Chris Coles is a deaf gay man from the Welsh valleys. He is a trustee for Deaf Rainbow UK, an organisation that specialises in supporting deaf LGBTQ+ people. This Pride month, Chris celebrates the impact of inclusivity for his community.
“Hello, I’m Christopher Coles. I’m 39, with the big 40 creeping around the corner. I was born deaf into a hearing family – the only deaf child in my family history. I don’t see myself as 100% deaf because I can speak well, so I feel like I live half in the deaf world and half in the hearing world.
Can you tell us about your experience growing up as a LGBTQ+ deaf person?
“Growing up in the Welsh valleys as a gay person was a challenge, as it was a very traditional place, back then. It was a little scary coming out. I came out to my mother after my father passed away. I said I was meeting my “gay” friend and she grew a little upset, thinking, couldn’t tell her I was gay myself. When she asked me if I was, I got annoyed, because I didn’t want to come out. Instead, I said I was bisexual because it was felt easier for her to accept – but deep down I knew I was gay.
“When she asked again, I gave in and said “Mum, I’m gay”. Her simple response was “that was easy, wasn’t it?” My family and friends have been great about my sexuality; I was lucky to have support from the people in my life. I’ve not experienced anything that would make me think “is this life I want to lead?”. I’m happy and proud of who I am.
“I was lucky to grow up in a hearing family as I had access to speech therapy. They made sure I attended both hearing and deaf youth clubs, and schools. It wasn’t a perfect journey, if I’m honest, because I still struggle with answering phones, etc. However, I have a group of hearing friends, who make sure I never feel left out. When we go to clubs, for example, and I don’t get what music is playing, they’re always happy to tell me or get the lyrics up on a screen.
What’s your experiences of that ‘overlapping’ space, between the LGBTQ+ community and the deaf community?
“When I came out 20 years ago, Cardiff was a thriving area for gay bars, which was all new to me. I was so excited! The music was loud and there were lights everywhere, so it was hard to see or understand people. However, as the years went by, these bars got to know the deaf LGBTQ+ community more. They became more accessible.
One bar in Cardiff called Mary has been brilliant with the deaf LGBTQ+ community. The manager is very supportive. They make sure it’s as accessible for us as it is for hearing LGBTQ+ people, by having interpreters and song lyrics on their TV screens. I’m very thankful and grateful for that.
The LGBTQ+ deaf community is smaller than the Deaf community and spread out across the whole of the UK. Thank goodness for Pride festivals, Deafab, and the Deaf Rainbow UK events that give us the opportunity to get together and celebrate what we are. I am lucky – we look after and support one other. There is a lot of unity between the deaf and hearing LGBTQ+ communities, too, as some deaf LGBTQ+ people date hearing LGBGTQ+ people.
Do you think there’s need for more mainstream visibility of the deaf LGBTQ+ community?
“This can be a challenge. It doesn’t seem to matter how many years pass, or for how many years we protest, our community still experiences abuse. All I ask is for people to be mindful; respect our community as we respect theirs. If you’re not aware of the challenges, we face you can take some awareness training or ask us questions. Asking is better than assuming.
“I believe we need more storylines or social media content coming from the deaf LGBTQ+ community, and for us to be given more opportunities to be a part of mainstream entertainment. We’re the ones who understand these experiences and, by sharing them, we can help other people understand them more.
“I say to everyone: be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind. Don’t be afraid, don’t be ashamed, don’t ever apologise for your sexuality – just be you! Happy Pride Month!”