On hearing, sexuality and denying myself

There's sometimes an embarrassing moment, when I meet somebody new, where I have to mention my deafness. Usually because I'm trying to awkwardly manoeuvre myself onto the left side of the pavement, or turning my head awkwardly at dinner so my right ear is closest to their mouth. I explain, then; I don't want to seem weird. I'm hard of hearing. No, not since birth. Yes, I can hear fine in my other ear. Superhuman, actually. Top of the charts. It's just when there's background noise. I'm normal, promise.* I drop the subject as quickly as I can. I make it very clearly that this only affects me in very noisy environments, and then all I have to do is turn my head. I don't admit that my deafness goes far beyond that, even to myself.

Just before university began, I came to Wadham for lunch, to meet my tutors and other history students. It was awkward anyway, but made worse by the fact that a tutor was sat on my left. I spent the entire time straining to hear, trying to figure out what words could fit into the gaps, spluttering "what"s and "sorry"s (the most used words in my vocabulary). Eventually, unable to hear more than a few scattered words, I gave up on conversation and quietly excused myself. It was after that lunch that I realised how much I'd designed my life around my deafness, and how much it would affect me now I could no longer choose the circumstances of my social situations so carefully. As a child, I could organise my deafness so that it went unmentioned, never a problem, certainly not a disability. I made friends with loners, one friend here or there, never a group. I knew where to sit in classrooms, knew automatically where to sit at tables. In secondary school my group, all slightly uncool and thus targets, ate our lunch in the art room or the woods away from the noise of the canteens. As a teenager, I went to bars with one friend, telling myself I just preferred to talk one-on-one. I didn't consider that this was because I couldn't hear otherwise. When it finally clicked, I cried for days. I was upset that my life, which should be under my control, had been silently manipulated by my disability for as long as I could remember. I was also profoundly embarrassed. I could feel every "what" sharp on my skin. 

After a few days of crying, I buried it again. It was only yesterday, flicking through the Disability Studies Reader in the library (looking to read something reaffirming about my place in the world as a queer mentally ill woman, not for one second considering that I could add "deaf" to that list), that I remembered that episode in the summer. I had forgotten about my deafness. I had fallen back into the familiar pattern of passing as hearing, which is fine as long as I avoid noisy environments like socials and dinners (a habit which, I learned last term, had led to my being thought of as "intimidating"). My strange "accent" can be pinned on coming from South Wales, because nobody knows what the Welsh sound like anyway. It's possible - though not exactly easy - for me to deny my deafness, to bury that huge part of my experience in exchange for the comfort of passing. It is, in fact, very similar to my experience of passing as straight.

I've known that I'm bisexual since I was ten or eleven, but not until this year did I allow myself to embrace it. I kept myself in a strange sort of suspended animation: aware of my bisexuality, yet subconsciously repressing it, keeping it entirely off the table, hiding it. If asked, I would usually tell people that I was bi - as long as I was safe, what was there to be ashamed of? But it didn't feel like something I could actively be. I didn't feel queer - didn't identify with what I knew of queer culture (entirely cis gay men and sequins, at that point) and over and over again told friends that I didn't care much about LGBTQ+ activism because "my sexuality isn't a big part of who I am". Still, now, I feel too straight for words like "queer" and "bi" and especially "gay". They slip out guiltily; I don't feel entitled to them in the same way that I don't feel entitled to call myself "hard of hearing" or "deaf" - let alone "Deaf"**. These words describe me, but they're not mine to use.

Ilene C. Caroom, "Like Love, This Choice of a Language"
A part of this, I'm sure, comes from rejection by the communities that should take in people like me. I am loathe to use the word "monosexual" - partly because it just sounds ugly but mostly because it's used to promote the idea of a hierarchy of queer oppression, whereby monosexual gay people are "privileged" over bi/pansexuals, which is a completely inaccurate portrayal of societal power relations. But there is extreme biphobia in the community. Bisexuals are continually and sometimes explicitly made to feel unwelcome by the perceived gatekeepers of our community. And even if nobody's being outright biphobic, there are still those standards of performative queerness - the walk, the look, the dress code, slang and in-jokes and TV shows - that we're held to. Stumbling into the queer scene at my university, I found myself unable to speak the language or notice the codes of queerness - just as, in a Deaf environment, I'd be unable to communicate (never having had the opportunity to learn sign language - and even if I did, I wouldn't fit in. I've been "mainstreamed". I haven't grown up Deaf, so Deaf culture will never be fully mine). I'm not queer enough, not deaf enough. But I'm not straight and I'm not hearing, and neither of those communities are ever going to welcome me.

I am realising that my sexuality and my deafness cannot exist as small, separate parts of me. My deafness isn't a quirk to be brought up when necessarily and swiftly put down - quips about cochlear implants over dinner to hide the acute pain of not being able to hear a thing - nor is my sexuality something that I can only acknowledge during games of Never Ever Have I Ever. Both qualities have shaped every part of me: my personality, the way I live, the friends I make. The experiences of being deaf and queer are so fundamental that I can't imagine their opposites. And yet identifying myself with those words, privately or publicly, is painful. Every time I call myself queer or hard of hearing, it's like wading through every time I've been told that those words aren't mine to use, every time I've been turned away from those communities, the endless cacophony of "not enough". I have burst into tears more over the last few months than probably any other time in my life. Realising my own internalised biphobia and ableism is painful; realising how deeply my subconscious passing techniques go is painful. Realising that I am not going to be welcomed into the LGBTQ+ or Deaf communities - realising that even here, I still have to fight for my identity to be considered valid - makes me want to give up go back to denying myself. But passing - though maybe an easier route through life - is violent; it erases, it replaces vibrant identities with emptiness and a sense of self-deception that you can never quite shift. Surviving, as I am, with all my identities intact and visible and glorious, isn't easy. I'm always going to have to fight the battle on two fronts - against the able, heteronormative world and against those in my own communities who don't want me there. And against that part of me that calls me a fraud for claiming those communities as my own. But I'd rather fight than hide; unapologetically using my voice - loud, unafraid of my mispronunciations and volume - will always feel better than policing every move and sentence to make sure I'm not found out.



*I have unilateral sensorineural hearing loss with negligible hearing in my left ear. This means that I can't filter individual sounds out of background noise - so though I can hear well in one-on-one situations where there's no background noise and the person who's talking is facing me, I struggle to hear in group settings or if there's background noise.
**Deaf refers to deaf or hard of hearing people who are active in Deaf culture.