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Use of debates about LGBTQ+ in ELT materials

Earlier this month I gave a talk entitled The ongoing struggle for LGBTQ inclusivity in ELT at a local conference. I talked about the absence of LGBTQ community in ELT course materials, portrayal when included, reasons and attitudes that contribute to both, and examples of some widely-available resources. The goal was to raise awareness of these areas, and consider how materials design can in some cases unintentionally exclude LGBTQ+ members of the classroom. The premise to the talk included the assumption that those attending were:

  • interested in fostering an inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ community in the classroom;
  • unsure if materials they used in class that included (or not) LGBTQ+ community did so or not; and/or
  • unfamiliar with how to go about creating this inclusivity.

One participant at this talk asked me something along these lines: Isn’t discussing gay marriage (or I suppose any of these things) a valid debate to have with students from countries where everything LGBTQ is illegal? Shouldn’t we allow them to discuss their ideas in the safe environment of the language learning classroom?

Debates are a common discussion task of course. When we debate something, however, we imply that there are at least two sides, both of which have valid arguments in the context we are using the topic (see Shaw, 2013, for a little more on this point). In countries where marriage equality has been incorporated into the law and anti-discrimination laws have also included sexuality, this become particularly problematic as a debate topic. Even in countries who have not yet adopted such legal terms, one needs to consider how a debate is framed, whose voices are represented in the debate, and what guided discussion is encouraged.

This, however, does not preempt well-intentioned teachers from using material that sets up debate. This was one of several example resources I referred to in the talk (I’ve paraphrased a little not to highlight the publication):

a) Preview: Students talk in groups about marriage in general, homosexuality, same-sex weddings, social values…
b) Associations: Ask students for their first reaction to vocabulary such as ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘homosexual’, ‘straight’, ‘same-sex marriage’ to gauge general feelings and to introduce new vocabulary.
c) Culture: Brainstorm how gay marriage is viewed in learner countries and gauge the possibilities of a law passing that allows same-sex marriage.
d) Quick debates: Students face each other. Give Student A the first argument, Student B the second. Rotate pairs to ensure a lively pace and noise level kept:

  • Gay men should be able to marry like anyone else. vs. No they shouldn’t.
  • Only God can decide who can get married. vs. It’s OK for the courts to decide.
  • Marriage should only be between a man and woman. vs. That’s outdated.
  • Accepting gay marriage shows society is modern and free. vs. Society is deteriorating because of this.

While the entire premise elicits potential negativity (see Associations), I’ll focus on the Quick debates. In it, the activity sets up opposing sides of marriage equality as two valid arguments to make. In fact, it literally forces one group of students to take the side that argues against LGBTQ+ rights in a few, even if they don’t agree. Yes, part of the purpose means to bring out negotiating language and perhaps community-appropriate terms, but the context establishes the othering (and potential demonising) of the LGBTQ individual. It also may validate those whose opinions already believe equality is wrong.

Later in this same lesson, learners are encouraged to state their opinions about what should be allowed:

Opinion: Students discuss which of the following should be allowed: gay marriage, gay parents, gay bars, gay teachers, gay leaders, gay doctors, gay parades, gay bashing, gay clergy…

Where this line of activity is particularly problematic–inclusivity and rights aside–is the suggestion that ‘gay bashing’, which not only includes verbal but physical abuse, has a valid argument in favour. But let’s assume for sake of argument that no one agrees that violence is justified. Do the other suggested topics contribute to healthy discussion, understanding of cultural context in which the students are learning/living, respect for differing attitudes? I don’t think so. If anything, they foster an environment where students are set up to disagree, where emotional and cultural baggage may charge the conversation, and where those who identify within the LGBTQ+ community may feel they are not at liberty to represent themselves in an authentic, “normal” manner. After all, it is they whose rights and freedoms are being discussed as though they are up for debate and decision by others in the class. This type of activity, though perhaps well-intentioned, is not a one-off that I’ve chosen; often when LGBTQ+ are included (if at all) in ELT lessons, a form of productive activity like this is included.

Now, back to the question from the participant I mentioned at the beginning, who asked: Isn’t discussing gay marriage (or I suppose any of these things) a valid debate to have with students from countries where everything LGBTQ is illegal? Shouldn’t we allow them to discuss their ideas in the safe environment of the language learning classroom?

My answer is a ‘no’, at least in terms of setting up a space in the class specifically devoted to debating this. Segregating LGBTQ+ to a particular topic or lesson for one class itself perpetuates the othering of any individual within this community and presumes that that student or that teacher’s rights are subject to discussion. It allows space for learners with these opposing attitudes to feel validated and presumes that no one in the class identifies as LGBTQ+. I’m not convinced that having this discussion in any class-related form will change the minds of the students with anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs anyway, at least not within the time frame afforded by the activity.

