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Deaf, Gay and Angry


This is not the first time I heard of ignorant hearies who were too quick to think of our language as gang-related. I heard of some individuals who were shot just because they signed openly. I heard of some cops detaining deaf individuals because they flashed "gang signs" -- I once was approached by an officer with the Metropolitan Police Department at 7-11 store on Maryland Ave. and 8th Street NE, asking me if I was making a gang sign against him. I was offended, man. … You know, they can make a new poster with a new sign of "L" on their forehead — Virginia is for Losers. Yep, that'd be perfect one for this particular state.

The preceding post is an excerpt from Ricky Taylor's Web site,, which claims to be "Home to Arguably the Most Controversial Deaf Blogger in America." The post is a reaction to the recent controversy that erupted over the Virginia Tourism Corp.'s "Live Passionately" campaign, where some confused a woman's heart-shaped hand signal for a gang symbol. The state pulled the ads. But Taylor didn't pull his punches.

After all, I'm liberal who is all for gay marriage, pro-choice, anti-death penalty and an individual who thinks we should take the confederacy stuff to the attic, never to be seen again.

Four years and thousands of blogs later (and a move from New York to Hopewell), Taylor has become perhaps the most outspoken hearing-impaired blogger on the Internet. Oh, and he's gay. Gay and deaf, and plenty pissed-off.

"He is the Howard Stern of the deaf community," Tayler Mayer says in an e-mail. Mayer's Web site,, aggregates posts and videos from 400 deaf blogs. Last year his site named RidorLIVE the 2006 deaf blog of the year.

Taylor, 33, says he'd ideally like to find work as a columnist or pundit — the liberal Tucker Carlson, the deaf Dan Savage. Since launching his blog four years ago, he has inched steadily closer to that goal, but his notoriety really took off last fall. At Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. — the only liberal arts college for the deaf and hard-of-hearing and Taylor's beloved alma mater — massive student protests over a new president shut down the campus for weeks in October 2006. His blow-by-blow coverage made him a must-read for students and garnered national attention from NPR, PBS, The Washington Post and others.

Now he wants an even larger audience. To do that, he'll need to branch out beyond the deaf community. Potential deaf online readership is small. There is no definitive count of deaf Americans — the U.S. Census doesn't categorize deaf persons - and even the definition of "deaf" is a slippery slope. Does the person have to have total hearing loss, partial hearing loss but uses sign language, born deaf, deaf along with a disability, what counts? Drawing on data from the early '90s, the Project HOPE Center for Health Affairs estimates that half a million Americans have serious hearing loss and more than half of those are over the age of 65. A more recent study from Gallaudet estimates that fewer than one out of every thousand Americans becomes deaf before 18.

It's unlikely the growing ranks of hearing-impaired senior citizens will catapult Taylor to Howard Stern-like stardom. So he's branching out. He has a Web site, which is a good first step, since the Web is primarily a visual medium. But the question for Taylor remains: Will anybody who can hear, listen?

"I believe RidorLIVE has the most readers of all blogs in the deaf blogosphere," Mayer says. "He is loved and hated. He is read by both. Like Howard Stern, I presume most of his readers "hate" him. Even so, his readers that love him are more than what most blogs receive in total readership."

Taylor grew up using American Sign Language, which presents images and concepts but doesn't follow English grammar. English is Taylor's second language, so his writing can read a little ragged.

The blog gets its name, RidorLIVE, from a school project where Taylor had to make up a word using letters from each of his names. Ricky D. Taylor came up with Ridor and uses it as his handle online. In the banner across the top of the blog a picture of Taylor sits over his claim to being the nation's most controversial deaf blogger. A stocky 5 feet 4 inches, he has sandy hair and a round face, with a goatee. In the picture, he tilts his chin slightly upward and like a king surveys his realm, a fertile green valley with architectural monuments superimposed in the foreground — Seattle's Space Needle, the St. Louis Arch, the Washington Monument.

