The (Signed)Language of Love

AIDS educators are targeting a new group -- deaf gay men

The Loading Zone in Miami Beach -- with its interior walls lined with wire display cases containing leather jackets and chains for sale -- hardly seemed the right setting for a clinical discussion of safe sex and HIV.

The fifteen people gathered on a Monday night in the dingy light of the Miami Beach leather bar seemed a little out of place too. On other nights, the bar near Alton Road and Fourteenth Street rocks with heavy metal; chest-hugging T-shirts and tight jeans are the norm. But this crowd, in baggy shirts and jeans, silently watched soundless videos on two portable television screens. Their own conversations were written in gestures, for most were deaf and using sign language.

The deaf community is one of many in Dade County that the bar's co-owner Robert Galante hopes to reach with monthly safe- sex workshops sponsored by the South Beach Aids Project, an organization Galante created with AIDS educator Randy Jensen. Galante hopes eventually to hold a Spanish-only session, a class for recreational drug users, and one for people younger than 25.

"We do it at the Loading Zone because most clubs on the beach are not disposed to having them," says Galante, who has constructed a "New York-style underground" club to counter the glitz and glitter of South Beach. He wanted to provide an example of how "responsible" gay men's clubs should deal with HIV.

The club's hipness also creates a comfortable setting for a discussion that ain't so hip. How do you tell someone to use a condom? How do you reject unsafe sex without being rejected yourself? According to AIDS researcher William Darrow, a club such as the Loading Zone, where young lovers meet, may be the best venue for that kind of discussion. And it may be critical to saving lives.

Darrow, one of three researchers involved in a Florida International University study examining gay men's attitudes, behaviors, values, and beliefs about HIV, says that a rise in AIDS among gay men in Miami Beach points to a need for more safe-sex talk. Based on interviews with 73 gay men, of whom ten were HIV positive, the study has so far concluded that learning how to communicate about sex is just as important as learning to use condoms.

"It looks to us like gay men often engage in unsafe sexual activity because they don't know how to talk to a prospective partner about safe sex," Darrow says. "It doesn't mean they don't speak English, but they fear being rejected. They fear the other person will think they have AIDS or they have some kind of sexual hangup."

The challenge that the speaking world faces talking about safe sex echoes the day-to-day difficulties the deaf encounter in a world controlled by those who hear. Communicating about sex offers the deaf yet another obstacle, says David Killam, acting director of the Deaf Services Bureau, which provides interpreters for Dade County's deaf community. "When they go out on dates," Killam relates, "it's often with hearing people and they don't know how to communicate."

For the deaf, as well as the hearing population, communication means overcoming a passive attitude toward a potential lover. "A lot of hearing people wield power over us," Killam claims. "I have seen very few deaf people who say, 'I'm strong. You don't control me. '"

Monday night's safe sex workshop attracted mostly deaf educators and interpreters and Killam believes they should be mobilized to teach Dade County's 225,000 hard-of-hearing or deaf residents. The need is great because it's too easy for deaf people to ignore workshops given by hearing people; communication barriers make some deaf people feel alienated from hearing people.

The hardest people to reach are the 70,000 in the county who are considered severely or profoundly deaf; for many of them English is also a second language. Consequently, their average English reading ability doesn't get beyond the third- to fifth-grade level. The standard delivery of safe sex messages -- through television commercials, ads, or posters -- doesn't work for the deaf.

On most nights, the Loading Zone's two tiny television screens might show men rubbing flesh against flesh or using devices to enhance sex. On Monday, the video had more information than titillation.

In the video, two men grinned at each other for a few seconds over a torn-open bag of cucumbers and bananas. Someone in the audience chortled. Seconds later, the actors on the video fell into a bed, stripped naked, nuzzled, and kissed. The foreplay got graphic. But one of the players stopped his new partner before they had anal sex. He got a condom out of a gray backpack and held it so his partner could see it. In sign language, the narrator explained why: "Anal sex is a good way to get AIDS."

Forty-three-year-old Orlando Munoz of Miami Beach appreciated the lesson. In the process of caring for a friend who has AIDS, he didn't know what kind of sexual activity was dangerous. So he cut out an ad about the workshop from HotSpots, a Fort Lauderdale gay magazine, and came to the Loading Zone to learn. The video gave him his first lesson. "It is very explicit, very clear," Munoz says in sign language.

After the video, Jensen put on a safe-sex sideshow -- a blunt, sometimes confessional mix of anecdotes and grim warnings using the condoms, lubricants, and dildos heaped on top of the bar as props -- while interpreter Jason Southwell translated into sign language.

Jensen found a communication tool that worked even better: humor. He bared his shiny head and made a joke about baldness; he kept losing track of the very real-looking rubber penises he had on hand to illustrate condom use. He also got the audience's attention when he confessed that many AIDS educators themselves fail to follow the safe-sex prescriptions they give others.

"Is it hard to talk about safe sex?" Jensen asked the audience.
An audience member signed furiously: "It's hard to get the first date. It's hard to get your first condom at the store."

"What I suggest is for you to get two or three people together and talk about it," Jensen said. "Visit the condom shop together," he added.

An audience member suggested bringing out a magazine article that discusses condoms. "Whatever you do," Jensen urged, "just insist that the partner use safe-sex practices."

"If you're struggling to have a conversation about safe sex, it's better to leave the situation," Jensen advised.

"Myself, I use humor," Jensen continued. At his own house, he makes his visitors laugh by keeping a huge condom on a table. "It's the biggest condom in the world," explained Jensen, who calls it "Joe Condom." Once a visitor laughs about its size and weirdness, Jensen gets to the more serious issue of using a condom in bed.

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