Queer ASL helps various Metro Vancouver communities become more deaf- and LGBT-inclusive

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What would you do if you were the only person using the only means of communication you use?

The mother of invention paid a visit to Zoée Montpetit when she was the sole signing deaf person in Victoria’s queer community. After Montpetit started hosting an ASL (American Sign Language) club in her living room, she soon recognized a need for queer people to learn ASL in safe spaces.

Montpetit began Queer ASL as a drop-in club in Victoria in 2009. After she relocated to Vancouver in 2011, she continued to teach ASL and developed a curriculum in 2012 that has since been taught by a total of six teachers.

Montpetit explains, in an email interview, that their primary focus is to teach ASL with an “anti-oppressive framework”. She says they emphasize gender-neutral language, avoiding things like teaching the signs for man or woman by pointing to students.

“Mainstream ASL classes also tend to include activities where students go around assuming people’s gender identities, which leads to misgendering,” she says. “In Queer ASL, we only identify each other as a person, and introduce gendered signs using iconic images and characters, such as the Flintstones, instead of assuming how students identify.”

Queer ASL also offers workshops for queer businesses or organizations seeking to become more deaf-inclusive by examining “some of the cultural tendencies that may be considered appropriate or inappropriate by people in the deaf community”, Montpetit says.

In addition, they also offer workshops for the general deaf community and organizations on becoming queer- and trans-inclusive, including how to become less oppressive. Kim Palmer, who was a Queer ASL student in 2012 and became a teacher in 2016, says by email that they teach deaf people vocabulary such as queer, lesbian, trans, intersex, cis, androgynous, and more.

Both Montpetit and Palmer identify several ways queer communities can improve access and communication for deaf people.

Montpetit sees a need for more consultation and engagement with, and promotion of events within, deaf communities. She also thinks ASL interpretation is “often undervalued by event planners and organizers”.

Palmer also points out that needs can vary among deaf people.

“Hard-of-hearing people may benefit from assistive devices, deaf-blind people often require additional interpreters or intervenors, and nonsigning deaf/hard-of-hearing folks may benefit from real-time captioning,” she says. “I would love to see more recognition that access is an ongoing process that can always be improved on, and it starts with consulting and listening to disabled people about their needs.”

Palmer, who identifies as an asexual cisgender woman, also sees many parallels between being deaf and being queer.

“Both deaf and queer communities can be tremendous sources of culture, identity, and pride, while simultaneously having to fight against oppressive politics,” she says. “It doesn’t surprise me that so many hearing queer folks feel compelled to learn ASL; they know what it’s like to be marginalized and often recognize aspects they can relate to when learning about ASL and deaf culture.”