The blog tracks drama — political and personal — and often creates it. He has posted an open letter to an enemy implying that Taylor had an affair with his boyfriend. He can be catty: "David Gest is so dramatic. A tiger should bite him." Caustic: "You, little racist pig who attacked others for being different." He can also be insensitive and offensive, and at times, shockingly so. His take on a dust-up over a 9/11 memorial to New York firefighters and police officers:

Back to the FDNY & NYPD subject, they are crossing the fine line where they are now exploiting everyone for anything else. The loved ones and supporters of NYPD & FDNY recently asked the Port Authority to have the memorial designed *only* for NYPD & FDNY, separated from the rest who were waiting for these to do their jobs which they paid with their taxes.

Basically, what I am trying to say is that they are not heroes. They were paid to do what they were trained to do. Sometimes I want to mock the loved ones, imitating the mild retarded brother in the film ["What's Eating Gilbert Grape"] and scream at them: "DEAD DEAD DEAD DEAD THEY ARE DEAD DEAD DEAD!! Now get over with it."

For the blog, he gathers details on national news, celebrity scandals and all things deaf. Deaf sports, deaf theater, even deaf pornography. (He links to a promotional site where a woman with big hair and a hooded sweatshirt sits on a red vinyl couch and signs suggestively with long acrylic nails.)

Headquarters is the cozy den of his parent's home in Hopewell, where he now lives, doing contract work for a video phone service and looking for full-time employment. His parents and three of his five siblings are deaf, too. The place is outfitted with a doorbell that flashes lights. Two television sets sit side-by-side, broadcasting different channels with the captions so mom and dad can watch different programs. The housecat, Homegirl, doesn't meow, but makes guttural noises because, Taylor says, she knows they can't hear. The den also has a video-relay phone.

"[They're] booming," Taylor scratches on a notepad. "Even you'll see 99-years-old deaf woman using it."

A video-relay phone is a camera mounted on a television set that feeds to an interpreter service. Taylor can dial into a toll-free number and an interpreter with a headset appears on the screen and watches him sign. She'll place the call and speak his message to the hearing person on the other end, relaying back their responses. All these tools have helped tremendously in recent years to facilitate deaf communication. If world domination is Taylor's goal, he'll need to use them all. And he does.

One of his blog's most important missions, and perhaps hardest to swallow for non-deaf readers, are his detailed reports of deaf injustices typically at the hands of "hearies." He writes:

So, folks, yes, we can't live without hearing people, of course. But can we trust them completely? No, no, not at all. It does not mean that I hate hearing people — not at all, dear, I reserve the right to be cautious and wary of them!

Oh, I'm not supposed to stereotype them all. Boo fucking hoo! They labeled us and I'm not allowed to do the same? Please. They are there to take advantage of us one way or other. So even if you're dating, marrying or working with hearing individuals — just be wary of them. For they can whisper things behind your back without your knowledge, dear.

A hearie is someone who can hear and is condescending — or worse — because of it. An "evil hearie" locks her deaf child away and siphons off the government check. "Cruel hearies" pass Taylor a note in a bar asking if someone can contract deafness by sleeping with him. A hearie is not privy to the elegance of sign language and instead barks like a dog and brays like a mule.

He reserves some of his most potent anti-hearie venom for cops. Taylor was sitting home in the den one afternoon earlier this summer when he got an urgent text message from a friend. She was about to be arrested and needed help.

Her problem started with a young man in a "fake Rolex" perched on the hood of her car. The spot was along the route for Baltimore's Gay Pride Parade and good parking was hard to find. He was trying to reserve the spot she was pulling into for another friend.

Neither budged.

She had tried to dislodge him by tapping the gas, quickly transforming him from an unwelcome hood ornament into a very pissed individual who contacted the police. When the officer arrived, she refused to show her license and registration. She is deaf and wanted a translator.

There's some marginal behavior in all corners here, but what Taylor did next is remarkable. When he got the message, Taylor swiveled his armchair from the computer to face the television. He turned on the video-relay phone and told the interpreter to dial the Baltimore Police Department and asked to speak with a supervisor.

"By not providing an interpreter upon the request, you're violating the federal law," he informed the supervisor. As a rule, interpreters do not apologize or paraphrase or alter the tone of the message in any way, so it was with great emphasis on behalf of the police spokesman that she signed back.

"You stop cussing at me!"

Turns out the interpreter had misread one of Taylor's signs. The sign for "violating" uses a V, but she confused it with the sign for fornicating, which is two Vs on top of each other, like two pairs of legs.

