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Friday, April 28, 2017

Diversity Doesn’t Divide

Written by  Rodney Burger
Kevin Lowery Kevin Lowery

I have always been proud of the diversity of the leather community in Baltimore. Maryland’s first leather club, the ShipMates Club of Baltimore, was founded in 1974. Although originally a club for men, currently the ShipMates counts both a female and a transgender person among the club’s full members. The Baltimore Eagle was the first of the “eagle bars” to add a Ms. Baltimore Eagle titleholder – and did so in 1992 when after founding a leather club called “Lesborados,” Glenda Ryder was selected Ms. Baltimore Eagle 1992. In 1993 Glenda went on to start a leather club for women called FIST (Females Investigating Sexual Terrain), which is still a big part of Baltimore’s leather community today. The Mr. Maryland Leather Contest began in 1991 and in 1993 Tony Hash became the first African-American Mr. Maryland Leather titleholder.

Unfortunately one segment of the LGBT community is still often left out, the deaf community. When the International Mr. Leather Contest started in Chicago in 1979, founder Chuck Renslow who had some skill in American Sign Language made sure that by the time that the second IML contest was held in 1980, there was an interpreter on hand. Here in Baltimore a leather club called the Baltimore Leather Association of the Deaf (BLADeaf) was formed and in 1992 they had their first run event at the Baltimore Eagle. During this weekend Bob Donaldson was not only selected Mr. BLADeaf, but he went on to compete at the International Mr. Leather Contest in Chicago, making him the first deaf leather man to hit the IML stage. Bob Donaldson was later co-founder of the International Mr. Deaf Leather Contest.

Recently my friend Kevin Lowery, a member of BLADeaf, informed me that there was a meeting being had at the GLCCB (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland) on March 31st. The meeting was to be a town hall between the GLCCB and the LGBT deaf community to see what the GLCCB could do to make Baltimore Pride more welcoming and inclusive. Although Kevin was unable to attend, he wanted me to check it out. I must say that GLCCB Director of Operation Mimi Demissew did a fantastic job and dealt graciously with the over 20 attendees who came to express their displeasure with interpreters, or the lack thereof, at Baltimore Pride.

On April 11th Kevin invited me over to his home for lunch and we talked about how to make sure our deaf brothers and sisters feel welcomed at our events. Kevin became involved in learning American Sign Language (ASL) many years ago when he had deaf neighbors and wanted to be able to communicate with them. That friendship led to a lifelong passion. In June Kevin founded the Mid-Atlantic Deaf & Interpreter Fund (MAIF) to help give something back to the deaf community, help provide interpreters for events, and to help interpreters who spend lots of money on their education, but are often not properly compensated for interpreting at functions. This new charity is off to a great start and has already received very generous donations from such organizations as Bears, Bikers & Mayhem, Philadelphia Leather Pride Night, and Baltimore’s 12 Days of Christmas fundraiser. In January the bootblacks at the huge Mid-Atlantic Leather weekend donated 25% of their tips to MAIF.

Kevin explained how important it is that interpreters at LGBT events understand the slang and the culture of the LGBT or leather community. For example, if someone is signing the word “fisting,” the speaker is not talking about boxing. I asked Kevin about something that confused me at the recent GLCCB meeting. Members of the deaf community were requesting that the interpreters be deaf. Kevin explained that hearing interpreters often want to sign words and phrases in the way that a hearing person would say them and often include every little word. In deaf culture communication becomes abbreviated. For example: I am going to the store. Would you like to come with me? This sentence can me shortened to: Going to store. You with?

Kevin was very happy that the staff at the GLCCB reached out to the LGBT deaf community and is working to make their events more accessible. He was very much in agreement with many of the topics discussed. For example, a drag performer should let the interpreter know in advance which songs she will be performing and if possible provide a copy of the lyrics, and that there should be a reserved area near the stage so that the deaf attendees at the block party are able to see the interpreters. After all what good is it to have an interpreter if the attendees cannot see him? Kevin is currently involved in teaching a class at the GLCCB (2530 North Charles Street, 3rd floor). The class is called “Shocking ASL” and deals with gay slang, cultural norms, basic ASL, and how to interact with the deaf community. Classes are held every Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m. The classes started on March 29th and run through May 3rd. Kevin said that people should not worry if they missed some of the classes, he always starts with a review and encourages attendees to not use their voices in the classes. He adds that 90% of communication is body language. He hopes to have additional classes in the future.

Kevin is also thinking about hosting some sort of fundraiser in June to celebrate the one year anniversary of MAIF and is considering maybe holding an event at his home. (There’s a pool and a hot tub!) You can learn more about the Mid-Atlantic Deaf & Interpreter fund at Midatlanticinterpreterfund.org and on Facebook. Kevin too is proud of the diversity in our leather community and said that he feels that the election of President Donald Trump did not and will not divide us. If anything it brought us together.

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