Meet the man who nails drag for deaf gays

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Maybe you recognize David Cowan, with his distinctive beard and shaved head, from his perch on stage at Atlanta Pride smiling and gyrating as he interprets drag numbers and so much more for deaf audience members. Or from his ice dancing with the boys and bears.

Or maybe not. Like most people in the crowd at Pride events, you're focused on the performers. But as a deaf interpreter, Cowan takes center stage for gay Atlantans who are deaf and hard of hearing by bridging both the hearing and deaf cultures as he translates drag, songs, speeches and more into American Sign Language.

How that all happens is a mix of preparation, hard work and a team of people helping Cowan. He talks with us about being a deaf interpreter, working drag shows and how context matters.

Is translator or interpreter the preferred title for your line of work?

Deaf interpreter is the more appropriate terminology to define my work.

As a deaf interpreter, your work helps the hearing impaired enjoy events such as Atlanta Pride. Why did you become involved in this work?

Yes, my work as a deaf interpreter helps deaf and hard of hearing people enjoy the events and shows at Pride. The terminology "hearing impaired" is not a politically correct term nowadays and can be considered offensive and demeaning.

I started trainings in learning how to work with deaf and blind people as a deaf interpreter when I was a college student at Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts college for the deaf in the world, in Washington, D.C.

Do you remember your first time?

I remember standing on the stage and my mind went blank. I could not focus on the interpreting. I realized that I needed to work on my fears being on the stage and that it was important to overcome my fears so that way I can do a better job as a Deaf Interpreter.

Drag shows in particular, where the vocabulary and language changes so fast and sometimes includes made-up words, seem difficult to interpret. Is that your experience?

ASL is not like the English language and the interpretation process is not word for word. ASL is a visual language and you focus on the context of the message. For example, if a hearing person is saying "first base, second base, third base . . . homerun," it's not about a baseball game. It's about kissing, touching, taking off clothes, then getting laid. It's important for me as an interpreter to know both hearing culture and deaf culture. It allows me to be able to explain the real meaning of the messages itself.

You are deaf yourself so how does that work?

People tend to get confused as to how can I interpret when I'm profoundly deaf. I have a team of interpreters who can hear who sit in front of me. They listen to the songs and feed me the message. I watch them and translate into ASL.

But also, when an interpreter stands on the stage it's hard to hear the words and messages because the speakers are facing toward the audience and sometimes the music is so loud that the lyrics are hard to understand. That's why there's a team of interpreters to help each other and feed each other to ensure successful delivery of the message to the deaf audience.

Is there any change in interpreting say when someone is speaking versus when someone is singing?

There is a difference between speaking and singing in ASL; my body posture changes. When a speaker is singing, I tend to move my body to express the song. When someone is speaking, I just stand in one position.

Is this something you have to practice?

If the performer provides the lyrics of the songs, it is a huge help for the team of interpreters to read through and try to figure out the meaning of the songs. It is a lot of work to read the lyrics and figure how to translate into ASL. We as the interpreters do not just show up and sign what we hear. We spend a lot of time reading through the materials and do the translation work ahead of time. Since English is a spoken and written language and ASL is a visual language, there’s a big difference.

Do you have mentors or people you look up to?

I've been a resident of Atlanta for 16 years. I've worked with many interpreters – good and bad. I learned that it's extremely important to have the right attitude and to be compassionate, ethical and understanding. Two people that I look up to are Nancy Holdren and Jessie Romer. They are a couple and both are professional interpreters. They have taught me how to become the best interpreter I can be, to better advocate and to be a good person. They have taught me that it's not about the interpreter's needs but rather it's about what deaf people need from interpreters. Nancy Holdren and Jessie Romer are very well respected in the deaf community and I'm very proud to have both of them on my team – and as my family members.

Finally, do you have any Pride or other favorite event memories that stand out in your work as a deaf interpreter?

My memories with Atlanta Pride are its committee members. They made me feel welcomed. They know who I am. They know what I do every year at Atlanta Pride events and I’m so honored that they recognize my work as a deaf interpreter.  When I arrive at the event, the committee members came up to me and gave me hugs and thumbs up.  Those are great memories for me.

I don't have any specific favorite Atlanta event. My favorite thing is to see the deaf audiences enjoy the event by watching and laughing. It warms my heart to see equal access communication that bridges the hearing English spoken language with deaf and hard of hearing ASL users.


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