The officer regained his composure and said that he was sorry but with no interpreters in the area, a pad and paper would have to do. Taylor insisted and eventually they found one. Curiously enough, it was because of the incident's proximity to a gay event that it was so easy to scare up a volunteer translator. Taylor says among those who choose to learn ASL, gay men are overrepresented.

"Because it's flamboyant," he says.

Someone without the ability to hear, of course, relies on facial expressions, physical gestures, body movements to readily communicate. It's something that hearies take for granted, Taylor says, unless they're overcome by emotion. Taylor has a photo album in his room where he stocks images from newspapers and magazines that he finds particularly striking. Taylor has pictures of young children reacting to seeing the corpses of people killed in Bosnia, crowds enraptured at rock shows, Bill and Hillary in a frozen peal of laughter, mourners for Princess Diana.

"Arabs are expressive," Taylor says.

On the wall by his bed is one of his favorite pictures. A soccer player squats apart from the team, his arms between his knees, hands gripping his cleats. He sucks his lower lip over his teeth and juts out his jaw taught in exhaustion.

"U.Va. soccer lost to UCLA in the Championship Game," Taylor says. "You can see U.Va. player being anguished. I imagine this fella' as me while the rest behind him is hearing world gloating at me. It motivates me to kick ass."

In part Taylor learned to kick ass from comic books. Villains especially. When Taylor was younger he read comics nonstop. They were image-heavy and fit with the visual way he communicated using sign.

"I enjoyed reading the conflicts — where bad villains would say the darndest words that I always wanted to say. So it is easy for me to manipulate these words to my advantages,"” Taylor says.

Comic books also helped him with something he didn't have words for. When he was 5 years old, he told his grandmother that he wanted to marry Superman. She said, "No, you can't!" and told him he had to marry Wonder Woman. He gave her a dirty look and said he wanted Superman. She grabbed his shoulder and said, "You can't! Not right!"

"That's when I knew I was different," Taylor says.

That's also right around the time when he went away to study at the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind, a residential school in Staunton. He compares his memories of driving up to the Main Hall for the first time with a scene from "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." He saw the stately building for the first time, enchanted, then tumbled in and began learning how to cast spells with his fingers.

His great-great-grandfather started attending there in 1844, five years after it was founded. His father was on the undefeated football team in 1955. Six generations of Taylors have gone there, and that point is crucial.

Unlike Taylor, Jack Johnson is the only deaf member of his family. Now he's the principal of the deaf department of the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind.

"Growing up, I looked like my mom and all that, but I felt like I didn't belong," Johnson says. "Ninety percent of deaf children are born into families that have no experience with deafness." He says the 10 percent who are born into deaf families are "like royalty."

Perhaps that's part of what fuels Taylor's mission. The overwhelming majority of deaf people are truly alone, born into families as disconnected outcasts. Taylor's not just defending his identity, it's his rare heritage.

When the blog's not snarky, it's powerful and perhaps never more so than last October, when student demonstrations shut down Gallaudet University for a month. Taylor's blog was a major source of news for the residents of the tent city — angry deaf students living on the school's main lawn during that time.

Some history: In 1988, the university's board of trustees needed to appoint a replacement for the outgoing president and selected, as it always had in the past, a person who could hear. The students protested for a week straight, demanding the school hire a deaf president, and with the appointment of I. King Jordan, they won.

To many, Gallaudet had become the capital of deaf culture, and to Taylor, that meant it was becoming too inclusive, taking kids who were deaf but not necessarily "college material."

A battle ensued over the direction of the university, not to mention a long-running debate over competing communication philosophies — is it better to use pure sign language or combination of lip reading and speech?

Proponents of the oral method teach children to read lips and respond using their voice. They argue it's easier to communicate with the wider world if you are not limited to communicating only with other signers. American Sign Language supporters argue that signing is the key to their identity and intimacy as a group. They say it's more reliable too. What happens if you're in a large group, or your professor has an accent? Better to get fluent in ASL and trust your team.

The candidate emerging as a front-runner to replace Jordan, Jane K. Fernandes, grew up in the oral,lip-reading tradition and started learning to sign when she was 23. Taylor and others criticized her for not being able to sign well, an accusation that got reported as her "not being deaf enough" in the broader media.

