Howard Beck: Full Interview
Interview by Matt Mead
11 September 2019
[This is a transcript of the interpreter's spoken translation of Howard's story.]
HB: Hi. So, my name is Howard, and I’m Deaf. And I live here in Leeds. So, I’ve got lots of connections to Leeds: I work for the Council, for a while now, and I’ve been involved in lots of different communities, helping to y’know organise things and lots of different connections. So, like the Deaf world, also LGBTQ and disability community, all sorts of different things. So, I’ve got lots of different connections.
MM: Great, thank you. Can you explain what your, kind of LGBTQ identity, how you relate to that?
HB: Well. So, I suppose it depends on the history, if you think about it. So, in that time there was, it was different, it felt different compared to now [when] there’s more information, more access, more connections, and more technology – nowadays you’ve got apps, computers, things like that. And you can look on computers and websites and find all sorts of different connections. Back then in the 1970s, sort of mid-70s, there was just nothing, so finding information was a lot harder back then, especially if you’re deaf as well, because getting that information took a long time and then when you – yeah, so compared to back then, now – it was a lot harder back then.
MM: Is it possible to talk a bit more about some of the difficulties?
HB: So, back then, in the mid-70s, there was just no – there was no iPads, no technology, nothing like that, can you imagine what it was like. Me being a deaf person couldn’t phone anyone, phones are useless, can you imagine what that’s like? So, you have to rely on newspapers and TV, and TV didn’t even have subtitles back then, they didn’t have a little interpreter on the screen, they didn’t provide interpreters, nothing like that back then. So, there were lots of barriers, lots and lots of barriers at that time. And it was really frustrating to try and find that stuff out. So, you could look in a newspaper and you might be, you might see LGBT and you’d grab hold of it, but everything seemed really secret. Back at that time it was very heteronormative. So, it was really, really hard to try and find that information and pick it out from wherever it was. You couldn’t just go, y’know everything was heteronormative, and that’s why that was like that back then.
MM: So, if we just talked about the past, would Howard be able to talk about the present, now we do have these things?
HB: Yeah, so now, compared to back then, now it’s really improved. There’s a lot more media, TV, a lot more connections to LGBT things, it’s a lot more available. So, on TV, you’ve got subtitles, for example, you’ve got an interpreter on the screen signing on lots of programmes. You have websites and you can just go to those websites and find out for different groups, different information. And yeah, there’s loads of different things compared, compared to back then, you’ve got lots more stuff, y’know, different organisations, all sorts of different groups to do with LGBT connections and you can get all of that information from them. And you can get, y’know an interpreter will come in and then – so now it’s a lot more improved, cos now the information we receive is a lot better, compared to the 70s, where there was just nothing.
MM: Wonderful, thank you. One of the things that someone else mentioned is that it’s very, it can be difficult to be disabled and to be queer or LGBTQ and that people, people tend to ignore that people can be both at once. Is that something that Howard has found?
HB: Yeah, well, yeah, so connecting to myself, the Deaf – my Deaf experience, my Deaf identity that I have and I’ve experienced the world going through, going through the world being Deaf, but some people, y’know, most people accept that I’m Deaf, but then to additional accept that I’m LGBT on top of it, I feel like I get that prejudice, that oppression, those different attitudes against me, and people don’t accept it; they think I can’t be both. And it’s difficult to understand. So, things like hate crime or… it has improved but there is still discrimination and to have two experiences – or even more than that – y’know you can have lots of different experiences all on top of each other, and we really have to fight for our rights, for equality. And that’s the most important thing for people of all different, different groups, and I think that’s really important, that our rights, our lives, our identities – make sure that I, we’re not lost, cos it can be easy to feel lost, so we don’t – y’know you can get frustrated, but yeah that’s my experience of having additional – but it has improved. The prejudice has improved.
MM: Okay, thank you. Are there any – Howard just spoke about fighting for rights. Is there any sort of specific things that he’s been involved in?
