As a Deaf, bisexual, Jewish, transgender activist and stand-up comedian, Hayden Kristal (they/them/theirs) understands what it’s like to live at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities. This experience informs their activist work as they speak to audiences around the country, most notably through their interactive workshop entitled “GaySL: A Crash Course in LGBTQ+ American Sign Language.”
Hosted by the Undergraduate Government of Boston College (UGBC)’s Council for Students with Disabilities, Kristal brought the workshop to Boston College this past Tuesday. They taught the fundamentals of American Sign Language (ASL) within the context of the LGBTQ+ community while exploring broader issues of accessibility and intersectionality.
Kristal began by asking whether BC offers ASL classes. A student in the crowd explained that BC offers a one-semester class, which focuses roughly half on ASL and half on Deaf culture as a whole.
Kristal replied emphatically, “That’s not enough!”
Early on in the workshop, Kristal debunked a few common misconceptions about ASL. “ASL is not English. Some people think that it’s just English on the hands; it is not,” they emphasized. “It’s its own language, and has its own syntax and grammar.”
Kristal explained that a sentence in ASL is structured by order of “time, topic, comment, question.” For example, instead of saying “I go to the store” like you would in English, you sign “The store, I go”, with “the store” as the subject and “I go” as the comment.
After showing the crowd how to fingerspell the alphabet, Kristal moved on to the words of the LGBTQ+ acronym. Together, the group signed the words for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. In the same way that English words like soda, pop, and coke are used regionally, many signs in ASL—including lesbian, gay, and bisexual—have variations within different communities.
“I travel and I’ve been to Boston before, so I can tell you what I expect they use,” they said. “But it really depends on the community and if you take this anywhere else it will change.”
While Kristal believes that many sign variations are equally valid, others are antiquated and carry negative connotations. One variation of bisexual, for example, closely resembles the sign for sleeping around. Explained Kristal, “I think it perpetuates negative stereotypes about bisexual people being slutty or indecisive, so I don’t use that one.”
The wide variation within ASL signs can partially be attributed to the way it spreads differently than many other languages. When it comes to languages like English, new words often travel through social and print media. Kristal pointed out that because ASL is not spoken or written and is not the dominant language anywhere in the world, it takes longer to spread.
As words related to the LGBTQ+ community become more frequently used, standardization of some terms has allowed them to spread more quickly. According to Kristal, a group of Deaf, transgender people came together 10 or 15 years ago and picked one variation of the sign for transgender. They intentionally standardized and spread the chosen sign within the deaf and LGBTQ+ communities to facilitate its use.
Some ASL signs traditionally used as slurs have been reclaimed by the Deaf and LGBTQ+ communities to carry a positive connotation. While Kristal grew up under the impression that there was no positive sign for queer, they later learned that people in some places have reclaimed the sign for faggot to mean queer as a positive umbrella term.
As they explored the intersection of the deaf and LGBTQ+ communities, Kristal emphasized how important it is to think about accessibility in a more inclusive way in order to create safe spaces.
“When we say accessibility, people’s minds tend to go directly to wheelchair ramps, and then nothing else,” explained Kristal. “But accessibility is so much broader than that.”
They went on, “[I encourage] people to do things like hire interpreters, provide either braille versions or things that are accessible by screen reader, things like making sure that your building is accessible for wheelchair users.”
While in-person classes are the best way to develop skills in any new language, Kristal recommends the website Lifeprint for anyone looking to learn the basics of ASL online. The site has ordered lessons, as well as a video dictionary that provides a visual demonstration to aid the learning process.
Intersections of ability are often overlooked, and Kristal’s talk enlightened the importance of this discussion and education.