Queer and Deaf: Lynn Stewart-Taylor and David Ellington Chat Filmmaking in BSL

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Bristol-based filmmakers, performers and researchers Lynn Stewart-Taylor and David Ellington discuss LGBTQIA+ deaf perspectives in film. A delightful BSL chat about recent improvements in queer and trans deaf representation in the UK, ongoing exclusion and challenges, and what they hope the future will bring.

Audio version of intro:

Note: The following is a captioned and voiced-over video of a British Sign Language conversation between Lynn Stewart-Taylor and David Ellington. The conversation was live-interpreted into spoken English by several interpreters, and the captions follow the voiced interpretation. When the transcript reads ‘Interpreter asks interview question’, an interpreter has translated an emailed question into BSL, while also voicing the question in English.

A text transcript and relevant film links are below the video.


Lynn Stewart-Taylor and David Ellington bios (audio):

Lynn Stewart-Taylor and David Ellington bios (text).


Sandra Alland is guest editor at DAO from 25th March to 26th April. Check out all San’s commissioned pieces on their Project page.

Audio versions of all pieces can be found on San’s dedicated SoundCloud channel.


Film links from conversation:

Lynn Stewart-Taylor was a specialist researcher on the deaf- and trans-focused documentary ‘Being Marcus’, available to watch free on BSL Zone. In BSL with some English (captioned).

‘Almost’, a film in BSL about the chance encounter of two deaf women, is featured as part of Sandra Alland’s showcase on director Teresa Garratty. In BSL with some English (captioned).

An early BSL poem by David Ellington and Richard Carter, ‘Deaf Gay’, shows the two men exploring their connections and differences through poetry. In BSL (no captions).

‘Honeymoon’, a film in BSL and English about two deaf women on their honeymoon, was produced by David Ellington and features Lynn Stewart-Taylor. Watch the trailer for Ronit Meranda’s Honeymoon.


Transcript (edited for clarity):

Interpreter asks interview question:

Can each of you talk about your favourite LGBTQIA+ deaf film projects that either you’ve worked on or seen?

Interpreter as Lynn Stewart-Taylor:

I worked on a documentary linked to deaf transgender people. There’s nothing being produced about the process, and providing such people with role models. So I pitched something to BSL Zone, and over a year we followed a person’s journey through transitioning. There are still barriers over lack of information. I think that’s why it’s crucial to share that documentary (‘Being Marcus’). So that young people – and older people, because it does run across the age gamut – can have someone they feel is the same as them. And I really like that project. I mean, in terms of other deaf films about that issue, I think it’s very rare.

Interpreter as David Ellington:

It is rare. I mean, looking back to the ’90s, we’d be in hearing productions, with not so many deaf characters. But a real breakout series was Channel 4’s ‘Queer as Folk’. Thanks to Russell T Davies for writing that and coming up with the idea. It was just groundbreaking.

I remember at the time producing gay poetry with Richard Carter, and talking about the (in)equalities of me as a black man and him as a white man. And this construction of a sign of an open palm. Making the sign ‘gay’ between the two of us (his hand on top of mine). That poetry was really amazing. Back then we were making that kind of poetry.

Lynn:

A 10-minute short documentary coming out, again with BSL Zone, is ‘Being Marcus’. Because prior to this they’d not had any deaf LGBT+ films on their website. And there’s a deaf-directed film called ‘Almost’.

David:

Oh yeah, I know that one.

Lynn:

‘Almost’ is about two lesbians and their attraction for each other. And the same director, Teresa Garratty, has just pitched another film idea that is also an LGBT story. So now we’re in 2020, it’s a growth area.

David:

That seems really positive. Looking back, you might see one gay character, but it would be a straight actor portraying that role. And representation for LGBTQIA+ actors and performers and stories wasn’t really happening. And actually, you need that representation to get the feeling of the stories and the real feeling of those perspectives. We should have our stories represented. Because you don’t see gay actors playing straight characters either.

It’s great that that story has been pitched. I’m focusing on stories from my perspective as a (deaf) man, and even more particularly as a black man. I’ve been asking people about these experiences. People who were young in the ’70s. I want to find out from them what has evolved and how things changed to where we are now. Particularly for the Black community, the deaf, Black, gay community. How are things progressing? And some people still don’t feel ready. I only know one really. He’s in his fifties. From London. I know what he might say.

And just to encourage younger generations to be more forthcoming and forthright in sharing their truth and their stories. And it’s not just within Black communities, it’s also within Asian communities.

Lynn:

So at the moment, would you say there’s not really very much in terms of role-modeling for young people? It only seems to be a very recent thing. I mean, we go to festivals and you don’t really see that LGBT representation. I think that’s particularly problematic. I’m pleased that it’s something that’s started to grow, but we’re certainly not seeing enough.

David:

No, certainly. I agree.

