The mainstreaming of love

Kevin Strauss

Sitting on the same side of the booth at the Chili’s in Northridge, Calif., William Brown takes the liberty of ordering lunch for himself and his girlfriend, Coralee Ferguson. Though the restaurant is scarcely populated, the few ‘regulars’ can’t help but notice the college kids that seem so out-of-place, busily gesturing to one another on a Saturday morning.

After Brown and Ferguson chat for a few minutes about their plans to enter beauty school together in the fall, the waitress returns to take the drink order. ‘Does she want anything to drink?’ the waitress asks. ‘Oh,’ Brown replies, ‘she’ll just have a water.’

Brown, 23 of Lompoc, Calif., and Ferguson, 20 of Vallejo, Calif. have been dating for six months now, and when they go out to eat he says it’s no problem to act as her interpreter.

After all, he is a deaf studies major planning to transfer to California State University, Northridge in the fall. Ferguson, a Liberal Studies major at CSUN who has been deaf since birth, smiles as she and Brown recapped the first time they met.

‘We were at the Starbucks in Porter Ranch with different groups of mutual friends,’ she said, Brown once again interpreting for her. ‘I wanted to talk to him that night but was really nervous. It sort of just happened,’ she added.

‘I saw her and her friends signing (in American Sign Language) so fast and I was discouraged,’ Brown said with a grin. ‘I saw my friend later talking to her and thought, ‘Perfect,’ and we were introduced.’

After that, the pair said they talked until 4:30 the next morning.

Brown and Ferguson are not the only couple at CSUN in which one person is deaf and the other is hearing. Indeed, in the face of national statistics that would advise otherwise, students at CSUN are more willing to pursue these types of relationships.

The couple says that they are not discouraged by studies published by Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. that show that only 10% of deaf people in the United States end up married to a hearing person.

CSUN is one of the top schools on the west coast for Deaf Studies majors and houses the highest number of deaf students in California.

‘But that’s why it is different here,’ said Brown. ‘At CSUN there is such a mix of students. We do not have the communication barriers other couples would have. We relate so well to each other.’

Emma Bixler, a 20-year-old deaf studies major at CSUN, and her boyfriend, 23-year-old Kinesiology major Steven Lopez, first met when they were both living in the dormitories on campus last year. The couple says they first met after a mutual friend introduced them at a dorm function. Bixler remembers Lopez asking her to model for an art assignment he had to complete.

‘The next weekend I sat down and he began to draw my eyes. He spent a good hour or two staring into them as I forced myself to stare back,’ she said. ‘After that day we started hanging out more and more.

Bixler says that she was not intimidated to approach Lopez because it was something she wanted to do. While the communication barriers are non-existent for the pair (Lopez is deaf and Bixler is fluent in ASL), they do differ on which obstacles they feel they need to overcome. While Bixler feels that they need to work on communication issues during an argument, Lopez disagrees.

‘I feel that everything is perfect. To me, I am more concerned about our lives together after college,’ he said matter-of-factly.

Communication barriers are a common fear among deaf and hard-of-hearing students when they try to meet new people, said Michael Catron, a 24-year-old CSUN senior. Catron, who is deaf, has developed a procedure for meeting new people, especially girls.

‘I try to find out if they are hearing or know some ASL,’ he said. ‘Usually I will ask for a piece of paper or use text messages on my phone to communicate.’

The only real difference in how a hearing person talks and how a deaf person talks is the use of the spoken word, said Dr. Jeremy Brunson, professor of sociology at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. There are a number of factors that will determine how we communicate with others, he added.

‘Who are the deaf or hard-of-hearing or hearing persons involved? Are they bilingual? How were they raised?’ Brunson asked. ‘There is not one kind of deaf person, just like there isn’t one kind of hearing person,’ he said.

Just as in the ‘hearing’ world, deaf people communicate with one another in a multitude of ways. There are different signs for the same word based on which region of the country one resides in, similar to slang.

‘Sometimes I am the victim of ‘lazy sign,’ where I just don’t want to be so formal with the words that I am signing,’ said Marcos Aguilar.

Aguilar, a 26-year-old Religious Studies major, is one of only 240 deaf students in California this past year to have been raised in a ‘deaf’ household, where both parents have some degree of hearing loss, according to 2007 statistics released by the Gallaudet Research Institute. On the other hand, his girlfriend, Josephine Wong, 20 years old of Los Angeles, is part of the overwhelming majority (86%) of California hard of hearing students to come from a completely hearing household. The couple, like countless others, says that communication is the last of their worries.

‘Age difference is one of the only challenges we face,’ said Wong. ‘All it means is that we can’t go out to bars, which he likes to do.’

Aguilar, who was born in Ecuador, says he has had a strong cultural identity from a young age. After a period of settling in at CSUN, he says his extended deaf family has made it easier to communicate with the deaf population on campus. In contrast, Wong grew up orally with her parents raising her to speak, as well as use sign language.

‘I didn’t know my deaf identity until I got to college,’ she said. ‘I am able to trust Marcos and it is because of that that our relationship is so strong.’

Back at Chili’s, the conversation hits a stalemate with Brown and Ferguson hesitant to answer a pretty hard-hitting question.

Tell me one thing about each other that you love.

‘Well,’ Ferguson begins, ‘It is just so hard to choose one thing about him. Every thing about him has made me love him even more.’

Brown, on the other hand, sits quietly, obviously crafting his words in his head before speaking.

‘I want to answer honestly, but I also want the words to come out right,’ Brown says.

‘For me, she has torn me down as a person. Before I met her I was very guarded and not really open to talking to anybody about how I feel,’ he says. ‘I am a new person now.’

Ferguson, eyes fixed on Brown, can’t help but blush at his words in disbelief.

‘Really?’ she asks, ‘I didn’t know that.’

‘Well, it’s true,’ he replies.’ ‘Like I said before,’ Brown added, ‘It doesn’t make a difference that she is deaf. It is all about how she makes me feel as a person.’

‘She has changed my life,’ he concluded with a smile.