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Proudly representing two communities

Photo: Elliot didn't expect his deafness and transition to intersect

As a transgender man who’s moderately to severely deaf, Elliot has faced many challenges. But he’s proud to be the representation of diversity he didn’t have when he was younger.

Elliot (22) remembers the exact moment he became deaf. “I was three,” he recalls. “I was walking through a shopping centre with my dad when suddenly my hearing dropped. It was like being underwater – everything was muffled.”

Unsure what was happening, Elliot didn’t tell his family about his hearing loss at the time. He became such a good lip-reader that it wasn’t until he was five, when his teachers mentioned he was struggling in class, that his parents took him in for testing and he was identified as deaf.

Elliot received hearing aids a year later but had difficulty with them initially. “They were too loud, especially in the playground, and I was too scared to take them out by myself,” he says. “My parents said my whole personality changed. Instead of going out and playing, I would sit in the library. School could be quite isolating.”

Elliot soon stopped wearing his hearing aids and instead relied on his lip-reading skills and residual hearing. However, when he went to grammar school at 13, he struggled with concentration fatigue due to the increased workload. “My parents noticed I was coming home exhausted because I had to work so much harder to keep up,” he says. Because Elliot was older, he tried hearing aids again and this time had more success. “Getting hearing aids made a massive difference, and I couldn’t imagine life without them now,” he adds.

It wasn’t only in school that hearing aids made a difference. As a musician, who taught himself to play the piano when he was only 10, getting hearing aids was transformational. “Before I got hearing aids, I was uncertain of my music,” he says. “I love trying to work out how to play a tune by ear, but I often needed someone to tell me if I was getting it right, or I relied on vibrations and just hoped it sounded OK. When I got hearing aids, that changed drastically for me because I could hear myself singing. I could hear the echo and vibrato of my guitar – sounds that I’d never known existed before.”

However, Elliot’s hearing aids caused problems for him again only a few years later when, at 17, he started his gender transition. “I never expected my deafness and my transition to intersect,” he says. “The first thing I noticed was that I had to get used to hearing my voice all over again. Lower frequencies have more vibration, so when my voice was dropping, I could feel my voice resonating in my chest and through tables and the back of chairs.

“The second thing I noticed is that when I went on testosterone, my face kept changing shape, and my hearing aid moulds were no longer fitting my ears. They started to whistle because too much air was getting in. It was very uncomfortable and unpleasant.”

Elliot stopped wearing his hearing aids while he waited for an appointment to get new moulds. Unfortunately, the whistling got bad only a month before the pandemic hit and the UK went into lockdown. He was stuck living alone for weeks, unable to play and hear his music. It took nine months for Elliot to finally be able to get an appointment to get his hearing aids fixed.

“It would be good for audiologists to know that trans people might need to get their moulds refitted more regularly so they can be more accommodating,” Elliot says. “It would have helped me prepare better if I’d known ahead of time that that could happen.”

Elliot’s experience with his hearing aids while on testosterone is only one example of why more representation of diversity is needed within both the LGBTQ and Deaf communities. “LGBTQ Pride events could be more accessible,” Elliot notes. “For example, is the Pride parade route wheelchair friendly? Are there British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters booked? And the same goes for the deaf community. How do you say what your pronouns are or what your gender identity is in BSL?”

As a content creator for both the GAY TIMES and the Buzz, our [former] website for deaf young people, Elliot uses his experiences, and those of others, to bring awareness to issues affecting both trans and deaf people. Recently, he collaborated with a deaf friend to create a series of TikTok videos showing how to explain your gender identity in BSL. “Social media has been great in allowing people to interlink and share stories and experiences,” he says. “Representation is important because it makes people more aware or helps them feel less alone. When I was growing up, I didn’t see representation of myself – in trans-related stuff, in deaf-related stuff, let alone the two mixed together. I’m excited to keep being the representation I didn’t have when I was younger.”

Elliot has advice for other deaf young people who are struggling with their gender identity too. “The first thing is that there’s absolutely no rush to work it all out right now,” he says. “You can do as much exploration as you need, and you can change your mind at any time.

“The second thing is that if you’re going through a tough time right now, it will get easier with time. The LGBTQ community is ready to welcome you with open arms, and there are people who very much love and accept you for who you are.”

You can visit Mermaids and Stonewall for more support for LGBTQ children, young people and their families.