David Cowan’s expressive style of signing frequently captures the public’s attention—most recently when he was interpreting onstage at Governor Brian Kemp’s coronavirus press conferences. With the help of a translator, we spoke with Cowan via video chat.
First, I want to make it clear that I’m not David Letterman. And that David Letterman is not doing sign language about the coronavirus. People think that’s him up there. He’s stealing my spotlight. That’s been a misunderstanding.
I was born with what you call a “double whammy”: I’m deaf and gay. I tend to not really dwell on being deaf. It’s just who I am. It never really occurred to me that I was different. I learned American Sign Language, or ASL, when I was a student at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. It’s the only liberal arts college specifically for deaf people in the world. Growing up, I was always fascinated by languages. I know a few other foreign languages, like Spanish. I’m somewhat of a linguist. The role of interpreter not only requires translating but also considering how people will understand what you’re saying to them. I have been an interpreter for 36 years, since 1984.
My video at last year’s Atlanta Pride, where I signed and danced to Beyoncé, started the first storm of attention on social media. Now, people are associating me with the coronavirus press conferences. Governor Brian Kemp is a Republican, and people at Pride lean [the other] way, so it tends to cause some discussion. To me, it doesn’t matter—Democrat or Republican, gay or straight. I’m there to provide a service and deliver a message to deaf people. Access for the deaf is seriously lacking, and that’s what I’m working to change. I’m a freelance interpreter. I contract with different agencies and have provided interpretation services for drag shows, political rallies, and festivals.
I’ve been getting recognized on the street. I really just go with the flow. I think I might still be a little bit in denial? I don’t consider myself famous. I woke up to 1,000 Facebook friend requests! I wish more of them were from men. I’m single, guys.
A lot of people think I can hear; I can’t. People can’t see, but I’m interpreting sign language from a person who can hear and who’s off camera. They sign to me what that person is saying. I then interpret that and sign the meaning for the deaf audience. I like to say the person who’s working with me is the brains and I’m the beauty. But I am intelligent!
English is a spoken language. ASL is a visual language. When an interpreter is signing to me lyrics to a song, I’m thinking, what do those lyrics mean? For example, the Beyoncé song: In the deaf community, we don’t use the word “booty.” That’s just not in our vocabulary. I have to act it out [mimics slapping his backside]. You have to change it from what the lyrics say to what they mean.
The deaf community doesn’t want the verbiage, the dialect. They want the message. With me interpreting in ASL, they don’t have to use that mental horsepower. I’m distilling the messages down to the meaning.
It’s not only deaf people who watch ASL. I’ve noticed that a lot of people who speak Spanish and [are from] other, different cultural backgrounds are watching what I’m saying. Some things they do understand, some they don’t understand. My facial expressions often convey what I’m saying. It’s an honor that the governor wants to keep this relationship with me and with the deaf community. Georgia is a model for the rest of the country. I work in the headquarters of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. That’s because of their contract with All Hands On, a nonprofit that spearheaded this relationship.
Interpreting for the government is serious. You study language, you practice. You study linguistics, the history of what’s being said, and how deaf people understand what’s being spoken. This is not a hobby. I’m not just going there and waving my hands. For too long, the public, the school system, and the workplace have been condescending toward ASL. I’m proud to break the cycle of “language deprivation.”
This article appears in our June 2020 issue.