Former International Mr. Leather Jeffrey Payne shines light on the challenges faced by the hearing impaired in the gay community
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor email@example.com
When Jeffrey Payne stood on the dais as a contestant at International Mr. Leather in Chicago last year, he was the last person in the room to know he’d won. The sign language interpreter had his back to the contestants, and Payne, who is hearing impaired, couldn’t hear them call the winner. Then, after nothing happened, he looked over. “One-one” the interpreter signed, which was Payne’s contestant number. “Texas.”
The experience brought into sharp focus an issue that has cast a shadow over Payne’s entire life, but only hit home recently. Both Payne’s father and brother suffer from a condition that causes deafness, “where the nerve going from your ear to your brain is dying and eventually just dies out,” he explains. Even though the condition is genetic, Payne thought — hoped — he had been spared.
“Adult-onset hearing loss is not rare, but usually this kind affects you earlier in life,” he says.
The only way to test for it is when it happens. Both his father and brother started losing their hearing at young ages, so when Payne turned 30, he felt he was past it. By 35 he was complacent.
Then at 40, his partner David told him to get tested. “Something is wrong with you,” Payne recalls him saying.
By the time he had the checkup, Payne had lost 50 percent of his hearing. Today, just two years later, he has lost 85 percent. Doctors tell him he’ll likely be completely deaf by Christmas.
“First it was volume,” he says of the progressive loss. “The part of my hearing I’m starting to lose now is the sounds — the s sounds like th. The clearest way to explain it is like a road that has these potholes and the sounds fall into it.”
But Payne is not wallowing in self pity. Instead, he’s turning his disability into a crusade to help other deaf members of the LGBT community.
Last year, around the same time he won IML, Payne established the Sharon St. Cyr Fund, named after his mother, who passed away when he was 3.
The mission of the fund is two-fold. One goal is to provide funding to individuals in the community who need to purchase hearing aids and cannot afford them; second is to encourage American Sign Language interpreters at more events.
The project is especially important as studies have indicated that a greater than expected proportion of deaf people are gay.
“I’ve read those studies and heard that in passing and find it very interesting, but have no explanation for it,” Payne says. Still, he looked in the gay community to see what resources there were. For the hearing impaired. He found little.
“I did not see anything out there helping our community with the purchase of hearing aids, and 90 percent of insurance does not cover them,” he says. Unlike vision and dental insurance, no supplemental policies for hearing loss are even offered. That can lead to fear and expense at the same time.
“They can cost $2– to $6,000, depending on your loss,” Payne says. “Most of us don’t have 4, 5, 6,000 dollars lying around. And studies prove you can prolong the length of time you can hear when you wear hearing aids. If we get them on people sooner rather than later, it makes a difference.”
The lack of ASL interpreters also can lead to a sense of isolation in the deaf community. That’s something Payne became acutely aware of in his travels as reigning IML.
“As I went around last year I said, ‘Wow, I don’t know what’s going on and being said’ and there was no sign interpreter,” he says. Although IML has had one for years, he spoke to producers and managers at other events where there weren’t interpreters; most welcomed the idea. Not all, though.
“I’ve had organizations say, ‘We don’t have anyone come who’s deaf, so why have an interpreter?’” he says. He explains that the lack of an interpreter may be why they don’t come.
The deaf community is literally a “silent minority.” Many things hearing people take for granted become issues, which Payne has realized even more in the last two years as his hearing has waned. It is often not as obvious someone is hearing impaired as it is when they are, say, blind or paralyzed. They might suffer at work because they can’t hear at staff meetings or misinterpret things said to them. And many people engage in behavior that is disadvantageous to the hearing impaired without thinking about it.
“Receptionists have a habit of not looking at people — anyone who turns their back on me I can’t hear,” he says. He has been a lip reader for years, even before the onset of deafness. But even that didn’t help much in foreign countries: “I learned that [while traveling with IML]! Lip reading went to hell in a hand basket very quickly,” he laughs.
That’s where ASL comes in handy, though Payne himself still works on it.
“I’m much better at receiving and a little slower returning it. It is a different language. A lot is inferred as part of our facial expression. You can give a sign very sarcastically without ever uttering a word. But the older I get, the slower my brain gets,” he says.
The condition isn’t all bad. Payne is able to “turn off” sound, which he would often do when judging a leather contest this past year to minimize distractions.
“And I like when I can go to the bedroom and just lay down the with dogs. When I take out my hearing aids it is very peaceful. I don’t hear the traffic or the TV on the other room. It is good when I can have that moment of quiet — every so often we all need that. Those moments are nice. But the negatives outweigh the positives.”
Which is why he wants to make a difference — and feels he already has.
“I receive tons of e-mails from people who say we are helping who say, ‘I never knew I could hear the traffic two streets over.’ That’s what really moved me.”
“It’s going to be work,” he says. “Our goal is, within five years, that every event within the GLBT community has sign interpreters that they can fund themselves and we are able to help fund for them. Speaking about hearing aids, I believe that is an ongoing issue as our community gets older. We do partial funding on some, full on others. It’s based on financial need.”
And not just in Dallas.
“We are a nationwide organization with contributions coming from all over. Even funding from Canada — though Canada health care provides coverage. Hopefully we’ll be able to help anyone. But right now, funding is limited.“
To that end, Payne is hoping to get a big grant from the Pepsi Co. The SSC Fund is in the running for “Pepsi Refresh Project” monies, given to charitable organizations every month who get online voting support. If the SSC Fund can make it into the top 10, it will get $50,000; it’s currently 66th.
“I see major cities have applied for this grant and we’re still ahead as a community. That’s very satisfying,” he says. “But to be completely satisfied, I’d like to be in the top 10!”
To vote for SSC Fund for the Pepsi grant, visit RefreshEverything.com/SSCFund. To learn more about the organization, visit SSCFund.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 16, 2010.