As a Deaf psychologist, I spend a lot of time reflecting upon how best to work with members of marginalized communities of all types. Some of my clients are Deaf, some identify as trans*, and some are both. And within both of those communities, similar tension exists around the issue of what it means to claim that particular cultural label.
For many younger trans* individuals, gender is a fluid, socially constructed idea, not a biological one. Those who identify as genderqueer or genderfluid often resist any form of binary gendered label. Men can wear dresses and still be male. Women can walk around in combat boots and red lipstick. An individual can be male sometimes and female at other times or even a third gender that consists of a blend of both. Indeed, turning traditional ideas about gender on end is one of the goals of the movement. Under this philosophy, those who wish for a complete physical and social transformation are, in essence, supporting the status quo: a status quo that many gender non-conforming people find oppressive and hurtful. Those who used to be oppressed have, post-transition, joined the enemy camp, so to speak.
On the other hand, many transgender individuals who have suffered silently for years are desperately happy to be able, finally, to walk down the street without fear. Attracting unwanted attention may have previously resulted in discrimination, harassment, pain, or violence. For those individuals, being able to access transition services in order to feel at home in their bodies and in the world has been a tremendous blessing. And so the tension continues, between competing ways of viewing one’s own relationship to the social justice movement at large.
Similarly, within the Deaf community, there has long raged a debate about whether choosing a surgical intervention to improve one’s hearing is simply an accommodation to a world that does not sign, or if it represents victory of the oppressors. Hearing people, by and large, view deafness as a sensory deficit to be remedied in any way possible. Deaf culture views deafness as a unique way of existing within the world. Deaf culture revolves around fluency in American Sign Language and an appreciation for Deaf art, history, and society. For those who value Deaf culture the way that any other minority group values its own culture, choosing to get a cochlear implant as an adult is considered submitting to the oppressive tyranny of the majority. Why cut one’s head open when there is nothing inherently wrong with being Deaf?
For other Deaf adults, a cochlear implant is simply a tool, much like a hearing aid. It improves ones hearing, potentially, but it does not alter identity as a Deaf adult. And so the tension continues to exist. For both groups, the stakes feel high, for the opposing choice seeks to negate the one that each individual has made. I wonder, however, if this is perhaps how movements advance. All social justice movements thrive on tension and change. Each subgroup forces the other to articulate their stance more clearly, to explain it to others, and to attempt, at least politically, to find common ground.
Contributed by Dr. Mel Whalen