HB: Well, back in the 70s there was really nothing, there wasn’t really anything in terms of organising. So, a lot of my experience of that time is just meeting different people and trying to make connections. Back then I was in Manchester, and Manchester’s got a strong community there, back in that time, for gay, lesbians, but that’s it. Back then there was no LGBTQ, and now it’s all these other things as well, so it’s really improved, which is great, but back then it was really small. So, really it was ‘gay’ first, ‘lesbian’ second, back then, and then it changed to ‘L’ first, and then I thought that was really interesting, that kind of balance of things changing. So, making connections with organisations in Manchester, a few things happened: I met a few people in Manchester Council, y’know, a support group for Deaf people there, and that’s kind of how it started it, these little baby steps, slowly, making connections, and I was getting more information and things, and more information and it changed and changed and it went from there.
MM: Thank you, thank you. One of the things that people, other people have spoken about, is their kind of their childhood or their coming out experience. Is there anything that Howard would like to speak to about that?
HB: Well. So, imagine, in a heteronormative society, y’know that politically, family, religion, everything is the same; it’s strongly straight back then in terms of information, it was all like y’know the perfect family was a man and a woman, that was just normal. So, the idea of coming out was, I was really worried about and people had a problem with it, and that’s how they saw me back then, was being different or having a problem. But inside of myself I thought, ‘well I don’t have a problem. All these people looking at me, yeah I’m Deaf, yeah I’m LGBTQ’.
Anyway. So I think I was about 21, who’s hearing, not deaf, who’s hearing, and made a connection and was relying – cos I had to rely on hearing people for information cos deaf people miss a lot of information, we don’t get that kind of input every day, it’s really limited, so hearing people have more input. So, I’ve got a connection with this deaf person, and then, so I was talking – then my father connected to, communicated with this person, cos I couldn’t ring them on the phone, so I asked my friend, ‘could you ring my father for me?’ Y’know, and my mum as well… so, suspicious – oh, my father was really suspicious and was thinking, y’know, ‘why are you ringing me, why’s this hearing person ringing me, what’s going on?’ And then I realised myself, and he asked me, ‘d’you, are you a homosexual?’ – that was the word he used – ‘are you a homosexual’, with this absolute shock and panic and y’know, living in this straight world, and having to come out was really, really difficult back then in the 70s, so I just said, ‘yes!’ and I was really worried, and I thought, ‘what next?’ and he went, ‘it’s okay, it’s fine’, and there was just relief, and he accepted me – because I wasn’t sure he was going to accept me and he did accept me. And then, cos I was never really sure he was gonna accept me, and then – my mother, I knew, but my father, I wasn’t sure about – so it was really, I was really worried and uncomfortable and didn’t really know what to think, and then suddenly I’d come out – it was really difficult. But I got a support – there was no support information, there was, y’know, nothing to support me back then. Whereas if it was now – I’d just contact an organisation and say, ‘please help me’, y’know, ‘this is really hard, what would you do in this situation?’ I’d get lots of different ideas and I’d have more confidence in myself. But back then there was just nothing. So, that was my experience.
MM: Thank you for sharing. Perhaps we could talk a bit about work. I don’t know, you said that you work for the Council, I don’t know if you have much opportunity to – perhaps if you just explain what you do there?
HB: […] Yes, so I work for Leeds City Council. I’ve worked there for 24 years and my job has really changed in this time. So, now I work under the department for adults and health. Right, so. So, I’m involved in financial teams, connections with different communities, trying to develop, for example, like old people’s homes, so Deaf access to old people’s homes, LGBT access in old people’s homes. Cos now old people’s lives are changing, because before it used to be really just, y’know, it was denied, and back then, y’know, LGBT things were illegal. But now, older people – it’s improved a lot. So, deaf older people, LGBT older people – not me personally, but other people will go in and give advice and help and work with those organisations and different meetings to improve – y’know, for example, Leeds Pride that happened recently, to try and improve that; different media communication, for example, things like that – that’s the kind of work I do. And it’s really interesting and it’s a challenge.
MM: It’s great that you get an opportunity to help the community and, y’know, with your expertise.
