What did deaf people really think of the tight control of their community of 100 years ago? And what was it like for deaf gays and lesbians at the time? We really don’t know. Not yet.
I have been at the State Library of Victoria, browsing through old copies of the publication of what was then the Adult Deaf-and-Dumb Mission, Our Monthly Letter. This was first published in 1904.
This happy little newsletter is a treat. The early years of Our Monthly Letter are all handwritten, often in very careful and beautiful script of a quality we don’t see any more. Those who produced it – John Muir amongst other – took much pride in their work. It becomes obvious that this was a very popular publication in the deaf community at this time. It has a friendly, homely feel to it, and all the people mentioned and the reports of events would be well known to the readership. It promoted a distinctive sense of community, almost as of a family. It described readers who lived outside Melbourne as “our country cousins”. The editors even asked readers that they think of the editors as their “responsible elder brothers”. Not for nothing was it called Our Monthly Letter.
At that time, the man running the Victorian Deaf and Dumb Mission was Ernest Abraham. With a namesign of Mr A, he was everywhere, and he was in everything. At different times he was called a chaplain (he actually wasn’t), a missioner, welfare superintendent, principal, and frequently, “Our Chief”. These multiple titles suggest numerous attempts to capture and help explain his role, but it remained hard to describe. Today he would have been a CEO. Does the reference to him as “Principal” suggest a headmaster’s attitude to deaf adults?
Among the more interesting things he did was to give lectures to the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Society. This was for young deaf men, and was one of many groups linked to the Deaf and Dumb Mission at the time. Our Monthly Letter tells of the titles of these lectures: ‘The Greek and Roman Philosophers’; ‘Count your Chickens’, (apparently something about being optimistic); ‘What makes a Good Life’; and ‘How to Tie Your Shoelaces’. (Alright, I made up that one.)
These lectures hint at an emphatically Christian moral code, or the rules by which you, as a young deaf gentleman, were expected to live your life. The deaf ladies had their own version as well. If you managed to dodge going to one of those, then the weekly ‘Divine Service’ rammed home the message. Every edition of Our Monthly Letter gave information on Divine Service, and made it clear that readers were expected to attend. A few times readers were scolded because of poor numbers present. The front page often featured a little homily about improving your life. This little publication radiated a wholesome cheerfulness.
I am writing historical fiction about these times. These venerable newsletters give me a feel for the people, the events, and the language they used. What Our Monthly Letter does not do, except indirectly, was reveal the relationships between the major players. As a fiction writer, it’s essential that I get into the minds of the people. What were their loves, their hates, their wants, their needs? What were they like as human beings? What was really going on? The official records can only give clues, and the work of deaf researchers gives some historical fact and informed speculation. But I have to use my imagination to fill the missing pieces of people’s lives at that time.
So for example, from Our Monthly Letter we might learn that Abraham gave a lecture to the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Society called ‘The Early Bird’. The newsletter would report that at its conclusion, there was a “hearty vote of thanks to Our Principal” for a presentation which “gave much food for thought”. Fair enough.
But what I would love to know is, what did these polite young men themselves think about it? I’m sure some would enjoy learning the benefits of being up and about bright and early, and that industriousness and punctuality pay off in the end. But I wonder if there were some young men who resented being forced by social pressure to sit still and be lectured to by a pompous old fart when they could be out enjoying an ale with the lads, honing their prowess at billiards, or working up the courage to ask the charming Miss Gladstone if they could escort her home. No deaf people were ever asked what they really thought about these lectures.
In fairness to Our Monthly Letter, it was never going to feature real-life stories. It reflected the times. The tight control over the lives of so many deaf adults would have been considered appropriate, and expected. But in spite of this control, Our Monthly Letter only told part of the story of the lives of deaf people more than a hundred years ago. As I writer I want to know more. My imagination likes the idea of deaf people as double agents. In other words, no matter how tight was the control of powerful hearing men over the mission, deaf people have always sought independence, their own ways of doing things as they thought best. In spite of all the official control, I am convinced that for many deaf people there was always some corner of their lives in which they were in charge.
It must have been especially so for a small group within the community whose lives and loves must have been hidden deep underground. For gay hearing people a hundred years ago, much of their lives were hidden. How much more so was this for deaf gays and lesbians? The missions and the superintendents, with their emphatic brand of Christianity, would have made very clear that deaf gays and lesbians were not welcome and were not part of this extended Christian deaf family. The openness and acceptance we have today was unimaginable a hundred years ago.
So what did they do? Did they ever meet? And if so, how and where? What could have been going on for some young deaf men who perhaps fancied the handsome Mr Pickford in the next row as they sat patiently through Mr A’s lectures? Deaf gays and lesbians of long ago were effectively triple agents, with parts of themselves revealed to hearing men, to other deaf people, and secretly and covertly, to other deaf gays. Were there any deaf gays and lesbians who managed to negotiate this underground to find places where they were welcomed and accepted? I have wondered whether in all the histories of gay people in Victoria, whether the stories of their clubs and haunts ever noted the presence of people who used signs. If so, their stories would be just extraordinary.
The fate of deaf gays and lesbians of long ago was the subject of my last conversation with the late disability activist, Lesley Hall. She was researching the history of gay people with disabilities. I didn’t know anything much, and I don’t know how far she got.
In her doctoral thesis on Australian deaf history, Breda Carty noted the present-day lack of knowledge about and recognition by deaf people of the contribution of deaf women to the past, for example, Martha Overend Wilson. A quick glance of the old photographs of the committees and councils of a hundred years ago reveals the dominance of males. The contribution of women is there, but not always evident and little known.
And even less so, and entirely unknown, is the contribution of deaf gays and lesbians. The deaf missions at the time reflected the larger Australian society in which all people lived, so none of this is surprising. But I very much hope that in time we may yet uncover and learn their stories, these unknown deaf triple-agents, who maybe only ever wanted to find a place where they could be themselves.