Life during COVID challenges LGBTQ deaf people

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday March 23, 2022
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Martin Greenberg talked about the impact of COVID on the Deaf community. Photo: Courtesy Blair Fell
Martin Greenberg talked about the impact of COVID on the Deaf community. Photo: Courtesy Blair Fell

Whether when he lived in San Francisco or after moving to New York City, Martin Greenberg could always rely on strangers he encountered on the street to help him navigate either city. As a deaf, legally blind gay man, he would carry a written out message asking people for help, for instance, crossing the street.

But when COVID-19 emerged in early 2020, and New York City went into lockdown, Greenberg found it near impossible to leave his East Village apartment. If he did, he would often be the only person out on the streets of Manhattan, with no one to provide him assistance. Those he did encounter didn't want to take his arm, preferring to remain socially distanced.

"I still go to the gym; I go to the YMCA. Before COVID, I was going all the time in New York, swimming and exercising. When COVID hit I was stuck; everything closed down. It was very frustrating," said Greenberg, 69, who grew up in the Bronx and moved to the Bay Area in the late 1970s. "I gained weight as I didn't have a lot of outdoor activities. I stayed home so much because of COVID."

Those first few months of the pandemic were a scary time, recalled Greenberg.

"It just changed everything in New York. It doesn't feel safe," he said.

Greenberg recently spoke to the Bay Area Reporter via video conferencing with his partner of 13 years, Erich Krengel, 60, who is also deaf, using Tactile American Sign Language (TASL) to facilitate the interview. Further translating the conversation was author Blair Fell, a gay man who is a sign language interpreter and has worked with Greenberg for several years.

Fell took inspiration from his work for his debut novel, "The Sign for Home," being released April 5. It features as main characters Arlo, a striking 23-year-old deaf and blind man, and his new reluctant TASL interpreter Cyril, an agnostic, gay man entering into middle age.

At the B.A.R.'s request Fell arranged for the paper to speak with Greenberg and Krengel about how their lives have been impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, now entering into a third year. While a student at Catholic University in Washington D.C., Fell learned sign language at Gallaudet University, the internationally renowned college for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

"I lived with deaf people and took classes with a deaf teacher," recalled Fell, 59, who formerly lived in Los Angeles and wrote for television and now resides in the Jackson Heights section of Queens, New York. "The book is dedicated to two teachers I had there, two deaf men."

Prior to COVID, when he would meet up with Greenberg, he could rely on the fact that when they parted ways, there would be someone to help Greenberg, such as by tapping him on the shoulder when his bus arrived to take him home. That went away in March 2020.

"With COVID, no one wants to touch anyone," noted Fell. "There really was no one on the street at the height of COVID. I would go on the subway at rush hour and I was the only person on the subway car. No one was out; the streets were empty."

It created a scary situation, noted Fell, for deafblind people like Greenberg.

"When you are deafblind it is really scary not to have anyone around if something happens," said Fell, adding that deafblind people can't use online platforms on their own. "Deafblind people can't use Zoom. They need someone for tactile ASL."

Greenberg told the B.A.R. he, to this day, isn't comfortable using Zoom.

"All those people on Zoom, it confuses me," he said.

Both he and Krengel also limit their time on the platform to an hour or less to not overtax their hands and arms while using TASL. Meeting people in person who were masked also was a challenge.

"I hated the mask; I can't read the lips. We would have to write back and forth," said Krengel. "I point to my ears, 'I am deaf. Can you lower your mask for me or something?' We did a lot of writing back and forth."

Greenberg has been spending most of the past two years in Hartford, Connecticut where Krengel lives and works full-time as a social worker for a state-run mental health program for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Prior to COVID, Greenberg would visit Krengel every two weeks.

At the start of the pandemic, the visits stretched into two to three weeks, with Greenberg eventually deciding to remain in Connecticut. They both tested positive for the antibodies for COVID so expect they caught the virus at some point but were never seriously ill.

"At the start of COVID in March 2020 I felt sick. It wasn't serious, thank god," recalled Greenberg.

For Krengel, the toughest aspect of life during the pandemic has been feeling more isolated from people.

"Having to write back and forth more, I felt a lack of socializing," he said. "I couldn't lip read people. I felt like I was stuck and more isolated."

Sign language interpreter and author Blair Fell. Photo: Courtesy Blair Fell  

Federal help to address needs
Some estimates peg the number of deaf LGBTQ Americans at 2.8 million people. In February, the Biden administration announced it was taking additional steps to address the needs of people with various disabilities and older adults recovering from COVID-19.

"The administration recognizes that the COVID-19 pandemic has had tremendous impacts on disabled individuals and has resulted in new members of the disability community," it acknowledged.

It committed to ensuring disabled individuals, regardless of where they live or the level of community transmission of the virus, have equitable access to COVID-19 testing, masks, and other critical mitigation strategies. One step it took was to launch via the Disability Information and Access Line (DIAL), at 1-888-677-1199, support for disabled individuals needing assistance in the use of at-home COVID tests distributed by the administration or support in finding alternatives to at-home testing.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released "How to Interpret Positive Self-Test Results" guidance in American Sign Language as a first step toward ensuring that deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals have access to key information about how to protect themselves and their communities. The federal government also pledged to work with state governments and community groups in distributing high-quality protective masks to homebound people with disabilities.

As COVID cases ebb across the country and more jurisdictions lift their masking mandates, Greenberg told the B.A.R. he remains hopeful that the worst of the pandemic has passed and the rhythms of life will return to what he was used to navigating.

"I hope it gets back to the old time and like normal. I am praying that happens," said Greenberg, adding he is looking forward to visiting the Bay Area again. "My heart is still there; I never stop being there in San Francisco."

There are various resources across the country for those in the deaf queer community. The Deaf Queer Resource Center, which maintains a Facebook page, created a directory of various organizations providing help that can be downloaded here.

The nonprofit, which lists its mailing address as being in San Francisco, asked the B.A.R. to send questions for this article by email but did not respond by the deadline to do so. It alerts people via an automated email reply "that at this time, due to the sheer volume of email we receive each day, it's not possible for us to immediately reply to messages sent to us."

Additional resources can be found here or on the website of the Florida-based Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf.

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