HB: Yeah, yeah exactly. Yeah, and like I try with old people’s homes, y’know they’re really strongly heteronormative. Y’know, there’s no posters about LGBTQ, nothing. And I think, ‘oh it’s such a shame because there are LGBTQ people that’ll move into an old people’s home, and they go in there and they don’t see anything, so I wanna improve that and give them opportunities. Y’know, if people have dementia, y’know they need to be in the right environment for them, that’s really important. Y’know, and I think that’s the future. Y’know, and at the moment the Council’s just been making cuts, cuts, cuts – well, nation-wide – and so, trying to make some positive change
MM: Great, yeah. Why does Howard think it’s important to share these kinds of stories that people can…
HB: So, personally, from my perspective, as a Deaf person my experience throughout my life as being both Deaf and LGBTQ, I’ve got a lot of experience and some people, y’know, they’re not aware and I think that’s really great that that information is going out there and being spread out, that those experiences of people, that they’ll think, ‘okay that’s a particular experience’, and they’ll see the positives and the negatives, they’ll see different perspectives and that will go out to different people and be, y’know, that information will be spread. And I think those stories, that people might look at and think, ‘oh that’s the same as me’, or they might think ‘I’ve got, I’ve got connections to that’, maybe different links to it, y’know, in the Deaf community, within the LGBT community. Y’know, people will say, ‘oh I’ve got the same experience’, or ‘I’ve got a different experience’ and y’know compare different experiences – it’s not all the same, y’know, it’s the really wide, different perspectives, personal feelings, emotions… Y’know, and your whole, your whole life, I think it’s really important to see those stories, I think that’s really fantastic, it’s really good to have that information out there.
MM: Great, thank you. One thing that I found interesting in what you said is that a lot of people have focused upon young people and y’know helping them, but what’s been really interesting in your story is that you’re helping older people as well, who might be people that have faced more oppressions, is there something – I know you’ve already talked about it a little bit, but is there something more to say about older people in society around these kind of issues?
HB: Well, yeah, it’s just that that was a different generation, and, y’know the different political environment, and different things were brought up, so y’know back then in, in their experiences of the 80s or the 70s, which was a really different experience to the 50s and the 60s, y’know, and they follow each other and, all the way through to now, when the experience is completely different – I’m not saying now is perfect and there’s no problems – I’m not saying that at all. There are still problems. But, there are organisations for support – back then, that generation, there was just nothing, no support, nothing, and that’s why I think it’s really important that we support, cos there was no support organisations, y’know, people having emotional problems would just keep it inside, keep it locked up, and they wouldn’t, wouldn’t share that information. Y’know, being LGBTQ was seen as being the wrong way to live, and it was a taboo back in that time. And now the taboo has lessened a lot, it is still there, it is still there but it’s a lot less. But back then those generations – and that’s why I think it’s really important to get that information and see why the information’s important as well – the access is important and the connection to different communities and support groups, y’know, and really improve my quality of life, whether I’m accepted or not accepted has changed; people’s views have changed, y’know – I haven’t changed, other people have changed; I’m okay. I’ve always felt positive about myself; I’m okay, but you should be okay with me, and if you’re not okay with it, that’s your problem, it’s not my problem; your problem – who’s the problem here, me or you? So, I try and really challenge. And I do think society has changed, slowly, slowly. And, y’know, not just in the UK, the whole world – there are still problems, but y’know it’s better than it was in the past.
MM: Great, thank you. I think there’s something quite interesting you said there about it – you not being the problem, but it being something external, and it seems that that might connect with a lot of things to do with about disability as well, in terms of it’s not that people are disabled, it’s the world that, society could make things easier. Is there something to say about those kind of connections?
HB: Yep, okay. So, when I grew up – I’ve been deaf my whole life, completely deaf. I was born hearing, but very quickly became deaf when I was a baby, so, really, my whole life I’ve been deaf. And I’ve experienced discrimination at that time, and y’know not because I was LGBTQ but because I was deaf, and from y’know society because I was deaf. And I really did struggle because back then sign language wasn’t allowed at school; you’re not allowed to do it. So, the whole classroom you had to learn through speech, the oral method, they called it.
