commentary lgbtqia2 Tyson Seburn  

Considerations of the LGBTQ in ELT materials

The most interesting session at TESL Canada Conference early in October that I attended was Joel Rhein’s “Teaching against heteronormativity: creating inclusive approaches”, which lured me since I’d never been to one where LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, questioning or queer, etc) issues in the language classroom were the focal point. The dialogue regarded depiction in our course books, chosen materials and classroom references. It’s a consideration that has resulted in my concerted efforts to consider how I include LGBTQ in my lessons, but sadly, the first time I’d been involved in focussed discussion about it with other teachers. This has to change.

+ I believe three major questions help preface any discussion.

  1. What message are we sending to our students about being in the LGBTQ community?
  2. How are we modeling attitude and behaviour towards the LGBTQ community?
  3. How are we making the LGBTQ students in our classrooms feel?

Through this dialogue, I hope we can be cognisant of these questions.

I sent out a web poll to get gauge interest within social media and without being prescriptive about it, I asked this question to the masses.  There were 422 views of this poll, with 21 respondents. Although I was initially encouraged by the proportion of affirmative to negative responses, I had to ask myself: if I didn’t care about a particular issue (or even understand what was being asked), would I bother to respond to a poll about it? Probably not.  What does this mean though, to consider LGBTQ portrayal?

+ How are our classroom discussions and activities portraying LGBTQ?

This is not worth debating anymore.

If you’re still using a book with a unit on whether it’s ok to be gay or not as a platform for debate about the topic, it’s time to abandon it.  Same goes for debating gay marriage (I’d say particularly in countries like Canada where this right is legally a done deal, but really, should it be a discussion at all in our classrooms?). Just a quick Google search on “ESL gay marriage” produced many lessons on the topic, three of which near the top I took a look at*.

One starts off promoting discussion about gay issues in a potentially productive and intellectual way:

  • Do you think gay people have enough role models in our society to identify themselves with?
  • Do you think those references portrait a positive image of the gays [sic]?

but ends with opinionated leading questions like:

  • What do you think of adoption by gay couples?
    • Do you think homosexual families can bring up children as well as straight families? If not, why?
  • Is AIDS a major problem for the homosexuals only?

A second worksheet is on “Modern Love”. Early on is the question, “Should people of the same sex be permitted to get married? Why/not?” and despite balancing this out with several references to countries where it has already been legalised, ends with encouraging learners to go to an online discussion forum to give their opinions of gay marriage legalisation. Presumably this forum is not filled only with proponents and what could be considered by some, inoffensive opinions.

A third example has students reading about a US case regarding gay marriage, then expects them to engage in pre-planned debates on topics like:

  • Marriage should only be between a man and woman. vs. That’s an old way of thinking.
  • Only God can decide who can get married. vs It’s OK for the courts to decide.
  • Accepting gay marriage shows society is modern and free. vs. All it shows is society is going downhill.
before further discussing whether or not the following should be allowed:
  • gay marriage, gay parents, gay bars, gay teachers, gay US President (or leader of your country), gay bus driver, gay doctor, gay parades, gay bashing, gay rights, gay priests / bishops / rabbis / ministers…

Best case scenario (and likely a pipe dream), having students take a negative opinion and argue it will illuminate how ridiculous it is.  More realistically we should ask: why are these types of questions and activities included and encouraged in widely available lessons? Why are they acceptable to promote discussion? My answer: they’re not. They lead students towards disagreement on issues that deserve no disagreement.  They potentially encourage impressionable students to take on an opinion they didn’t previously have and provide a platform on a silver platter for more bigoted individuals to wail their offensive commentary.

Although these entire lessons are likely not negative on purpose and seem to aim for a ‘balance’ between two sides of an issue, I believe it is wrong to promote developing an argument against a human characteristic where there is no choice or is unfairly marginalising one group’s rights compared to a majority, which these and many, many more examples do, perhaps unwittingly. In the worst cases, particularly evident in older coursebooks (older=1990s) still on staff bookshelves today, example opinions appear like “I think gays are disgusting” or “I’d be embarrassed if my son were gay” to balance out those that are in favour of LGBTQ issues. Spending time discussing outdated human rights topics perpetuates negative attitudes.