"She says people said she's not deaf enough, not true," Taylor says. "She's not a good leader."

On May 1, 2006, the board announced that Fernandes would succeed King. The students protested. When classes resumed in the fall, they pitched tents on the lawn. A handful of students went on a hunger strike. They parked cars in front of the gates so people couldn't get in and out. Taylor was interviewed on NPR and got mentioned on PBS. One student went on "Free Speech," Katie Couric's now-defunct open-mic minute on the CBS evening news broadcast.

The country took notice of the students, and the students took notice of Taylor. He set up shop in D.C. for the month and live-blogged the protest, announcing when deaf associations in other cities had pitched camp in solidarity, posting open letters of support, listing contact information for board members and deaf leaders.

On Oct. 13, which students now refer to as Black Friday, the administration ordered the campus police to arrest more than 130 Gallaudet students and alums, and hand them over to the D.C. police department. Taylor was not among them; he'd spent the night at a friend's apartment.

"I was too gay to sleep in a tent, I just am," Taylor says.

When an officer arrests a deaf person, it's illegal to cuff their hands behind their back — they can't communicate. So the deaf arrestees, hands bound in front, texted and paged Taylor the names of those getting hauled off to jail, and he posted them all on his blog. The page got 60,000 hits in two hours, and then crashed.

Two weeks later the board terminated Fernandes.

One night this summer, Taylor enjoys cocktails at Z2, a gay bar on Broad Street. He and his childhood friend Darrell Avery, also deaf, take turns on the UbiDuo, a set of shrunken laptops that send instant messages back and forth. They take turns telling stories about their exploits at school, cackling about the cruel tricks they played on the blind kids and imitating one removing his glass eye.

Taylor is angry because NBC has announced that in its new drama "Bionic Woman," a deaf character will be played by a hearing actress.

"You do not cast white guy and paint his face black," Taylor protests.

Ryan Scarola is there, too; he's a hearing friend of Taylor's family who learned sign language after meeting Taylor at a bar. Eventually, he'd like to quit his graphic- design job and start interpreting full time, but for now he's still learning and stresses that he's unlicensed — just practicing.

A man comes over and asks Scarola if Avery dances. Scarola turns to Avery and tells him the man is asking him to dance.

"I do dance," Scarola interprets for Avery. "Just let me have a few drinks. I can feel the vibrations from the music on the floor."

It's a little early still, and the twinkling bar is yet to fill up with revelers and cigarette smoke. Too clean for Taylor.

"I miss New York's gay bars," Taylor types out on the UbiDuo. "They have porn TV on and sleazy stuff that you don't see in Richmond." The sign for "sleazy" is a palm down with wiggly fingers under the chin. Dirty, sleazy, liar, they're all in the same family of under-the-chin signs. Politically minded deaf signers will make a letter C and run it under their chin to refer to Bill Clinton.

Which brings the conversation around to Sen. Hillary Clinton. Scarola is an active Hillary supporter; his text messages sign off with Hillary 2008. But Taylor's not buying it. Sen. Clinton is onboard with an organization for the deaf that Taylor despises: the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which Taylor derisively refers to as AGBAD. The group supports mainstreaming lip reading and speech for deaf kids and getting them into mainstream classroom and social activities.

Hillary might be next on his hit list.

In a few years, Taylor hopes his blog becomes an influence in national politics and presidential campaigns (unlikely, of course, considering his post-9/11 the-cops-and-firefighters-aren't-heroes blast). Perhaps the National Association of the Deaf will become as politically muscular as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Reporters would regularly funnel questions through a translator when athletes pen multimillion-dollar contracts. Oscar-winning actresses would give makeup tips on the red carpet in sign language. National notoriety for Taylor might not yet be at hand, but until then, he'll take one recruit at a time.

Sitting in the Willow Lawn food court with his family recently, Taylor gets a news flash over his shoulder. His sister, Hedy, has a new baby who just got her hearing test back. She's deaf, too.

"Deaf, yay!" says Taylor.

Would he have been disappointed otherwise?

"Hearing," he shrugs, "it's a fact of life." S

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