It was not until I had embarked on my “coming out” as a deaf person that I considered my rites of passage and dwelled on my acts, both deliberate and unconscious, both past and present, of passing. Because my coming out was a midlife event, I had much to reflect back on and much to illuminate ahead of me. This passing through an identity crisis, and the rites of passage involved in uncovering the paths of my lifelong passing as “hearing,” took place in a hall of mirrors. Later I would come to know this place as the art and act of rhetoric.
I think I first saw myself mirrored in several students I met at Gallaudet University. I was thirty-two and finishing my Ph.D., writing a dissertation—that quintessential act of literate passing. What’s more, I was finishing it by doing an ethnographic sort of study on deaf student writers at Gallaudet University; thus, I was using the guise of an academic grant and a Ph.D.-producing project as a professional foil to make a personal journey to the center of Deaf culture.
I was always good at finding a way to pass into places I shouldn’t “normally” be.
So, there I was, doing time as a teacher and researcher at Gallaudet, collecting data for my study, taking a sign language class, living with a d/Deaf woman and faculty member at Gallaudet, going to Deaf gatherings, tutoring some of the students. Mostly, I was just trying to pass in ways that were both familiar and unfamiliar to me: to pass (unfamiliarly) as d/Deaf—and doing a lousy job of it—and to pass (more familiarly) as h/Hearing and thereby pass through this last of major academic hoops.
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