Consider this: Look at books from 30+ years ago, you could likely find many similar questions and discussions, but replace gay with black, women or interracial.

+ How is the imagery and topics of LGBTQ being portrayed?

If you examine any number of coursebooks, you’re likely to find one of the three situations occurring, with variances due to the age of the material or the market in which it is being sold:

1) There are no explicitly LGBTQ characters or images throughout the texts. There seems to be an overwhelming invisibility of LGBTQ throughout published materials. There are very few ongoing coursebook characters that are overtly gay. Thornbury (1999) suggests a token semblance of gay imagery to publishers, “How about a few same sex flatmates? Unmarried uncles? Holiday postcards from Lesbos and Stiges? Two men sharing a restaurant table [alone] or doing the dishes?” Teachers and students bring their own perspectives to the classroom, some of which are LGBTQ, so why not encourage this variety in the imagery too?

2) The images of LGBTQ are marginalised in one unit. Some publishers do now accept that a portion of their clientele is LGBTQ and as a result, include gay characters, but only within the confines of the unit on “gay” issues (even more rarely on any other people in the LGBTQ community), quite often on gay marriage. Even ignoring this, we must notice that the fact that these characters and issues are segregated into one compact unit along with similarly compartmentalised units on drugs, tattoos, euthanasia or racism, marginalises visibility and importance down to being something ‘special’ and ‘different’, a portrayal that may be unintended but informs our learners about how to view them.

3) The images of LGBTQ are as close to straight and clean-cut as possible. It’s perceived as less controversial to include clean-cut, caucasian, masculine males in a semi-affectionate pose than if one were more effeminate, black, in drag or disabled. It’s perceived as less controversial to include lesbians who are very feminine, with long beautiful hair and slender figures than if one were more butch, with masculine build or particularly tattooed. It’s perceived as less controversial to include transgendered who are… oh, right. They’re not less controversial.

+ How does our reference to LGBTQ portray them to our students?

Aside from the fact that when we isolate a topic for a lesson, it naturally becomes special, different from us and a point of interest, how we refer to any group of people has a significant effect on the listener’s understanding of our attitudes. It also can shape impressionable listeners, relying on us as teachers, to be models of behaviour, either as immigrants to a new country or as youth looking at an adult authority figure to emulate. Whenever I talk about LGBTQ issues, I aim to do so matter-of-factly, as though it is nothing special. For example, if relationships come up as a topic, I try to mention gay relationships in an unattentive tone, without drawing attention to it. By doing so otherwise, I may unintentionally suggest to my students that it isn’t normal, something to be pointed out and valued differently than what is. A good anecdote I often consider is:

I’ve had discussion with family and friends about at what point kids should be talked with about gay and lesbian couples? I’ve come to the conclusion that there shouldn’t be a planned discussion per se. Doing so draws attention to it, like it is something special that needs to be discussed. It may exemplify the attitude that gay and lesbian (and by extension, bisexual, transgendered and transsexual) relationships are unusual and different from them, when in fact, the purpose of the conversation is to help them feel that it is not so. In Toronto, there is a very large and visible LGBTQ community. When newcomers (e.g. tourists) visit and tell their children that it’s OK and not to stare, they effectively teach their children that there is something weird to not act weirdly around. The way to demonstrate that something is not strange, special or uncommon is to behave and speak about it like everything else. Then whoever is listening, be it our children or our students, will have the impression that it is normal to us–a great impression to make on straight students, but particularly for LGBTQ students.

If we are aiming to foster classes that are more learner-centred, we should be accept that our students’ social identities and in-born characters play an important role in shaping the topics we choose, the activities that we have them do and the materials we bring to facilitate communication. Some of our students are gay. Some are lesbian. Some are bisexual. Some are transgendered and transexual. Some are unsure. Let’s be aware and consider what messages we and our materials send.

This is not a discussion for LGBTQ teachers to have. It’s one for all of us.

