Tuesday, September 14, 2010


deb was a regular at max's place from the first day i volunteered as a college student at western. she had down syndrome.  she was african-american.  she was overweight.  she was a lesbian.  she had more personality than most rooms full of people.

she had no eye-brows or eye-lashes, but had a puff of a soft afro on her round head.  i always thought she looked like a turtle a little bit.  what i loved most about her was her voice.  she spoke in a deep raspy, sassy growl.  her laugh was throaty- like something you'd expect from a blues singer who smoked filterless cigarettes.  she could talk some serious shit too.

part of the beauty of max's place- a rec center in bellingham for folks with developmental disabilities- was that it was my job to hang out with the members.  i'd sit and chat with deb.  she wasn't much for doing crafts or playing games.  but she was a great story teller.  the way she'd crack herself up, throw her head back and laugh- it's the stuff.

what i gathered from her about her life was hard to hear.  she was put up for adoption at birth but spent her life being moved from foster care to group homes.  she told me about the time she locked a staff person at a group home in the closet.  she told me about the time she ran away from home- just walked onto a train- because she was tired of putting up with the family who wasn't doing such a good job of taking care of her.    

deb was a person to me- with a rich history and a warm heart- and not just a mix of interesting minority labels, but i know for some people it was a challenge not to be shocked by deb and her life.  especially her choice of rental movies which she wasn't shy about sharing either.  

deb looked cute from a distance and if you buy into the stereotype of people with down syndrome, i'm sure she seemed harmless, charming even.  most of our volunteers were young, white girls who went to schools with special rooms where all the labeled-kids were kept away from the other folks- thankfully this practice has changed a bit.  they were nervous being at the center.  no doubt they'd already been approached by the most bold of the bunch and felt uncomfortable having so much attention.  they were looking for a safe place to be, so they'd sit down and try to talk to deb.  she would just shine them on like she didn't care a lick for anything they had to say or offer.  she'd grunt when they tried to talk to her.  she'd roll her eyes.  sometimes she'd just get up and walk away.

to me, the point of having volunteers come to the center was about having them experience a person as a person- and not as a label.  this is important for all of us as humans sharing a planet- and especially so for someone wanting to become a special education teacher, which was the plan for most of our volunteers.  and i figured that the first step to changing how society treats a group of people is to change how one person treats another person.  i'd head over to deb's table at some point and get deb chatting about whatever was going on in the world or in her life.  usually her weekend involved spending time with her girlfriend which deb referred to as "my sugah."  at first the volunteers thought she meant her girlfriend, like a friend who is a girl.  but through the course of the conversation it would become very clear that this was deb's partner.  as the light turned on- oh wait!  people with developmental disabilities have relationships!?  have sex?!  are lesbians?!!- you could sometimes see people squirm with their own discomfort.  they'd look at me for confirmation or salvation.  like i'd just smile, shake my head and say "oh no, deb's not gay- she's just playing with you. everyone here is happily celibate!"

sexuality is a tough topic.  sexuality of people with developmental disabilities- yeah, that's even more complicated.

deb was gay and she didn't hide this essential part of her life from people.  by all accounts it would make sense to expect deb, perhaps one of the most vulnerable people in our society in some ways- dependent on social services and care-givers to help her survive, to be the one person who would try to conform a bit.   some will say that deb didn't know social norms enough to be expected to follow them.  like the social norm that you don't talk to strangers about your personal love life if you are gay.

i say that deb's knowledge of who she was overrode her feelings of obligation to the comfort of someone else.  for that, she inspired me.  she still does.  she knew that parts of life might make others squirm, but that wasn't enough of a reason to ignore her love, her sugah, who she just bought a soda for from the vending machine in the corner.   if it made them squirm, so what?

squirming with our own prejudice is a point we all have to get to in order to get past it and to see each other as fellow humans and more.  like my tea bag once said, "if you cannot see god in all, you cannot see god at all."

we are all divine.  act accordingly.

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