Underdog: What Dating a Deaf Man Taught Me About Ableism

by: Justin Ray

I saw Mark at a bar on Lower East Side of Manhattan wearing black pants and red low cut v-neck shirt that stretched over his large pecs. He was in his early 20s and had a strong jawline and stern eyes and looked like if Jesse Eisenberg and the Brawny Man had a baby. Standing next to him was a female with beautiful mocha skin. To get to Mark, I started conversation with her by complimenting her looks but awkwardly I had to repeat myself many times. For some reason, she didn’t hear what I was saying. It was odd because although we were in a crowded bar, the corner we stood in was relatively quiet.

It didn’t hit me until I saw her gesture to him with her hands in an intricate way that indicated they were exchanging thoughts more complex than a wave hello. Eventually I noticed their hearing aids and my first reaction was intimidation. The only sign language I knew was alphabet and the word sexy. However, that did become useful because upon discovering my prince charming was deaf I became even more turned on.

Mark’s hearing impairment made him the sexiest man on earth. It wasn’t just because I was excited about the prospective of not having to make sounds while making love (I hate doing that). I saw him as an underdog of society who had encountered insensitivity throughout his life. I would be the person to learn sign language for him and help him face society. We would start a deaf school and frolic with deer and blue jays all around our house in the woods.

In the bar, a half hour of small talk passed and another man with a hearing impairment showed up who they knew. Then another man came fifteen minutes later. I began to feel incredibly uncomfortable standing in a circle with four deaf people I did not know.

They were signing full conversations in front of me laughing and occasionally pointing at me. I became agitated and went to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror and decided whether or not I should stay. After thinking about it, I figured I was crashing their meet up and they deserved to have their fun night out more than I deserved to know what they were talking about. I felt left out but they probably feel left out more often in their lives.

When I came back, Mark had apparently sensed my discomfort and hugged me. Feeling the warmth of his chest, suddenly the night didn’t seem so bad. He started translating conversation to include me. He could read lips very well so we even had conversation. One of the late comers to the meet up asked me what my name was. With my rudimentary sign language skills I signed J-U-S-T-I-N. They all nodded and said my name. I felt like it was the start of our silent love story.

A few minutes later we ended up kissing like “those” people at the bar. The noise level had also increased to the point that we couldn’t semi-communicate verbally. He began writing his thoughts in a text message on his phone and handing it to me. He asked me to come home with him but not for anything sexual. I rolled my eyes; I may have just frenched him enough to taste his thoughts, but I wasn’t going to be his one night stand.

After eating fries and flirting at a fast food place, we exchanged numbers at the end of the night and he texted me when he got home. I drunkenly saved his contact under the name “Cute Potential.” He told me he wanted to hang out soon and we made plans to see each other the very next day.

The next day he told me to meet him in Washington Square Park. As a strange coincidence, it happened to be the day of the seventh annual Pillow Fight. In the air feathers flew everywhere and I began thinking Mark had a strange first date idea in mind. Eventually my deaf prince charming showed up in between the feathers in the air, however when I saw him I was startled. He was wearing a tame grey henley shirt paired with the most offensively lime green pants I’ve ever seen. It was a first date fashion risk but again, his muscles help me forget about them.

It turns out that he did have an odd date idea in mind—not pillow fighting but clothes shopping. He wanted to find a new polo or t-shirt at a clothing store in Soho. Making me watch him look for clothes irritated me. I thought it was such an arrogant suggestion, as if it was an honor for me to spend time with him even if he was just shopping. Not only that but he repeatedly made jokes about me calling me short and made fun of my ideas. He may have been nervous, using insult humor as a crutch, though I didn’t find it cute. But again I disregarded my inner feelings because if we were to be a couple with our house in the woods, I would of course shop with him at some point. I was also hoping to sell him on some new jeans or chinos to replace his Gumby-inspired trousers but alas, I was unsuccessful.

Eventually we went to a bar in the West Village called Monster. Conversation started well, but again he kept making fun of me. Everything he said to me was an insult. I can usually handle schtick, and I even engaged in it (frustrated I once yelled “deaf guy says what”) but he took it to the next level. I found it inappropriate on our first date to call me ugly, made fun of my ignorance towards sign language and overall act like a jerk. I called him out on it and he apologized and said I was sensitive, which I’ll admit is true, and said he would ease up on it.

Later, two of his friends different from the previous night arrived and they began having sign language conversation. However, this time nobody cared to fill me in on what was being discussed. They frequently looked at me and giggled. I didn’t know what they were saying but I didn’t need to see middle fingers to get the gist. We left the bar and said our goodbyes. I rode the train back home wondering why my hearing impaired prince charming ended up being not so charming.

It occurred to me that I wasn’t thinking of Mark as a person but rather I saw him as a project. I fell in love with the concept of having a deaf romance and didn’t even consider that he was a man just as susceptible to bad personality traits as the next person. I viewed his actions through a superficial lens and that wasn’t fair to him. I had wanted to help him tackle misconceptions society has about deaf people but I only contributed to the ignorance. My two-day deaf romance taught me about how to view relationships—I also learned that being made fun of in sign language is a lot worse than spoken insults.

Justin Ray is a graduate student at New York University and intern for Billboard magazine. He has also been published by Design Bureau magazine. Other than writing, his main joy is partying. Formerly a workaholic in undergrad, when he got to NYU he put down the Hemingway and picked up the Tanqueray. You can see some of his design work at jray05.carbonmade.com/. He also runs the site StuffNYGaysLike.com

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