+ Notes

*I chose not to link to these lessons specifically because I do not aim to place a spotlight on the creators themselves, but if you are any of them, I encourage you to reconsider parts of the lesson or even more simply, their availability.

* Some other interesting reads/discussions, more or less related:

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22 thoughts on “Considerations of the LGBTQ in ELT materials

  1. Julie Moore (@lexicojules)

    Hi Tyson,

    Thanks for another interesting and thought-provoking post. I’ll come out right away and say that I answered ‘no’ in your poll, for precisely the reasons you’ve explained above; I don’t think about this as an issue to consciously highlight in class because that would be singling gay people out as an issue to be discussed. If it comes up, then fine, I treat it the same as any other topic.

    I did actually have an EAP pre-sessional student a couple of years ago who chose to do a research project on something like the portrayal of the gay community in film (she was a film studies student). I did have a discussion with her in tutorials about terminology – how words change their usage, what’s currently considered acceptable or offensive – but otherwise I approached her choice of topic in the same way as any other. She was very matter-of-fact about the whole topic and when it came to her presentation (to the whole class about her project), they just took it in their stride too.

    Oddly, I think that topics that might be seen as potentially ‘controversial’ in the general ELT classroom are much easier to deal with in an EAP context because you’re focused on arguments and sources rather than personal opinions … but that’s a topic for another day, maybe?

    1. Tyson Seburn

      Yes, I completely understand why you’d have chosen ‘no’, but despite the fact that you don’t consciously think about how your materials portray them, the fact that you do discuss it matter-of-factly with students, like your pre-sessional student, does suggest that on some level you have or do consider how you speak about LGBTQ. I rarely, these days, sit down and think about it. I have already come to my conclusions about how I integrate LGBTQ into lessons when it seems fitting to do so.

      One thing I love about EAP contexts is exactly what you say: it’s about being able to intellectually discuss issues, with evidence to back up your arguments than speaking purely on a brainwashed or emotional level. Good topics to bring up again.

  2. Funky

    Hey Tyson,
    One of my colleagues sat in on the same presentation and came back and started up this discussion in the staff room. Definitely food for thought.
    I didn’t see your poll, but to your question “Do you consider how LGBTQ are portrayed in your classroom materials?” I would have to answer “no” because they simply aren’t portrayed at all in my classroom materials.
    There is a screen of invisibility placed over this issue by publishers.
    I agree that this should be a “non-issue” in the first place. Yes, it should be taken as a given, and not up for debate. Those “debates” that you mentioned above should be shut down. Not debatable here. It’s a done deal.
    Sometimes LGBTQ images or ideas do surface in class, and I try to deal with them in a simple, factual way. As you say, “The way to demonstrate that something is not strange, special or uncommon is to behave and speak about it like everything else”.
    But inevitably, my ideas are met with snickers, squirms, grimaces, and outright fury from my young (18-24) students who come from countries where not even ‘heterosexuality’ is allowed or acknowledged, let alone any other kind of sexuality! I have been lectured (by these young, untravelled, inexperienced, religiously brainwashed virgins) about the evils of homosexuality, and how their various holy books tell us that “this is the penultimate sin which will send you straight into the arms of Satan and all homosexuals need to be killed and how could Canada ever let this happen because it’s disgusting and against nature!”. I’m sure you’ve heard the like before.
    What response can I give? How do you argue against thousands of years of indoctrination? My solution is: you don’t. I simply say that this is not an acceptable view in Canada, and that we do not allow hatred or persecution against gays etc. and that this discussion is over. My only response is to shut it down because I cannot stand to listen to it. I discovered in the staff room that some of my colleagues feel the same way. We just say “This is the way it is” and end the conversation, but at the same time, I feel like this is insufficient.
    Knowing that some of my students, and several of my colleagues are LGBTQ makes me want to say something meaningful that will show students that acceptance is part of our daily lives, but at the same time, I don’t want to ‘open this up’ for debate and allow them to spew their misunderstanding and ignorance, possible hurting others. It’s a double-edged sword.
    So, to be honest, I’m glad that the course materials don’t bring this up. When you are dealing with such repressive, religious-based cultures, there is NOTHING I can say or show or demonstrate that is ever going to change their minds. Going back to the issue of course materials, I guess you have to weigh the costs and benefits of including LGBTQ images and references. Inclusion might go a long way toward “un-strange-ning” (sorry, can’t think of a good word) the issues, but at the same time, inclusion will undoubtedly open the issues, bringing out all of that negative propaganda that I simply don’t want to deal with in my language class. Quite a dilemma!
    I’m interested to hear if anyone has a better response or solution to what happens in the classroom!

