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A Difficult Form

Paul Hostovsky

         For their birthday I gave them a man’s Braille watch. A Seiko. They didn’t want a woman’s Braille watch because, well, a woman’s Braille watch is smaller and harder to read, for one thing. And for another, as they have often told me, they identify more with men than with women.

        Their birthday is exactly seven days after mine. Which is how I’m able to remember it. But they’re ten years older than me. They’re in their mid-seventies now, and I’m watching them go through stuff—nerve pain, arthritis, the breaking down of ancient plumbing—that I imagine I’ll be going through myself before long. And, like me, they have no problem talking about their pain. We both like to vent.

        I feel for them. They’re completely blind now, but when I first met them all those years ago they could still see quite well—for a DeafBlind person. Although the Usher Syndrome (retinitis pigmentosa) had been diagnosed back when they were a Deaf teenager, long before I knew them, its progression was extremely gradual, so I didn’t really notice it back when I first met them.  They could still see me fine when we signed to each other, except at night. At night things got a little dicey because in the dark they could barely see at all. But during the day they were pretty much like every other Deaf person I knew. Except that they were DeafBlind. And queer. Queer in all the best senses of that reclaimed word, senses that they helped me—a straight, white, cisgender Jew from Jersey studying to become a sign-language interpreter—to not only begin to understand better, but to embrace, even admire, and to want to learn more about.

         But I can’t tell you their name. Because of the Code of Ethics. Or the Code of Professional Conduct as it’s now called by the National Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. A code that we sign-language interpreters have to abide by, or risk losing our certification. And since I have, in fact, interpreted for them professionally, which is to say I got paid for it on many occasions over the years, I’m not supposed to talk about them, let alone write about them. In fact, I’ve probably told you way too much already. Which is why writing about them is going to be challenging. Sort of like a poem with the constraints of a difficult form and a strict meter, writing about them will have its strictures. I want to tell you everything, but I need to do it without divulging too much. But I like a good challenge. And anyway, I will show this to them after I’ve finished writing it—translate it into ASL for them because they’re not fluent in English—and hopefully get their permission to share it with you. And if the National Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf deems that I’ve violated the Code of Professional Conduct in writing this little essay, and they revoke my certification, well, I guess I’ll stop interpreting for Deaf and DeafBlind people. I’ll retire—hell, I’m old enough to retire anyway—and I’ll just write about them instead. With their permission, of course.

       A word about pronouns. In ASL there is no difference between he, him, she, her, it, and the nonbinary they. They are all the same sign (simply pointing with your index finger at the person, place, or thing you’re talking about, if they’re present, or, if they’re not present, pointing at a specific and consistent point in space to refer to them in absentia). Pronominalization in ASL is also achieved with eye gaze and/or directionality with certain directional verbs. Suffice it to say, the whole pronoun thing for queer signing Deaf folks is not quite what it is for queer hearing folks. Nevertheless, the issues regarding sexuality and gender identity are exactly the same. Anyway, my anonymous DeafBlind queer friend does not refer to themselves as “they.” That is simply a choice I am making in writing this little essay, because they do identify as non-binary and queer (though not in those exact words) and all their life they’ve been mistaken by strangers for the opposite gender of the one assigned to them at birth. In other words, once upon a time when they were a girl, people thought they were a boy. And that has been the case for their whole life, and even more so now in their old age with their sagging and deflated breasts, and their hair thinning and falling out.

         If they weren’t a lesbian we might have been more than just friends. And I do think of us as friends, even though most of the time I am getting paid when I am with them, either to interpret for them or to teach them Braille. Some people will object: a friend is not someone you get paid to spend time with. A client, a student, but not a friend. Yes, but I’ve known them for forty years and the boundaries have always been a little loosey-goosey. Right from the start we hit it off, and in some ways they have been like an older sibling to me. We’ve both been through a lot over the years, and we’ve shared a lot with each other. There has always been this mutual trust, and this playfulness, this goodhearted banter between us. We have even occasionally found ourselves attracted to the same woman, sharing observations about how hot she is. We have spent time together at various social events in the Deaf and DeafBlind communities, and I have taken them to craft fairs where they have sold their artwork and I have sold mine. So yes, the boundaries haven’t always been exactly firm and professional. But they have been more than just a client or a student of mine. They have been my friend.