And that links with history, back in 1880 there was the Milan Conference and they decided that signing was banned in deaf education. And they decided – and that was all to do with money and funding – and so it meant that all teachers taught by speaking. And that was a real problem, because really?! I’m profoundly deaf – they call me profoundly deaf, y’know, and my speech is not fluent because I can’t hear properly, I really struggle. I can understand maybe a little bit, but nine out of ten deaf people it’s not possible for them to hear any speech. You can’t pick it up, can’t form the words. So, I’m one of the one out of ten that was taught in that oral method, and there was this pressure: you must speak, you must hear, you must speak, but they didn’t teach it, it was all that you sort had to just take it in by listening and do the, to say these words. And the world just – that was their world, not my world. But my, in my Deaf world that isn’t natural, to be taught – to be taught to speak, so that’s why sign language, so sign language was completely banned.
And then when I was about nine or ten, I realised that I was different. I began to realise that there was speaking and there was sign language, and back then, y’know nine or ten, I was like, ‘what is this?!’ I knew I was different, but I didn’t know what. Y’know, really interesting. So, I’m struggling with that, and y’know even though I’m trying to speak orally, I don’t y’know – my voice, my voice isn’t very good and I’m really struggling. So then, when I was 21 it slowly, it carried on, all the way through, so in my experience all the way through being deaf and having to speak is that really being oppressed – really, really – ‘you must fit in the hearing world; you’re not deaf; you don’t talk to deaf people, don’t be involved in Deaf culture; you’re hearing; you must speak; pressure, pressure, pressure’. And so I’ve got a lot of experience of that in that situation. But we would secretly sign to each other, there’d be an underground signing of Deaf people, and so we’d sign to each other secretly, and that was just more natural, and it was fluent, and speech when you, when you speak you have to think and it’s hard – when you’re signing you don’t have to think, it just comes out and it flows naturally. And then, that feeling of being different suddenly was relief, cos y’know at school, being deaf, you could talk to different, different deaf people, we could, or we could have parties, or go to a friend’s house, or we’d meet up or whatever. And I remember, back at that time, there was no texting, y’know you had to organise to meet someone. So you’d have to, we’d meet up – I was brought up in Manchester and then when I moved, y’know I couldn’t text the friends I used to have, I’d have to meet up with them and I’d have to write letters. So, you’d write a letter then you’d wait, wait, wait, and then you’d get another one back and y’know that access just wasn’t there back then. So, my experience are those barriers I experienced – the information barriers, y’know, really struggling through.
MM: Okay, thank you.
HB: I think that’s it. So yeah, so sign language – so, I sign – as it spreads, and then, in the 70s because of technology, like video technology, y’know cameras and things like that, recording, the technical side of it changed and spread more. And then they did more research into linguistics and they started teaching sign language, teaching deaf people sign language more formally and it started developing more. So, sign language – link with LGBT – so, we have our own language called GSV, which is Gay Sign Variant, that’s what it’s called. So, it’s still sign language, but there’s different types of sign languages, and one of those types of sign languages is GSV. So, a hearing gay man might use Polari, for example, right? Back then it was kind of a secret language that people used, and GSV is kind of similar for sign language. So, y’know – and it’s never been linguistically researched, later on, so it’s like a secret language and it’s developed over time. Now it’s really gone away; a few people will meet up and y’know there’s a kind of flexibility with it, but back then it was really strong.
So, sign language – it’s more acceptable now. We’ve got interpreters everywhere, or videos, conferences will bring in interpreters, accessibility it better, and now you’ve got qualified interpreters. There’s only about 1,000 qualified interpreters around in the whole of the UK. So, if you have to book an interpreter now you really struggle, you’ve got to find someone to bring in. So, sometimes people will – if you’re lucky – you’ll get someone who’ll be able to come along and do it. But it is hard to book interpreters. So yeah, so access it better than it used to be.
MM: Great, thank you. Would it be possible to just see a couple of examples of GSV?
