Deaf and Hard-of Hearing LGBTQIA Youth

The issue

The intersectional population of adolescents and young adults who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, nonbinary, and/or agender (LGBTQIA) and individuals who are D/deaf or hard-of-hearing (DHH) is noticeable to people who observe them in concentrated DHH social environments.  This raises some curiosity, however, what we do know is largely anecdotal.  There is little research.

What we know

Trusting and supportive relationships are most important. The decision to be openly LGBTQIA requires considerable courage, even in one’s own family. DHH LGBTQIA youth have the extra challenge of developing an identity encompassing their multiple minority aspects.  Regardless, identity development in both cases often involves being raised by parents who are not part of the group (most DHH children have hearing parents; most LGBTQIA children do not have LGBTQIA parents) so they are being taught to conform to behavioral and appearance expectations of the majority culture.  The more intersecting minority statuses that a person holds, the higher the rates of emotional distress/mental illness and of being targeted/victimized in overt and covert ways (especially the microaggressions that cause people to avoid these “differences” leading to isolation).

Without deeper exploration, LGBTQIA visibility in DHH communities can appear to create more positive attitudes than are typical in hearing communities. However, anecdotal evidence confirms that this is an assumption based on broad generalizations.  Factors that correlate with homophobia in hearing communities are also associated with homophobia in DHH communities and the DHH experience is truly individual.  While most hearing people assume that there is a homogenous DHH population, the reality is that there is no one cohesive DHH community for youth to safely and comfortably assimilate into.  Many individuals who are not assimilated into a community, experience feelings of exclusion and isolation (i.e., deaf youth who use spoken and cued language and not American Sign Language (ASL) at a deaf school where ASL is the predominant language).  Attaining a positive self-concept and sense of self-worth and relatedness to others in such an environment can result in rejection, abuse, and harassment.

DHH LGBTQIA individuals often receive support within the larger LGBTQIA community organizations, social groups, and agencies.  However, communication access is a recurrent theme that can leave DHH youth feeling disconnected and frustrated.  Given that over 90% of DHH children are born to hearing parents and that DHH people are typically in audist environments, this is a common theme across all areas of their lives for this group.  Language deprivation and ineffective access to language rooted from audism is present in all areas of their lives and is a critical concern.

LGBTQIA youth have increased risks and inadequate professional resources.  LGBTQIA youth, particularly those who are transgender, experience discrimination in education, healthcare, housing, and employment.  They are more vulnerable to harassment, abuse, violence, and exploitation, particularly those who are transgender, who report great pressure to engage in sexual behaviors that expose them to the risk of sexually transmitted infections.  These youth may also receive inaccurate information about the risks.  These realities lead to increased related risks to life, health, and well-being, including suicide attempts.

While many LGBTQIA youth benefit from therapy, there is a very limited supply of experienced and knowledgeable therapists for these youth.  Many LGBTQIA individuals report negative and personally damaging experiences, encountering both conscious and unconscious expressions of heterosexism that demean non-heterosexual behavior as second-best or psychopathological.  This is because there are very few professionals who are experienced or knowledgeable enough to work with LGBTQIA youth.  Without appropriate information, therapists may underestimate the importance of certain experiences, while overestimating the effects of others.

Gender confirmation surgery or nonsurgical treatments (e.g., hormone injections) encompass an extended, frustrating, painful, and expensive process. Prospective patients typically are required to receive mental health evaluation and counseling and to live as the desired gender for an extended period of time before surgery to make sure they understand, want, and are ready for the treatment.  And once again, for those who are DHH, health care is often inaccessible due to the communication preferences and needs making treatments and surgeries unattainable.

What we don’t know and implications

We don’t know much, however, what we can certainly take away is that there are few professional resources to address the needs LGBTQIA youth and even fewer who can effectively serve the needs of those who are also DHH.  Families with LGBTQIA youth experience long waitlists for clinics with the kind of support their children need and our youth are at risk for a variety of challenges.  For DHH youth, the difficulty is compounded by language deprivation and the inaccessibility of our systems, including healthcare.

Posted on June 25, 2020 by
Lisa Weiss, ESQ.

Vanessa Robertson
North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University

Further reading