      As for the Braille, I learned it a few years before I met them. I’d been inspired to take a correspondence course in Braille transcription, which eventually led to a job at the National Braille Press as a Braille transcriber, a job I later left in order to study ASL and work among Deaf people. When I first met them they were with their girlfriend at a DeafBlind Contact Center social where I was volunteering as an SSP (Support Service Provider), trying to get as much exposure to ASL and Deaf and DeafBlind people as possible. The three of us started chatting, and after the social we all went out to a bar across the street and chatted some more. I began socializing with them fairly regularly after that, and also with other Deaf and DeafBlind people. So in a few years, when I was passingly proficient in ASL and Braille, the Commission for the Blind hired me to teach Braille to Deaf people losing their vision. And that’s how they became my student.

         But they were already my friend, and since they could still see really well—for a blind person—they mostly just wanted to chat during our Braille lessons. Chat and cheat.  Cheating meant looking at the Braille dots with their eyes instead of reading them with their finger. The dots cast these tiny shadows when you hold them under the light, so you can see them if you tilt the Braille page at a certain angle. Of course I encouraged them not to look at the dots with their eyes, but they complained that it was too hard to feel them with their finger. They said it felt like they needed a pencil sharpener for their finger—which I thought was funny—because that’s how dull their fingertip felt when trying to make out the various combinations of dots. So they cheated, they looked. And I was a soft touch, a lenient teacher, so I let them look. Because the main thing, as I saw it, was for them to memorize the Braille code, the shapes of all the Braille letters and contractions and punctuation marks, and get them inside their head. Once they had them firmly in their head, I reasoned, they’d be able to recognize them tactilely after developing the sensitivity in their finger later on. Looking back, though, I don’t think that was a good strategy. Because they didn’t get around to developing the sensitivity in their finger until many years later, after their eyesight had gotten so bad that they couldn’t cheat anymore and could barely see at all. And by then they’d forgotten most of the Braille contractions and had to start all over.

       As for the interpreting, over the years I have sort of become their go-to interpreter. Their fave. Because they are able to understand me quite effortlessly. For various reasons, since losing most of their vision, they have had a difficult time understanding many of the interpreters who are assigned to provide communication access at their various appointments. Partly, I suppose, it’s because up until a few years ago they still had enough vision to see the signs, and having to go totally tactile—reading the signs by touching them—has been challenging for them. It’s not something you just pick up and become adept at overnight. It takes time and practice. But I’m not entirely sure why they are able to understand me better than other interpreters. It probably has more to do with the fact that we’ve known each other for so long than with any special skill I possess. They are just sort of used to me, used to my signing style. And I’m sort of used to theirs. So we’re a good fit.

        And since I’m their go-to interpreter, and since they understand me and trust me, I have often had the dubious privilege of being present at many of their medical appointments. Both physical and mental health appointments. Some very personal appointments, in fact, with their primary care provider, psychiatrist, therapist, orthopedist, gynecologist, urologist, urogynecologist. The gynecology appointments have been difficult and awkward for me, as a man. Are you sure you wouldn't prefer a female interpreter for that appointment?  “NO, YOU CHAMP, YOU CLEAR, ME UNDERSTAND YOU BEST.” So there I would be, the only cisgender man in the gynecological services waiting room, chatting up my DeafBlind friend/Braille student/elder sibling, waiting for the physician’s assistant to call their name. Discussions of vaginal prolapse surgery, urinary tract infections, insertion of a device into the vagina that secretes medication to prevent UTIs; discussions of incontinence, chronic constipation, enemas versus suppositories; mental-health appointments, family history, history of depression, history of sexual and physical abuse. Being there with them for these mental-health appointments, and also the physical-health appointments, especially the examinations and procedures of an intimate nature (for which I always stand behind the curtain to give them their privacy, then interpret the discussion afterwards) and the trust they put in me to be present with them and translate for them—it just blows me away. I have been honored and moved by these experiences, and they have helped me set aside the illusions and fears that I myself entertained in my ignorance about bodies in general and women’s bodies in particular. And perhaps most personal and private of all was the trans-health appointment they asked me to interpret for them when they wanted to learn more about treatment options and transitioning.