    1. Tyson Seburn

      It’s true that when I so matter-of-factly mention something about gay couples and such with regards to whatever topic we are discussing in class that initially it is met with snickers and so on. However, this also tends to wane with time and repeated exposure to this type of inclusion. With my students, should anything like this continue, I shut it down quickly by telling them that they are in university now; they have to grow up; they have to learn to intellectually argue for an opinion with evidence and not just emotion. I do reiterate this for all topics, not just those that include LGBTQ. We do no justice to our students, particularly in EAP, to avoid conflict and when it does arise, allow the extremist opinions to dominate.

      Now perhaps in students who are here for just short-term lengths, not aiming to live here or study here indefinitely, it might be just easier to avoid the topic altogether, which I also don’t disagree with overall either i.e. having a ‘gay rights’ or ‘gay parade’ topic isn’t the answer anyway. Still, it’s a fact of life. LGBTQ exist.

      1. Funky

        Yes, timing is an issue too. I only see my students for 7 weeks before they are passed on to someone else, or they leave. Also, considering their age (18, 19, 20) and their cultural backgrounds, and the fact that this is the first time they have ever left home, this may be the very first time in their lives that they have been exposed to any “other” way of thinking, or any “other’ views other than what their culture has already taught them. So, I have to see this as part of a process which takes time. The process of growing up, and learning to argue from fact will be the focus of their year-long study here, but my course is only the first step, and I do think that by stating right off the bat that LGBTQ is just accepted, and that’s that, is something they need to hear right away. They will acquire deeper understanding of how things work over time.
        I also have to remember how “strange” it must be to them, as I know how “strange” their ideas are to me too… Some of my female students have married their first cousins, or their uncles. Many of them were married off by their families as teenagers (16-17 yrs old), and many of the men have or will have 2, 3, or 4 wives. One of our textbook lessons is on “family and friends” where we look at the names of different family members. When asked by my students “What do we call our 2nd mother’s son, or our 3rd mother’s brother, or our father’s 2nd wife’s mother?” or “If my uncle marries my sister, is he still my uncle?” , well, how should I answer? These “strange” questions (to me) take some time to get your head around. So I also have to cut my students a little slack, and know that they have much to learn in this process of growing up.

        1. Tyson Seburn

          Very good points – I’ve heard this conundrum come up regarding the very stereotypical nuclear family shown in these family trees (e.g. Step By Step). It’s harder to deal with when your family (and whose does these days) fit into there. It’s just as easy to criticise imagery and ideology like this from perspectives you mention than just by LGBTQ perspectives (e.g. my uncle’s partner, as opposed to wife, being “uncle” also?, etc.). I have to admit, I’ve never heard of people marrying their uncles before. The first cousin issue did come up once, right after watching an episode of FRIENDS where Ross has a crush on his cousin and everyone is disgusted.

  3. mrmomyp

    I agree completely. There is a lot of heteronormativity in our daily teaching, in the resources and stimuli we use. We cannot create a more inclusive society if our curriculum does not reflect it. I am very pleased that you took the time to write about these strategies that any and all teachers can use in their classroom. Thank you!

    1. Tyson Seburn

      Cheers, mate. I’m sure in Australia, this is prominent as well.

  4. Michael Britt

    Well written and really made me think. I can see you really put some thought into this post and that’s so good to see – a blog post with some real thought behind it. If only the US was as progressive as Canada on this issue.