HB: Okay, yeah. Okay, let me think. Okay. So, BSL and GSV. BSL: ‘walk’ – that’s the BSL for ‘walk’. And GSV, it’s ‘walk’, like this. ‘Are you alright?’ in BSL is this, and in GSV it’s this. It’s a bit camp, y’know? ‘You alright’, a little bit camp. ‘Fantastic’ or ‘fabulous’ is like this in BSL, and it’s like this in GSV: ‘fabulous’. So that’s some of the differences. ‘Go away’ in BSL; ‘go away’ in GSV. It’s kind of a stronger wrist action. So those are some examples. But the facial expression and the lip movement and the body language, they’re all different as well. And the signing is also more closed, it’s not as big. In BSL it’s more open – for men, for men who’re signing, it’s more open kind of more strong, for example like this. But it’s camp and it’s smaller for GSV. So yeah, those are some of the differences. Y’know, it depends, some might sign more openly, but generally it’s more closed and BSL is more open. Those are some examples. But I mean there’s a lot more examples than that, but those are some, those are just some examples.
MM: That was really cool, thank you.
HB: Just gonna get some coffee [leaves frame for a moment].
MM: Okay there are two more questions. The first one is: I wonder did Section 28 play its role in your life experience?
HB: Okay, so that was the 80s, I think, about the 80s, late 80s maybe, something like that. And I remember when that happened y’know, but there wasn’t a lot of information for me back in that time, y’know; we didn’t have interpreters back in that time. I remember it, but I wasn’t quite sure what it meant because there wasn’t enough – but I knew there was this thing, Section 28, that it was linked to education, and y’know that was what was happening back then, but I missed, I kind’ve missed the point of it. Y’know, because – I knew some hearing people who could sign and I kind’ve picked up, but in the Deaf community, we just didn’t really know about it, and what it mean: ‘Section 28? What’s that? Oh, I dunno really’. Y’know, the access – we didn’t have access to that information back then, y’know, and then no interpreter to explain what it was.
But anyway, we went on this march in Leeds. I was involved in that, but I was trying to pick up information before I went on that march, because otherwise I was thinking, I don’t know if I’m wrong or right, what it means or any of that. So it was, you know, I think it’s really, really important to access the information so that I can understand what it’s about and then I can go and, then I can go and march and protest it. Cos I remember that at that time it was really limited information for me. Y’know, there was lots going on, there was this march, protests, but I didn’t understand it all – hearing people can pick it all up and know what’s going on’ Deaf people, y’know, it was a bit scary actually, y’know, I don’t know if this is right or wrong or what it’s about.
And it was the same with ACT UP, it’s about a similar time as well, because it was about y’know HIV and AIDS at that time. And, y’know, the campaigning and making sure there was more acceptance for people with HIV and AIDS, that there was campaigning, protests – but, I didn’t, it was the same, I didn’t understand that information, I didn’t get that. The Deaf community: ‘ACT UP? ACT UP, what does that mean? Like acting?’ ‘Like, no, no, no, it’s not about acting, it’s about politics, y’know, about HIV at that time’, and again we weren’t sure what was right and what was wrong, what was true and what was false. So, yeah, but at that time it became, we got more information later on.
Yes, yeah well. Now there are interpreters out there, organisations have different meetings or conferences, or workshops, or different things, different events, there’ll be an interpreter, they’ll bring an interpreter in. Or a website will have y’know contact details or information, so it’s better now, y’know you can just look on an iPad, apps, mobile phone, look for information ‘oh there’ easy, and if you don’t understand it you can ask an interpreter and they’ll help you out. And y’know and go through interpreters, cos basically there’s apps you can get interpreters on and you didn’t have any of that before, so it’s great cos you can rely on that. But often, now, because it’s hard to book an interpreter they’re kind of video interpreters can be really good cos you’ve got them on an app. So, you can contact a person through an app, through a video interpreter, you don’t have to have – you say, well what does this information mean? And get through it that way and there’ll be a video of them on the phone explaining it, so that’s fantastic, that technology. And that is why, y’know back then in the 70s and 80s – nothing like that. Can you imagine being deaf, those barriers. So, it’s a lot better now, and I know it’s not perfect, 100% definitely not, but it is better.
MM: Brilliant. Thank you. So the final question is something very open: is there anything that you felt you want to say that we haven’t talked about or anything like that?
HB: So, happening back in the 1980s, there was a big worldwide scare linked with AIDS. You know, at that time we used the word 'AIDS'. HIV – you didn't really have the information, it wasn't really talked about, but there was a big thing about AIDS and that was everywhere.