     They had once asked me what I knew about trans-health services—hormonal treatments, surgeries, transitioning—and how to arrange for an initial appointment with a provider who specializes in trans health. I didn’t know much, which is what I told them. But since I had interpreted several times in the past for other Deaf people at a medical facility in the city that specializes in trans health, I told them about that facility. They asked me if I would help them make an appointment there, and also interpret that appointment. Both of which I agreed to do.

          In the waiting room, they asked me to look around and describe the other people whom I saw waiting for appointments, and also the secretaries. “LOOK TRANS?” they sign-whispered to me in ASL. I told them I wasn’t really comfortable making that judgment—and anyway, what does “look trans” mean? They said, “YOU KNOW, MEAN SEE WOMAN LOOK-LIKE MAN. SEE MAN LOOK-LIKE WOMAN. For a queer person, they weren’t very, I dunno, politically correct when it came to trans people, or so it seemed to me as we sat together in that waiting room. But maybe that’s unfair of me to say. For one thing, Deaf people are notoriously direct. Some would even argue that directness, or even bluntness, is a Deaf cultural norm. So they were just asking me what they wanted to know, giving voice to their honest curiosity about what trans people look like. Also, like most people, my DeafBlind queer friend didn’t know any trans people. They only knew their own experience. And growing up Deaf in the 1950s, when sign language was maligned and Deaf people were forced to try and lip-read their teachers and family—who spoke orally and didn’t sign—they were essentially deprived of language during the formative years of their life. They were infantilized at school and at home. And they have spent their whole life playing catch-up, trying to learn the things they were never taught in school because Deaf education was a travesty, and still is in many places. And then, gradually losing their vision in adulthood, the isolation that their blindness forced upon them has only compounded their lack of access to information about people and the world. So it boils down to ignorance. Ignorance about many things, including trans people. Even though they are gender-nonconforming themselves. So I sat there next to them in the waiting room, reluctantly describing the faces and bodies of the other people in the waiting room.

          When their name finally got called I guided them into the examining room, and they asked me the same question about the physician’s assistant and the MD. “LOOK TRANS?” I replied with “FLICK SHOULDERS,” which basically means, I’m just the interpreter here, don’t ask me. Then I tried to redirect. “ASK SELF,” I told them, which means, You ask the doctor yourself. And so they did. And they had many questions. And the doctor, who was trans, tried to answer those questions as best they could. And the doctor asked a lot of questions, too. It was a long appointment. And I was like a fly on the wall, a fly getting an education, a fly who was honored to be there, honored to be trusted to sensitively facilitate as accurately as possible this very personal communication between patient and provider. Ultimately, and I think a little ruefully, for a variety of reasons, they decided in the end not to pursue treatments or transitioning. But they got all their questions answered. At least the questions that have answers. The ones that don’t have answers are another story.

          They’re still not much of a reader when it comes to Braille books in English, or Braille displays hooked up to computers or smartphones. But they’re an expert when it comes to reading the men’s Braille watch I gave them for their birthday. Yes, they’re very good at reading the time. Maybe because their time is running out. Or maybe because there isn’t much else to do these days in their isolation but check the time—open the watch with a click, feel around for the hour hand, then the minute hand, then close the watch with a snap, and just sit there with their hands folded quietly in their lap, thinking about their long, difficult, often misunderstood, yet inexplicably beautiful and amazing journey.

Paul Hostovsky makes his living in Boston as a sign-language interpreter. His writing has won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net Awards, and has been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and the Writer’s Almanac.

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