    One point you make that really made me think was when you said that maybe we, as parents, don’t need to have “the talk” with our kids regarding alternative lifestyles and how that’s okay. By merely having this “talk” don’t we in effect say to our children that this is something different and maybe strange and we have to be careful about it? I suppose “the talk” is still needed about the birds and the bees, but maybe one isn’t needed regarding alternative lifestyles.

    Thanks for a great post.

    1. Tyson Seburn

      Cheers, Michael. That discussion I’ve had that you were drawn to is one that has helped me and several others see what seemed like an inevitably difficult conversation to have with children seem less monstrous. Children don’t see things as weird or strange until they are shown that it is.

  5. Delia C.

    I think the way you think about this is exactly the right approach to having an inclusive classroom. Most teachers have either forgot about it altogether because it stopped being the “it” issue in education, or they’ve assigned specific lessons to it, making it a discussion topic. That’s not changing any norms then, is it? I think it needs to be more than that, and teachers need to make it part of …life (i.e. resources and visuals have to reflect it).

    1. Tyson Seburn

      Thanks for coming in and commenting, Delia. One thing that came up in this TESL Canada session was exactly the fact that discussing gay rights or marriage was an “it” topic in the late 90s particularly (this incidentally is when I began ELT). It’s around then that many coursebooks began including it in their ‘controversial’ discussion topics sections. I think now though that it really isn’t the ‘it’ issue, nor should it be regarded as such. It’s time to normalise inclusion instead of marginalising it as ‘special’. Still, unfortunately many of those teachers who did talk about it as an ‘it’ issue are still using the same coursebooks they did then.

  6. Torn Halves

    “I believe it is wrong to promote developing an argument against a human characteristic where there is no choice” The discussion there could go long into the night, but you are definitely right to oppose lessons that prioritise judgment over sensitivity. There will come a point at which it makes sense to lock intellectual horns with the judgments being made, but before that the priority should be on dealing sensitively with particular cases – looking at the stories of people who find themselves on the wrong side of society’s dividing lines.

    Plus: Come in from left field by beginning with the language of abuse (not just in English). Students might not have stopped to wonder why on Earth they use words denoting sexual orientation as words of abuse. Just becoming aware of that as a massively questionable practice coud be a step forward.

    BTW: Great to see someone who still believes that teachers should have an agenda.

    1. Tyson Seburn

      Appreciate the input, Torn. In a land full of immigrants (many of whom are refugees, though not in my particular experience), sensitivity training is definitely a must among teachers, but awareness among students should exist too. What’s an example that’s closer to your particular experience?

      For abusive terms, there were times in the past that I had flat-out lessons about the terminology involved in reference to sexuality. I put up all terms associated, both acceptable and abusive, to equip students with the knowledge of appropriate reference. Still, even then I struggled with whether or not introducing language that perhaps they didn’t know, which to the wrong individuals, may enable them to be more abusive than they had been. As a language teacher, I’d felt it was my duty to attempt correction here too, just like I would with any other comprehension or misunderstandings that may result in inadequate language skills. However, I’ve since determined that modeling my language and attitude may be better still. Of course, there’s that whole argument that recasting and modeling isn’t explicit enough…

  7. mrmomyp

    Actually I do believe there is still a lot of heteronormativity here in Australia as well. I teach at a religious school and homosexuality is a taboo subject to even approach in the classroom. I have also noticed that students can be quite homophobic, I am trying to model tolerance and acceptance and so on to the best of my ability.
    Last year I told the students that I loved Lady GaGa and one girl said “but sir, she promotes gayness!”
    My response was “I’m sure you are referring to ‘born this way’, if you listen carefully to the song lyrics, you’ll notice she’s actually promoting tolerance, self-acceptance and self-love regardless of ethnicity (Black, white or Beige, orient-made, Lebanese), religion etc… not just homosexuality. I also used it as an opportunity to teach tolerance and say that they can disagree with people but still respect them, because at the end of the day we are all human.
    Other than that, I haven’t had much else of an opportunity to bring it up, because of the taboo surrounding it.

