Thank You for Sign Dancing - NOT! fullscreen

Thank You for Sign Dancing – NOT!

By John McBride

I’m an interpreter who works on-stage at queer events. Once, after a concert, a hearing dyke came up to me. She said, “Thank you for sign dancing! I don’t know sign, but it’s so pretty – it’s dancing!”

Sign dancing???? She meant well. But like many hearing queers, she had a funny ideas about signed music and interpreters. So here are some thoughts for CTN Magazine’s hearing readers. First, the sad tale of a love gone wrong:

Once upon a time, I had two lovers. One lover was ASL. My other lover was Music. 

I tried to have a three-way with ASL and Music. It failed. ASL didn’t mind if I slept with Music, but ASL didn’t want to watch us in bed. And worse – Music was a jealous top! Music stole all the attention, all the time. ASL felt left out.

Signed music is a way of playing with ASL. Who has the right to play with ASL? Deaf people and CODAs do, because ASL is their own language. Some of them like to sign music. They have the skill to keep ASL on top and music on bottom. But what about hearing signers? Well, playing with someone else’s language is like playing with their lover. You’d better get permission first, or you’re asking for trouble.

Think of a hearing people as foreign visitors to Deaf culture. Some have a “tourist visa;” they take a bus tour, snap some photos, and go home. Others get a “student visa” and stay few years to learn ASL. Fluent signers can get a “work visa” to become interpreters. A few fall in love with Deaf culture and apply for “dual citizenship” in the Deaf community.

Tourists and students love signed music. Most fluent signers don’t, because they have learned that most deaf people don’t. Of course, you can always sign music at home, or with your friends. But before you do it in public, ask yourself why. Did a deaf person ask you to sign music? If not, how do you have a right to play with ASL on-stage?

Some hearing signers are frustrated actors. At queer events, they see how the audience claps for interpreters. They think interpreters are “stars,” just like musicians and comics. They want to sign music so they can become “stars,” too. But interpreters are not stars: they are only on-stage to give deaf people information.

Producers and musicians often chose interpreters for a queer event. What do they know about ASL or interpreting? If a producer asks you to interpret an event, say no. Instead, introduce them to deaf lesbians & gays. Face-to-face is the best way for producers to learn what deaf queers want.

Interpreting is not an amateur sport. If you want to be a stage interpreter, go to college and study interpreting. Be patient. It takes several years to earn a “work visa.” Socialize with deaf people and interpreters. Don’t get on the stage until they agree that you’re ready.

Hearing audiences love sign dancers. Deaf audiences love skilled interpreters. Look inside yourself. Which audience matters most to you?

[This Blast from the Past article originally appeared in CTN Magazine’s Fall 1995 / Winter 1996 issue and is republished with permission.]