Interview Question:

What are some of the barriers facing deaf queer filmmakers? Talk about whether each of you feels welcomed in mainstream hearing LGBTQIA+ communities and film festivals, and whether deaf communities and festivals are welcoming of LGBTQIA+ filmmakers.

David:

Well really, if I’m honest, in terms of LGBTQIA+ films and film festivals, I haven’t really been to many just because of the lack of access for me and meeting my access needs. I mean, there’s nothing for us by us, you know, telling our own stories. In terms of the mainstream, it’s great, but we don’t really see deaf, sign language-using, BSL-identifying people making these films. I’ve seen ‘Honeymoon’, the film you’re in Lynn. And who’s the girl? Lara? Yeah, that’s right. The story of the two of you. And that’s really lovely, but that was written and conceived by a straight director. But I mean, it’s a positive example. It’s a positive story in terms of what it does to try and encourage deaf filmmakers.

Lynn:

Yeah, you’re right. Our director (Ronit Meranda) came from a minority herself, so there were similar cultural understandings between the two of us of that difference. And I applaud her for bringing in those stories of deafness and being lesbian, I think it’s really important.

In Bristol I went to the M Shed, and it was the first time I’d seen a sign language interpreter there on the screen. I’ve seen lots of things on their screen. There’s lots of different communities that are represented within Bristol, but nothing at all of deaf people. Even with panel discussions, it’s lovely to see these panel discussions with people with different perspectives. But I’d never really felt that sameness from panellists before.

David:

Yeah. You need deaf people to be talking about these things, don’t you? I remember a long time ago here in Bristol, we had an LGBTQIA+ walking tour, a history tour. There were three of us who went on this, and I remember we had a sign language interpreter, just explaining what things were like at the time through the 1950s and ’60s around Bristol. And what’s changed in the city, which was fascinating. That’s something I’d really like to revisit. Cause I think there are still… it’s that provision of interpreters that’s the key stumbling block to that happening. So we need to source that funding and have these experiences that enable us to feel that pride.

Lynn:

Yeah. Through LGBT history month I’ve asked about why deaf people are not presented. And unfortunately these initiatives seem to be volunteer-led, charity-led, barebones budget. So, access needs like sign language interpreting can’t be found. If this could be more employment-based, if people could be paid to do these things, then I think it’s a lot easier to be able to source these. And if deaf people were employed in these roles, then there are schemes like Access to Work that mean we’ll be able to have sign language provision while we’re at work.

And I think we tend to put people in silos of, you know… we focus on the access needs of deaf people, and blind people, and people of different ethnic diversity. But actually we need to look at people in the round and more holistically.

David:

Yeah, I’d agree. And I think what we could do with is having our own forum and to be able to take ownership of these things. And there might be some opportunities there, I don’t know. I mean, it might be that, you know, why don’t we have a list of key LGBTQIA+ historians? Or maybe that could be something that spreads throughout the regions of the country.

Lynn:

Do you remember Brothers and Sisters Club? I mean, they’ve got a rich history. There’s a rich sense of story there. And I think that’s something that goes into the mainstream. And rather than keeping our stories to ourselves… other people just don’t know us. And I think it’s important that we’re recognisable in the mainstream, and that we’re part of that production. And we are keeping ourselves (apart), and we’re separated from the mainstream. We’re part of LGBT history, but we’re distant from it as well.

David:

It’s the language, isn’t it, Lynn? Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. I mean, looking to the States, do they have their own versions of this? Are they doing this over there?

Lynn:

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think they’re really doing it.

David:

There’s something I saw recently, coming up, for deaf gay people making short films. And I think there are instances of that. But in this country, I think something that’s man to man, you don’t really see it. It’s not something I see very much.

Interview Question:

Is there a strong queer deaf community in Bristol, and are there any exciting local film projects happening?

David:

Well, if I’m honest, I think there’s a strong… Well, now I don’t think so. I think it’s become more individualised. But in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s… Oh, even 10 years ago and 20 years ago, we had Deaf Fab. There was a vibrant sense of community. And again, I was part of the voluntary team that made that happen.

Lynn:

I mean, but what about films? What about deaf LGBT filming?

David:

No, no. We’re the only ones.

Lynn:

We’re the only two in Bristol, I think. We’re making other projects, but they’re not necessarily deaf LGBT films. There are only those three up to 2019. So, there was ‘Honeymoon’, the very first one in 2015, that (the two of us worked on). But yeah, the director was straight, and other actors were straight, but it was something that made it into the mainstream. But I think last year’s documentary ‘Being Marcus’ was really groundbreaking. Then, into this year, 2020, there’s a BSL Zone LGBT drama with two lesbian characters (‘Almost’). And there was a significant number of the production crew, First AD, script supervisor, who are lesbians. But only one of the actors is a lesbian. I’d like to see more representation. I think it’s a real weakness. There’s not a lot of us coming together to make projects.

