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Pride Month: Deaf and gay in 1940s Norway

deaf and gay role model
(The post is written by Rikke Werge Nilsen, employed by Sonova (Phonak) Norway.)

I’m lucky! I grew up in a family where love was love, where justice and pride in the family were stronger than the fear of others’ prejudices.

What does this have to do with hearing, you might be thinking? Well, absolutely nothing. In my world, orientation is the way you are born and a hearing loss is not something you have chosen. Nevertheless, I want to share with you the story of Ingvard, a man I grew up with. He was deaf and gay.

Before I begin, I must first explain why I choose to share this story. That everyone should be who you are is not only a value for me personally, but also a focus in Sonova, my employer. Diversity and acceptance is an important focus in the company. This is portrayed in three of our values: we care, we are responsible, and we build winning teams. By working together across ethnicity, religion, views, or orientation, we complement each other. That’s how we get the best team. It is good to know that one’s own values ​​corresponds to the company for whom they work.

War-Occupied Denmark in 1940

Back to my story about my deaf and gay cousin. We are going to Denmark around 1940. There was war. Denmark was occupied. There was no room to stand out. Hitler was clear: the Communists, gays, gypsies, the mentally disabled, and Jews had to be exterminated. Diversity was a threat to perfection. This was many years before homosexuality became legal.

My grandparents lived in a medium-sized town called Randers. It was a workers’ town characterized by factories. Both of my grandparents came from very difficult circumstances. My grandma grew up in a large group of siblings. Her mother died when she was only four years old. They had to get food from the poorhouse to survive. Grandpa also lost his father at a young age. As the son of the house, he had to take a job as a newsagent before the school day started.

Maybe it was the same hard upbringing that made them finally find each other and love. They created a home in a very small two-bedroom apartment that eventually housed four daughters and an infinite number of aquarium fish.

Deaf and Gay

It must have been visible to everyone in the neighborhood when Ingvard came to visit.

Ingvard as a young man, here next to his mother.

Ingvard was Grandma’s nephew. Since Grandma was the youngest of 13 siblings, they were the same age and had grown up together. However, Ingvard had chosen to go his own way. Early on, he displayed creativity and an interest in clothes. He was apprenticed to a textile manufacturer. There, he showed such talent that he eventually opened his own business in Odense, a larger city.

With his friendly nature, warm customer service, and strong fashion awareness, he achieved success. It was also clear to the wealthy men in Odense that there was no risk in sending the wives alone to Mr. Willumsen, as they almost got a new best friend from him in addition to a new coat!

But with Grandma and Grandpa in Randers, there were no wealthy men or women who wore beautiful coats. That’s why the talk was about Ingvard. Grandpa in particular was confronted with his “acquaintance” with the feminine and hard of hearing Mr. Willumsen. This is where I get proud. The uglier the comments, the more stubborn Grandpa became. From now on, all visits from Ingvard started with a trip to a local inn where he got a beer and a welcome home – right in front of the eyes of dock workers and colleagues from the workshop!

My mom and her sisters grew up with Ingvard as their favorite cousin. They looked forward to each visit as he often brought gifts, and many times, a dress. They were “his girls” and his pride. In return they were proud of him too.

Not Natural to Show His Love

I also grew up with “Cousin Ingvard,” who was a friendly and colorful family member who attended celebrations and family gatherings. Because he had severe hearing loss, I remember that the conversations around the table often became tiring for him. He often took a break from the noise in my room. There, I showed him my Barbie dolls, which we dressed with the new doll dresses that he brought for me.

That Ingvard had a husband as a partner was completely natural for me. Unfortunately I only remember having met him a few times. It tells me that despite the support and acceptance of the family for many years, it was still not natural for him to show his love for a man openly in the 1970s and ’80s. I also know that he experienced both assault and harassment.

A couple holding hands

We still hear stories of gay couples being harassed if they hold hands.

Read more: Watch: Deaf, out and proud with hearing loss

The War Ended, but the Struggle to be Oneself Continues

The story of Ingvard may be from over 40 years ago. But even today there are new stories about rainbow flags being stolen from flagpoles or about couples being harassed if they dare to hold hands in public.

We hear about both deaf and gay people who are met with prejudice and incomprehension. That is precisely why I still need to show my support in public.

Be yourself. Be proud. Happy Pride!

Author Details
The HearingLikeMe editorial team includes Jill Blocker von Bueren and Lisa Goldstein.