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At Gallaudet, The Speechless Pursuit Of Romance

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The ground rules at a Gallaudet University speed-dating night were simple: Five minutes with each partner. When time is up, everyone switches seats. Keep the conversations G-rated. And no talking allowed. The last rule was the easiest to follow, since Gallaudet is one of the few colleges in the world where American Sign Language dominates all nonwritten communication.

"Sooo . . ." signed organizer Aneesah Silvels, a graduate student, who used exaggerated arm movements for emphasis. "It is time to start."

With a flurry of hand movements, about two dozen speed daters started to get to know one another on a recent Friday night as they sat in folding chairs arranged in two concentric circles in the campus student center.

Most were deaf Gallaudet students, although a few hearing students from Towson University who know sign language also attended. There were more women than men, making matchups slightly difficult.

The questions would have been familiar to anyone who has been on a first date: Where are you from? What are you studying? Where do you live? What do you do for fun? What are your favorite restaurants?

But instead of a quiet, intimate conversation that could be overheard only by those sitting close by, it was easy for anyone who knows sign language to eavesdrop. Organizers had to keep shooing away spectators who gathered to watch.

That constant shortage of conversational privacy makes dating on the campus difficult - especially in such a small, tight-knit college community, which has fewer than 1,200 undergraduates and a total enrollment, including graduate students, of about 1,800.

Everyone always seems to know everything about everyone else, several students said.

"At a large university, you could have a one-night stand, and no one would know," signed Emmanuel Felix, a sophomore from San Diego who is studying accounting. "Here at Gallaudet, if you have a one-night stand, everyone knows."

Speed dating has gained popularity - and cultural cachet - in the past decade. It gives singles an opportunity to gather and meet several potential dates at one time, spending a few minutes with each. The subject came up during an episode of "Sex and the City." And the title character of the show "Frasier" once deemed it "all the stress and humiliation of a blind date, times 12."

Spreading the word

Gallaudet-style speed dating was part of a class project for Silvels, who is studying deaf education. Each student in one of her graduate courses had to come up with a project that would explain Gallaudet to the Washington community or bring together different groups on campus.

"I have friends who have done speed dating and really liked it," said Silvels, who is in her late 20s. "I thought this would be really fun because it's very adult-like."

She posted fliers around campus, e-mailed students and promoted the event on Facebook, telling students to "Be there or be single!"

Felix and a group of his friends were complaining about the campus dating scene when they spotted one of the fliers. "We just started cracking up," he said. "But we decided, let's be positive."

The event began with many more women than men. And three of those men were gay, further shrinking the odds for straight women.

The introductory bio swap between daters usually included a quintessential Gallaudet question: Did you go to a traditional, mainstream high school or an all-deaf one?

For students who have grown up in strong deaf communities, sign language is the native tongue and often a defining part of who they are. But students who attended traditional schools were usually one
of just a few deaf kids, separated socially and academically from most of their classmates and pushed to learn to read lips to communicate.

During one round of speed dates, a woman who attended Gallaudet's secondary school was paired with a man who attended a mainstream Florida high school.

He marveled at how "completely different" it was at Gallaudet and how he is more social than ever because he can easily communicate with everyone.

She asked whether she was signing too fast for him to keep up. My parents would sometimes tell me to slow down, that I'm going too fast, she told him.

No, you are just fine. I can keep up, he signed back.

'Gallaudet is their heaven'

To complicate the social scene even more, the university has a growing number of hearing students - such as Silvels - who don't fit into either social group. As she led the event, Silvels apologized that her sign language wasn't perfect.

"Gallaudet is the world they always wanted. The teachers sign, all of the workers sign. Gallaudet is their heaven. . . . They don't want to destroy that culture," Silvels said. "I feel like I always have to have my guard up. I have to have thick skin."

About halfway through the event, there was a dessert break. Many of the women, having scoped out their options, quickly disappeared.

Justyna Grela and a friend were part of the exodus.

"It was a great way to meet new people," she signed earnestly. "We just have somewhere else to go."

Suddenly, there were more men than women. For the last round of dates, Felix didn't get paired up with anyone. He sat alone as his friends chatted with new partners.

"I'm not really looking for a relationship. I'm not really boyfriend or husband material," he signed. "And, hey, I don't mind being a wingman."

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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