David:

I mean, in Bristol, I think it’s even fewer compared to London. I think in London there’s a burgeoning scene.

Lynn:

Well, I mean, I can only think of two…

David:

Okay. All right. So, in terms of filmmakers then, there’s you, me, Teresa. Who else?

Lynn:

Oh, there’s Rosie Benn!

David:

Yeah, Rosie Benn! But she’s not doing much.

Lynn:

Yeah. It’s really rare to see. There might be more nationwide that we don’t know of, in terms of BSL-fluent filmmakers…

David:

So you’re talking about three women and one man!

Lynn:

Yeah! It’s usually men in the majority and women in the minority. So it’s a refreshing change to counter the balance a little bit!

David:

But yeah, we’re still not seeing enough in terms of LGBTQIA+ representation.

Interview Question:

Do you feel there is good representation of queer and trans deaf people onscreen in the UK or elsewhere?

David:

No, not really. I’d say it’s really scant representation. And I think it’s a lack of access, because these barriers are cumulative. In terms of Queer Vision in Bristol, that was captioned and it was great. I thought it was better than nothing, something to see. But in the following year that went, because there was again financial issues, again down to volunteers to run it. So these barriers are real.

Lynn:

In LGBT History Month, we finally got sign language interpreters. I went to see these events, and I’d asked them now that there were sign language interpreters, why this was the first time. And they were telling me that it was funding, it was all run by volunteers and it was charity-led. So they couldn’t pay for access to happen. And I think people need to be employed. Let’s employ deaf LGBT members of staff as part of the organisation, or as part of the event. Then they can get funding for sign language interpreters through Access to Work. And crucially, they know what the access need is, so they know how to make it accessible. And I think that’s the really challenging part.

David:

That is really challenging. I would say in terms of accessing the mainstream and LGBTQIA+ film festivals…

Lynn:

I think there’s one in London.

David:

That’s the biggest one, yeah. And that’s amazing, it’s quite impressive. But I think we need to see more of that. This is something we definitely need more of.

Lynn:

Yeah, we need more consistency. And I think we were the only two deaf people that went, weren’t we, David? So within these films they’re representing LGBT disabled people, so they’re being represented. But in terms of deaf people, there’s only that one bit of representation. And I think we need training, we need to raise awareness…

David:

Yeah, absolutely right, Lynn. I think we need to have our stories represented, because we’re there, but it’s… I think we’re at a double disadvantage and I think we need to have that equalised. We need better equity.

Interview Question:

What kind of stories do you both want to see more of in films, about your communities or backgrounds?

Lynn:

Ohhhhh… I’d love to see an LGBT murder film! It always seems to be very superficial these days, what we see. But I’d like to see deaf people being involved, with really strong characters. And you know, these are things that happen to deaf people. There are things that happen to LGBT people. Just to see these people in other films. And I hope going forward, that in casting that people aren’t looking for a deaf character.

David:

Yeah. Like tokenism, Lynn. Right?

Lynn:

Yeah, exactly. We need to change that. We really need just to have deaf people in a greater breadth and depth of films.

David:

I would really applaud Teresa Garratty for ‘Almost’. I mean, she’s showing there that these love stories are happening, and it’s really representative of the deaf community. I think that’s really great! Going forward…

I must tell you this funny story: I met a Spanish person and we got talking. And he inspired me to write a story, which was fun working in two different languages. I put it together and then it sat on the shelf for a while. Basically it was about somebody who’s really good at art and drawing, and they are in an art class and they got a text and they didn’t know who it was from. And then it follows their journey on a little while, and they suddenly realise that the person who’d sent the text was another member of the class. So, bit of a funny story, a bit of a script that I wrote.

Interview Question:

Is there anything else you want to talk about, or anything you think is important?

Lynn:

I think it’s important that we work together. There’s our deafness, there’s our LGBT skills, in any project. And it can be in any film, in any crew, in any productions behind the scenes, and whether (or not) we’re onscreen. I think also we need to think of the characters rather than thinking, ‘Oh let’s convolute a story and contort a story so that it’s got to be deaf-related.’ It’s important that there are deaf characters and role models onscreen, and behind the screen.

David:

Yeah, absolutely. And I think it’s time, you know, as British people, that we’re seeing deaf people in stories. Like we see in EastEnders and Hollyoaks.

Lynn:

Yeah, there’s something coming in EastEnders, isn’t there? We’ve got deaf characters! But deaf LGBT, yeah, we’re still not there. There’s still a chance we might be in those. We might see that happen.

David:

Yeah. I think it’d be really good. Like just to have that positive representation. And to counter those narratives that deaf people can’t do it. Because we can, deaf people can!

Lynn:

Absolutely, yeah. We all can, given the chance. And that’s it.

David:

Thank you!

[Captions by AB Silvera; transcript by AB Silvera with Sandra Alland.]