pride

What It's Like Living and Dancing in Australia if You're Gay, Asian and Deaf

Elvin Lam was born deaf. He learned to dance to vibrations, but he's still working to overcome the stigma of deafness as a gay man.
22 June 2020, 5:00amUpdated on 22 June 2020, 5:10am
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All images supplied by Elvin Lam

For much of the world, June traditionally means Pride Month, which traditionally means parades and parties. But as this year's parades and parties have been cancelled, we're taking Pride online. Over the next week, VICE is releasing a series of articles to celebrate the LGBTQ community, and champion the individuals and collectives who push for greater visibility and equality.

Elvin Lam is a 43-year-old Deaf dancer. He moved to Australia 21 years ago because he wanted to come out as gay, and he wanted to go to university, and both goals seemed impossible as a Deaf man in Hong Kong. So he came here and became who he wanted to be, which in a roundabout way led him to dancing.

Elvin, who lives in Melbourne, has now been dancing with a Deaf dance group for about a decade, which until recently performed all over Australia. It's difficult to believe Elvin might be Deaf when you see him dance. He moves flawlessly, confidently, and in a way that suggests he can hear music with more clarity and precision than most people. Watching him dance, it's almost impossible not to be struck by the question: how?

I met up with Elvin to talk about identity, music, and dancing, and more specifically to understand how he hears music through vibrations. He answered my questions though a sign language interpreter who sat by his side.

VICE: Hey, Elvin, let's start with your hearing. Were you born Deaf?
Elvin Lam: I was born profoundly deaf. For many Deaf people in Australia, their main language is Auslan (Australian Sign Language), but when I was a child, I grew up in the hearing world speaking and lip-reading in Cantonese as my family didn’t believe in sign. It was difficult for me to understand and communicate with teachers at school without access to sign language. So when I moved here I had to learn English, and at the same time I started learning Auslan, which is my main language now.

How did you become a dancer?
When I was a child my mum took me to a ballet show called The Nutcracker and I fell in love. I couldn’t hear the music, but I totally understood the story. It felt like a place I could participate in equally and from then on I really wanted to learn ballet. However, my mum didn’t believe that Deaf people could become dancers, so I gave it up until I moved to Australia, where some friends set up a Deaf dance group called the Delta Project in the mid-2000s. This was the first time that I had performed as a dancer and it proved to me that Deaf people can dance and do the same things that hearing people can. It not only gave me a sense of pride in myself but also helped me to become less depressed and anxious.

Can you describe to me how you hear music?
I enjoy music mostly through vibration. In my perspective, music is much more than just sound waves. For example, sometimes you can listen to a song and maybe you won't like it at first, but then after watching the music video your perception and understanding of the song completely changes, and you will love it. What I mean is that music involves more than one single sense, as it can be visual, vibrational, and emotional. Music is a feeling and if I feel, I can dance. In dance classes I also wear hearing aids, however, as it helps me to know when the music starts or stops.

In ballet and ballroom, dance movements must strictly match the timing of the music, so I usually follow the other students. [But] for hip-hop and contemporary dance there’s more freedom. The music can be very loud with strong vibrations, so I can feel it and my body can follow the rhythm. Also, the body movements are more natural if you don’t think too much and let it flow.

I'm curious how music feels when it's perceived through your body as a vibration. What does rap music feel like, for example?
For me, rap music feels like a heartbeat. Other times it even feels like an earthquake. The dancing can be quite wild and unrestrained, even explosive. The dancing helps me to understand the story, while the music has a sense of freedom, like there are no rules or expectations. I recently translated some songs into Auslan, and some of the lyrics went over my head. I sometimes struggle to understand the English that hearing people use, especially when it’s slang or idiomatic.

What style of music do you think has the most beautiful vibration?
I love classical music! I know that many Deaf people love rap because of the energy in the beat and vibrations, but I definitely prefer classical music. When I experience this genre, it gives me a feeling of calmness, like the wind and waves on the sea. I mostly experience classical music while watching ballet, so the dancing and the vibration of the music can make it feel very intense like a storm.

You left Hong Kong because you thought Australia might be a more accepting place to live. Has that been the case?
My life completely changed when I came out as gay because I met so many fantastic people and it opened my mind. That was when I realised that I couldn't be silent and hide anymore. I feel that the LGBTQ community is much better than it was 20 years ago, but we've still got a long way to achieve full equality.

As I’m Deaf and Asian, it’s always been difficult for me to get a date, because even inside the LGBTQ community there’s a lot of racism and a lack of information regarding the Deaf community. In the early 2000s, before the gay dating apps started coming out, it was impossible for me to meet someone at pubs or clubs, for example. And even nowadays, with all these dating apps available, it's still difficult as most of the gay guys generally prefer not to date an Asian Deaf guy. I am 43 years old now and it was only recently that I found my first hearing boyfriend.

In Deaf culture, we use a capital D when writing about ourselves. This is because being Deaf is not a disability. Many hearing people don’t know, but Deaf people have their own language and culture. It is part of who we are and it helps form our identity.

Interview by Felippe Canale. Follow him on Instagram.

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