I will bump into them time after time at queer community events.” Bourgeois notes that Deaf-queer people are more inclined to be involved in hearing queer communities, given the wealth of queer-specific resources these communities provide. As a result, she says that queer people are often inclined to learn ASL for concrete, communal reasons. “Queer people will often be motivated because they see a community member or have a friend who they want to communicate with better. With the general population, it may be more of an abstract, individual interest.”
This outpouring of solidarity and interest from queer communities has led Montpetit and Bourgeois to respond by adapting the curriculum and learning environments to better serve marginalized groups. For instance, both Montpetit and Bourgeois use the standardized curriculum taught in post-secondary institutions, the “Vista Signing Naturally ASL Curriculum”. However, Signing Naturally has a number of aspects that are unsuited for queer learners. For instance, some activities involve the instructor splitting the class into groups of male and female students, which Montpetit describes as particularly unsafe for trans people. The material itself can be hetero- and cis-normative: to teach vocabulary about family, most instructors use an archetypal heterosexual family as an example, complete with gender roles (the mother works in the kitchen; the father goes to work.) Montpetit and Bourgeois have worked to modify these aspects so that they better reflect queer and trans identities. “When teaching in the general community, I was limited in what I could teach as I had to follow a set outline by the college,” says Bourgeois. “With queer ASL classes, I incorporate social justice concepts and discussion of identity and oppression.”
Furthermore, understanding that queer identities are often intersectional, both teaching organizations operate to be as inclusive as possible. Classes are financially accessible, offering affordable fees with a sliding scale option; a course at Queer ASL has a suggested donation of $60 to $90, whereas introductory community college classes can cost upwards of $500. The spaces are physically accessible and scent-reduced, and Hands on ASL! also offers classes for free to hard-of-hearing and deaf people. “It is not fair that hard-of-hearing and deaf people who didn’t have the opportunity to pick up ASL as children have to pay later in life to acquire these skills,” explains Bourgeois. In addition, both classes work to ensure that PoC (People of Colour) identities are represented in the curriculum.
Montpetit estimates that Queer ASL has taught over 250 different students in the past seven years. While the majority of her students may only learn ASL at a basic conversational level, the collective exposure of so many queer people to ASL and Deaf culture has led to a tremendous increase in accessibility within queer spaces. “I started teaching ASL because I felt isolated and wanted more people to sign with. Over time, I started to see the community become more understanding of the need for interpreters and communication access,” says Montpetit. “I see folks with various levels of sign language skills at almost every event I go to now.”
The efforts of Deaf-queer people to make sign languages classes queer-friendly is also slowly making waves in the Deaf community at large. Exposure to ASL and Deaf culture is encouraging a growing number of queer and trans people to apply to ASL-English interpretation programs. Sara Gold, a white queer interpreter with over 20 years of experience working in Toronto, notes that this trend challenges traditional conceptions of ASL-English interpretation. “Interpreters are generally thought of as neutral facilitators of communication,” says Gold. Because society codes white, straight, cisgender, non-disabled people as more “neutral” or “default,” she says, this has led to a disproportionate number of interpreters who come from privileged demographics. “However, current interpreting theory confirms what we know intuitively: the identity, life experiences, and values of the interpreter will unavoidably influence the way they perceive and relay other’s communication. No communication can be neutral.” The influx of queer interpreters means that queer Deaf people have interpreters who reflect their own experience.
Gold notes that the conception of interpreters as neutral has reinforced institutionalized privilege and respectability politics in many ASL-English interpretation programs. “Because interpreter identities are currently so homogenous, it can be hard for our trainers, leaders, and colleagues to even recognize that we have a problem,” she says. “I am hopeful that our field will be changed by the innovative practices happening at the grassroots.” In the meantime, Gold believes that queer ASL classes provide interpreters from marginalized backgrounds with a sense of community as they go on to work through these programs.
While the movement towards increased interpreter diversity is challenging, it is extraordinarily important for Deaf people who stand at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities. As a Deaf-queer PoC myself, I once attended a Black Lives Matter panel. It was incredibly uncomfortable to watch the experiences, language, and righteous anger of the Black women panelists being articulated through white interpreters. In a similar vein, I once wanted to participate in a discussion group that was restricted to Black and Indigenous people of color. However, as the interpreters for the event were white, they were initially asked to stand outside of the room. I sat in nervous silence with two other Deaf people, a Black trans man and an Aboriginal elder, entirely oblivious to what was being said about us as the rest of the room voted on whether they would admit the white interpreters in the space. Yet, neither situation was easily avoidable — even in a city as large and diverse as Toronto, there are only a handful of PoC interpreters, and not all are available or specialized to interpret events such as these.
Queer ASL classes can therefore be regarded as a form of resistance, reclaiming spaces by building interdependent connections between communities. The labor that Deaf-queer people put into sharing their language and culture with hearing queer communities carves out spaces for marginalized people to learn ASL. The graduates of these courses use their newfound cultural awareness and communication skills to transform the accessibility of queer spaces, such that they are more accessible to Deaf people. Some will go on to further pursue their passion for ASL and Deaf culture, supported by Deaf-queer communities as they work through interpreting programs that may be hostile to their identities. When they graduate, their status as interpreters who have experienced marginalization will position them to support marginalized Deaf people.
While queer and trans ASL teaching organizations are still small and independently-organized, it is impressive how these initiatives ripple out to enact social change. By bridging together two communities, these classes empower both communities to mutually work to uplift and support each other.
Computer science graduate student and OPIRG-Toronto director. I organize around disability justice, queer issues, and intersectionality when I’m not being a tedious academic.