But the Deaf community had no information, we didn't know. You know, ‘AIDS - A.I.D.S. – is that something to do with a hearing aid? Or some sort of technical aid?’ People had got no idea, and how would, why would that be linked with health? We really struggled with that.
So, oh, I'd say... I'm trying to remember when, really ... mid '80s, I'd guess. I was trying to work out exactly what this thing was, and get the information. I went through hearing friends and hearing people, to find out more about it. And it was linked with acquiring an illness, you know, your immune system was compromised. A lot of gay men were dying at the time and, you know, it wasn't great. And the same was happening in the Deaf community. There were deaths but people didn't know what was going on, we had no access. And we needed to improve this, you know, and try and prevent it from happening. We needed the information.
I was involved in something called AIDS Ahead, and it was an organisation for Deaf people linked for health. And we were trying to improve the health and trying to support Deaf people who'd acquired HIV. But the word 'HIV', once we knew about that, you know, it was something that you had that wasn't necessarily what caused the illness, you know, something happened later and you could have medication – but we didn't have medication back then. It was the same with everybody, it wasn't just the Deaf gay community; the research wasn't there so it was a worldwide issue.
[I] thought, right, we need to do something, we need to campaign to deal on prevention. We talked about condoms, and so on and so forth. What was interesting was, I became a 'buddy' and I supported a Deaf person. And he went through a terrible experience. So, this Deaf person, he went to one of the sexual health clinics. Back then, it was a GUM [genito-urinary medicine]. They called it a GUM clinic. They call them sexual health clinics now. It was very different from then to now! Back then, well, can you imagine the taboos, society's views? So it was very difficult for him to go for his tests.
So he went, and he was tested, they did the blood test and everything. And then he had to go back again a couple of weeks later. And he went back for his results. Now, there were no interpreters, the doctor was trying to speak to him – can you imagine? Really Deaf, he didn't have any access to speech. He might have written down a little bit of information, I don't know. The doctor said to him, 'The results, well, you know. You are HIV positive'. HIV positive, there we go – ‘positive’. He thought to himself, 'Oh, positive! Oh, that's good, I'm alright then!' You know, he thought he was alright coz he was told everything was positive. So he went back home. He had no idea, you know, he was fine, he kind of got on with his life and forgot about it and you know. He knew he wasn't really well himself but he just didn't really know. It's an interesting word though, isn't it, the word 'positive'? Generally it's no thing, rather than saying you've got something, you have something, it was used in a funny context.
Anyway, the doctors were a bit concerned and needed him to come back and was waiting for him to come back. So he wrote a follow-up letter and said, you know, 'Please come back'. My friend got this and he was like, 'Oh, why would I need to go back? I've been told I'm alright.' He was really thrown. So he went back to hospital and said, 'Well, no, why do you need to see me?' And the doctor said, ‘Well...' He tried to explain again, and the doctor said, 'Well, this word doesn't really, isn't getting through'. Different try, so well, 'You've got it, I'll try and different way'.
Well, my friend panicked. It was the first time he'd been told this. He thought to himself this word 'positive' meant it was OK. You know, you've got it, you know, this is the sign everyone uses, you're positive as in, you've now got it, you've acquired it. And that's the sign that you use now, rather than this positive sign that means everything's fine. You know, 'I've got a new job, everything's positive!' But that's the right context. But, you know, 'You've got it'.
So that was a huge and shocking experience for him; he had real, no access to information at all. So I became a buddy and tried to support him. And I was struggling to get the right information to try and pass this information on to him as well. Really difficult.
Now, medication now. Unfortunately, he did die: 1991 he died, because the medication wasn't there to really, to match his needs. People who have HIV now, you know, the medication is much improved, you know, prevents any of the symptoms. But back then, nothing unfortunately was available. We've learnt a lot from then till now, in how to improve the health outcomes. But in the 1980s, that was some really bad experiences, really frightening. Somebody would die, you know, you'd be thinking, 'Well, who's next?' And the Deaf community is such a small community, particularly the gay community in the Deaf community, you know, people would go missing. It was a horrible time, horrible experience.