Op-ed: Dealing With Gallaudet's Diversity Problem

How will the campus community at Gallaudet University recover from its diversity rift?

BY Mike Deninger Ph.D.

January 16 2013 6:15 AM ET

(Pictured: Writer Mike Deninger, Ph.D.)

When I pulled up to the small shop on a gravel side street, there was no “barber pole” twirling outside. I hoped this wasn’t going to be one of those unisex places.

I pushed open the door to the sounds of a Venetian blind clacking against plate glass and a bell at the top of the frame jingling my arrival. I glanced down to my right to see a corpulent African-American preacher delivering a bombastic sermon on a black-and-white TV without any sound. His shirt was open at the collar and beads of perspiration were dripping from his brow into his eyes. A twinge of tension fluttered across my lower abdomen.

The whitewashed room was divided down the center by back-to-back bookshelves. Perched atop the divider were a dozen or so styled wigs offered for sale to clients who obviously did not share my gender. I realized the business catered to African-American women. Decision time: I could retreat back out the door and hope the proprietor would not be offended. But I had a thought that there was something in that place for me. Besides, I needed a haircut. I walked around the divider to three weathered lime-green salon chairs against the back wall. The counter behind them had a sparse array of hair products, probably created for women of color.

It dawned on me that I hadn’t yet seen the barber.

I was startled when a demure, middle-aged, African-American woman rose slowly from a folding chair in a corner with an open Bible in her left hand. She was dressed simply and with a wig much less flattering than the ones for sale.

“Would you like a haircut?” she asked.

“Why, yes I would,” I responded, telling myself that everything would be fine — maybe. She pulled her Bible’s fabric bookmark into place, then closed it and placed the text in a cubby beneath the wigs.

“How about right here?” she asked, motioning to the center chair. She moved to the front of the shop and turned up the volume on the preacher. His deep, raspy voice was as gruff as I had imagined. Ministers who channel an angry God make me uncomfortable. I vowed to engage my barber in conversation to avoid the distraction.

“How would you like your hair cut?” she asked.

“Number 1 on the sides and 4 on top,” I said, deciding to keep it simple. While the clippers whirred behind my left ear, I asked her how long she had worked there.

“I opened this place six months ago,” she said.

“Not long, then. How’s it going?” I asked.

“Can’t complain,” she answered. “What kind of work do you do?”

“I’m a licensed professional counselor.”

“I’ll bet that’s rewarding,” she said. “Do you work with any particular groups?” I couldn’t say gays and lesbians. That was TMI for my first haircut and for the situation. I heard the preacher growling about sinners who “do whatever they want, whenever they want, no matter what the scripture teaches.”

“I specialize in trauma and PTSD,” I said, mindful of the irony in the moment.

“You have children? You married?” she asked. These are routine questions in casual conversation, and although our chat had been very casual, there was nothing routine about the circumstances. The tension in my stomach quivered again.

The preacher was shouting, “You can run, my friends, but you CAN-NOT hide! Lay DOWN your will and your life! BEG his forgiveness!” By that time I was in full-freak. I had to answer her questions. I chose to be honest.

“Yes, I have a son and a daughter — both grown — and I have a partner. I’m gay.” I braced for her response.

“I see ... ” That was it. Nothing more. Silence lingered like smoke trapped in a test tube. “Can I ask you a question?” she asked. I could tell she was opening a door.

“Sure,” I said, expecting a conversion attempt.

“I have a daughter who’s 20. Last year she told me she was ... uh ... interested in ... she said she wanted to be with ... um ... a woman.” She had a hard time getting that out. “I wasn’t sure what to do or to say to her, because my church doesn’t believe in that. I love my daughter, and I don’t want to push her away. I’m trying to do the right thing.”

From her emphasis, I knew “doing the right thing” was a compelling value of hers. “I feel like I should love her no matter what,” she said. “She’s my girl! I want to love her the best way I can, you know?” She paused. It was my turn.

I was flabbergasted, of course. What could I say to this treasure of a mother who chose love of child over ritual, who accepted her daughter as she was meant to be?

“I’m guessing that you’re a woman of faith, so I can imagine how difficult this is for you. I’ll tell you what I think,” I said confidently. “I wish I had a mother like you when I came out 25 years ago. You would have made it so much easier for me. You know, we don’t choose to be this way. That’s a lot of hooey. It’s the way we are. It’s what’s natural for us.” I told her my coming-out story and how my mother had shrieked, run down the hall, and slammed the door when I gave her the news. I told her how fortunate her daughter was to have her for a mother.

Our conversation took off like thoroughbreds out of the gate. I told her what it was like for me — all the truth I could impart over 15 minutes’ time. She kept repeating: “I’m just trying to love her the best way I can.” It was her mantra. At one point she said she hoped it was a phase her daughter would get over. I discouraged that thinking, telling her, “It’s the way we’re wired.” I said I believed God made her daughter just the way he intended.

At the end of her work she swiveled me around to face the mirror on the wall and held a small mirror at the back of my head for approval. “Very nice,” I said. “You’ve done a great job!” I liked what I saw — not just the neat haircut. The knowing, soft smile on her face warmed my insides.  As I prepared to leave, I asked her name.

“Jackie,*” she said.

“Jackie,” I said, “Do you think it’s possible someone had a hand in bringing us together?”

“Perhaps,” she said. “Could well be.”

“It’s been a pleasure talking with you.”

“You too.”

I opened the door with the blind clacking and the bell jingling again, aware that I felt very different than when I had entered. I turned back, took out a business card and placed it in her hand. “Sounds like you’re doing a fine job with your daughter, but if you or she ever wants to talk, feel free to call.”

Her real name and location have been withheld to protect her, since coming out of the closet can still be dangerous. She told me she didn’t feel comfortable telling her “church family,” because she was going to love her daughter no matter what, and she might not want to hear what they would say. Maybe she felt as unsafe as I when I entered her shop. Maybe she feared being attacked for loving her daughter the best way she knew how.

The rights of marginalized groups are under siege these days. Whether it is marriage equality for LGBT citizens, a person of color’s right to vote without a government ID, a woman’s reproductive rights, a Muslim’s right to hold high office, or a Latino’s right to citizenship, our paths to acceptance and full expression should not be obstructed. Neither should we obstruct fellow travelers in our quest for freedoms — even in the diversity efforts at Gallaudet as the university begins writing a new chapter in 2013.

There’s wisdom in loving others as ourselves and doing it “the best way we know how.” 

 

MIKE DENINGER, Ph.D., is a counselor and author. Find more of his work at Deninger.com

*Jackie's real name and location have been withheld to protect her.

 

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