    1. Tyson Seburn

      Ahh, I’m sure this attitude exists more or less everywhere. I lived in Sydney for a year and the LGBTQ community there seemed to be quite visible, which is where my opinion stems from.

    2. Torn Halves

      Quick post suggestion: I would be very interested to read your thoughts about normativity in general. There is a trend in some liberal circles to castigate anything that smacks of imposing a notion of what is normal. I have just been reading an article about citizenship in Canada ( attacking traditional Canadian ideas of “normalcy”. Is normalcy itself bad? How do you imagine public life without any idea of normalcy (I am assuming – perhaps wrongly – that you and Kennelly are on the same wavelength)?

      My impression is that the liberals are dreaming of a society in which people grow up without ever feeling the normative weight of society, getting the message that they can do what they like and society will respect them (with the usual minimalist liberal injunctions about not being too nasty to other individuals). There is a definite trend in this direction, and what I observe is an equally discernible cultural slackening. The public sphere is more relaxed now. You can walk around in your jeans and with your shirt tails hanging out and no one gives a damn. But at the same time, there is anomie, aimlessness, a weakening of the subject and a marked ethical flabbiness, and those of us who were hoping for radical social change suspect that as the flaccidity increases the chances of real social change diminish – because real social change requires that young people grow up feeling the weight of society and developing the discipline and determination needed to overturn it (I imagine).

      You disagree. I would like to see how the disagreement could be spun out at some length.

      Just a suggestion.

      1. Tyson Seburn

        I seriously read this three times really to see how the “You disagree…” part came in. Do I disagree that there is normalcy in society? No. I do think that normalcy is an evolving concept though, flexible through changing attitudes and yes then, social change. I’m curious though, what “radical social change” have you been hoping for?

        I’ll give the article you cite a read and see where it takes me.

  8. Torn Halves

    “You disagree…” means that you take (I imagine) the opposite point of view from the one I am taking. I am very critical of the liberal approach that seems (I may be wrong) to insist on a skepticism towards all normativity that goes beyond the minimal liberal injunction not to be too nasty to other individuals. Correct me if I am wrong, but I get the impression that you are happy to see normativity get pared down to that liberal minimalism.

    You add now in your comment that normalcy is an evolving concept, but you do not just affirm its evolution uncritically. You want to challenge any strong notion of social normativity, that might promote, for instance, an ideal of femininity and an insistence that now we enter a new epoch in history in which patriarchy is ended and the eternal feminine, at last, is allowed to reign, and that men must be brought up in a way that tones down the effects of their inherent aggression, so we do things like ban wargames and put an 18 certificate on all films that contain gratuitous violence, and we pass a law ending national military service, requiring men, instead, to serve a minimum period doing unpaid social work caring for others in the local community. (I am using this simply as an example of a stronger, non-liberal, notion of normativity.)

    From an intellectual point of view I find the quiet nihilism of the minimal liberal moral framework an interesting phenomenon. From an ethical/political/psychological point of view, I find it disturbing, and I pointed to a few signs of the disturbing developments: anomie, a weakening of the subject and the slow death of a distinctively public space (and the social media both advance that and conceal it), to say nothing of the support it lends to the globalised market economy with all the hellish consequences that that is having.

    “Radical social change” How about a real revolution? The current ed-tech talk of revolution just empties the word “revolution” of any real content. A revolution was supposed to effect a fundamental change in the the structure of power. Power lies now with the corporations, international finance and the markets, supported by the hegemony of a scientific and pseudo-scientific discourse working alongside a culture industry that ensures people’s dreams don’t come into conflict with the status quo. It would be nice (in my humble opinion) to see that challenged. Are there any tefltechers contributing anything to such a challenge?

  9. […] interested in this representation beyond the scope of this post, you may take a look at another post I did some time […]

  10. […] Seburn, T. (2013). Considerations of the LGBTQ in ELT materials. Retrieved from […]

  11. […] adequately highlighted through both popular and scholarly texts (see Thornbury 1999, Gray 2013, even me in 2012, to start), as well as a handful of past conference talks that have focused on our community. While […]

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