Instead, I’d like to suggest the follow considerations regarding debate-style activities (and quite possibly more broad inclusions of LGBTQ+ in materials), as it is what we as teachers can control:

  • Voices represented in debates: In order to debate a particular topic with integrity, the premise suggests that voices from various sides be accurately represented. Does a class debate on LGBTQ+ rights include representation from the LGBTQ+ community? Are the LGBTQ+ students in the classroom a) willing to be openly identified at this point in their language learning/newly immigrated experiences?; b) willing to be the representative of their community in such a debate, particularly as a minority group?; c) likely to feel accepted by peers/teachers if their side of the debate loses? Beyond these questions, if there are no LGBTQ+ students in the class, should a group debate and come to conclusions about the rights of individuals who are not represented? Sure, this may happen in the political arena, but I don’t think that’s the standard to strive for.
  • Reframing the context: Would the same treatment of a debate still feel as valid on other topics that seem to be a done deal? For example, what if some of our students come from countries where women are not allowed to vote or drive or any other number of equality rights? Does this then make it OK to open up a lesson on women’s right to vote? Would female teachers or students be comfortable with this? How about racial discussion in these terms? I’d argue most would say ‘of course not’.
  • Considering one’s privilege: We all bring in our own biases (some would say ‘agendas’) to the classroom whether we think so or not.  We need to consider what privileges we have that affect whether our topic choices or framing of lessons makes assumptions of the students feelings. Consider our own privilege and how it affects our perceptions of what is ‘normal’ to discuss and what group of people can be ‘othered’ acceptably. Just as an example: Should we open a discussion on whether straight, white couples should be allowed to marry? Be teachers? Be president? Be bashed? When one is cognisant of these privileges, we do tend to think twice about how this affects our attitudes towards lesson material.
  • The students themselves: By creating a debate such as this, a teacher may be assuming that their class is made up solely of individuals identifying as straight. What if this is not the case? Are you 100% sure? Will LGBTQ+ students feel included and supported by a teacher who sets up other students to discuss their rights? Looking beyond this, would an LGBTQ+ teacher feel this is OK? Do you, as an LGBTQ+ teacher talk about this community like they are not a part of it? Does this create an injustice to the students in the same community? I’ll say no.
  • Click me to go to hyperlinked reference list.

    The law: While in some legal cases, one might be able to make a case that an existing law is or is not correct. I accept that. When, however, it comes to human rights and equality, I’d argue that the welfare of people is higher stakes for the people in the class than whether the legal drinking age should be raised or lower, for example. Beyond this, if marriage equality is a done deal in the country of the language classroom, it’s done. It’s no longer open for debate. Our learners who are in this context simply need to accept it and learn how to communicate appropriately to the population they may encounter and interact with.

Beyond the context of debates as a lesson format, there are many other ways in which LGBTQ+ inclusivity can be addressed. But more discussion on that remains for another post another time. For now, I suggest:

As a general principle, inclusion of LGBTQ+ narratives into lessons alongside any others without drawing specific attention to them creates a space where LGBTQ+, whether teachers or students, are not excluded or made to feel spotlighted.

Follow-up discussions

Click through on one of the tweets to see more on Twitter. I have selected some from different people that either started a thread of discussion on Twitter and/or had a perspective that may initiate thought or insight.

Lots more where these came from!

UPDATE: Since this post came out, Brazilian ELT association hosted its “Queer Day” online. Among them, I was grateful to have the opportunity to follow up this post with a discussion amongst us.

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I loved this post, actually because it applies so widely. Are any human rights up for debate? I think not. To take an extreme position, ‘people studying abroad should show their appreciation to the host country by performing hard labour’ is such an obviously bad debate topic but entirely the same tenor as ‘gay people should not be allowed to marry’. Yet the latter is often up for debate while the former is not. Perhaps it’s easier to have token representation using a debate. The only problem therein is to what extent are stereotypes fostered and implicitly approved by offering up such debates.

Tyson Seburn

Thanks for commenting (at my nudge), Marc! 🙂 You give a good counter-example of how one debate topic that seems ridiculous compares to one about LGBTQ, which to so many people, does not. Valuable insight to consider.

Josette LeBlanc

This post really needed to be written. Thank you Tyson. The part that really struck me was the comparison between human rights and drinking age. I learned this the hard way.

Last year I asked my students to write an argumentative essay on a topic of their choosing. One student chose gay marriage, and as you know, in Korea that’s not regal. When he asked if it was okay to choose that topic, I asked him to tell me his arguments. I was shocked and saddened. What he was describing, while in his second language, invalidated basic human rights for the LGBTQ community. I then suggested he find another topic as I wasn’t ready to engage in that topic with him at the time.

On that day I learned that I brought my assumptions to class: that students are accepting of all sexualities and that I was ready to handle an opposing view from mine.

I also learned that I was potentially creating a space for othering to happen.

I then made a promise to myself that whenever I allow students to chose their own topics, I’ll preface it with “human rights are not up for debate.”

Thanks again Tyson.

[…] Seburn, T. (2017). Use of debates about LGBTQ+ in ELT materials. Retrieved from […]

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[…] without being aware of or addressing potential problem areas in their methodology or content (see LGBTQ in debates). My talks at IATEFL2019 and BCTEAL19 aimed to move the discussion forward by first defining […]

[…] The invisibility of LGBTQIA2 (LGBT+Queer+Intersex+Asexual+2Spirited) themes within traditionally published ELT materials has been 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 some materials writers and publishers themselves recognise the desire for increased inclusivity and diversity, the self-imposed limitation of producing materials that appeal to the widest array of markets tends to create an ‘our hands are tied’ reaction to change. As a result, we can easily stagnate at problematisation. Many teachers have taken it into their own hands to create well-intentioned lessons that aim to be inclusive; sometimes, however, they are unaware of, or fail to address, potential problem areas in their methodology or content (see LGBTQ in debates). […]

[…] Tyson Seburn on using LGBTQ+ issues as debate topics and he claims that doing so could result in “the othering (and potential demonizing) of the LGBTQ+ individual”. After reading that, I have decided to not have students discuss or debate these issues but instead […]

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