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CULTURAL DIVERSITY: MANAGING SAME-SEX ORIENTATION IN THE CLASSROOM
by Henny Burke
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Below are the notes that Henny used when giving the talk at the TESOL Spain conference in Madrid, 26.3.00

Cultural diversity has received considerable attention throughout the last decade. No one disputes that part of being an effective, professional English Language Teacher entails being sensitive towards different cultures. And yet, an aspect of cultural diversity, which has tended to be ignored by teachers and course writers alike, is that of lesbian & gay culture.

The aim of my talk today is twofold:
1) to discuss the pros and cons of making this area more visible in the classroom.
2) to suggest a way in which the area of same-sex orientation can and should be handled in the ELT classroom.

Same-sex orientation is an area that tends to be ignored by ELT teachers and course book writers. In the ELT classroom it has tended to be dismissed as a minority or taboo issue and it has been easier for everybody to pretend it does not exist and render it invisible. By ignoring this area our classrooms are not reflecting the realities and complexities of society. At the same time this is not an easy area to tackle as many people find the topic embarrassing and there is a lack of positive models for people to refer to. I feel this is an area that we need to start talking about in ELT.
And indeed, people have started talking about it. Scott Thornbury in a recent article wrote the following:
"The EFL world may be ready for women mechanics and house-husbands and mixed-race couples and post-menopausal pregnancy. But it is not ready for gay men and women. It is not that the EFL subculture is hostile to gayness. It is more a case of embarrassment, even fear, coupled with an instinctive feeling that homosexuality and education do not mix. A case of: I don't care what they do, so long as they don't do it in the coursebooks and frighten the students."
("Window-dressing vs cross-dressing in the EFL sub-culture" Folio 5/2 Autumn 1999)

Now Scott Thornbury ends his article with a request: "Can I ask publishers to do us a favour? If you can't include overt gayness, how about a few covert signs that you really do care? How about a few same-sex flatmates? Unmarried uncles? Holiday postcards from Lesbos or Sitges?"
("Window-dressing vs cross-dressing in the EFL sub-culture" Folio 5/2 Autumn 1999)

Scott appears to advocate discretion on the part of the publishers. He argues the following: "You don't have to say they're gay. Maybe they're not. Who cares? But, apart from discreetly acknowledging a significant segment of your clientele, you would be providing those teachers and students who are less afraid of homosexuality with a means - should they choose to use it - of unlocking the classroom closet and allowing gay and lesbian issues to emerge into the light of the day."
("Window-dressing vs cross-dressing in the EFL sub-culture" Folio 5/2 Autumn 1999)

Now I personally don't really agree with Scott here. I think we need to go further and I think we need to insist that publishers go further also. To quote from Scott's article once more: "Anyone who thinks publishers are going to include explicit gay content is living in cloud cuckoo land."
("Window-dressing vs. cross-dressing in the EFL sub-culture" Folio 5/2 Autumn 1999)

Well, maybe I am living in cloud cuckoo land. Maybe I am. Maybe I'm not. We'll see.

Meanwhile let's continue. And let's turn to an article written by Cynthia Nelson in the TESOL QUARTERLY, which, like Scott's article, was also published in Autumn 1999.

At the beginning of her article Cynthia Nelson explains how educational organisations like TESOL have appointed task forces and formed committees to provide leadership and generate scholarship on how to make language education more effective and more equitable with respect to people of every sexual identity. And some analysts have argued that homophobia (a prejudice) and heterosexism (systematic discrimination) can adversely affect learning and teaching and therefore need to be addressed within the classroom and the profession at large.

Cynthia Nelson also makes it clear that it is not always a smooth path. And here I quote: ".Some colleagues are puzzled, even perturbed, by the idea that lesbian or gay identities could have any relevance to language learning. To them, gay-friendly teaching is at best of marginal importance, of interest only to a small minority of learners and teachers (gay ones), and at worse invasive, inserting a discourse of (homo)sex into a field in which that discourse is neither relevant nor appropriate. These colleagues do not always recognise that sexual identity is already an integral part of ESL. "Husband, wife, wedding ring ..anniversaries, in-laws, boy/girl friend: all are part of everyday social intercourse for the heterosexual" Other colleagues find the notion of gay-friendly teaching appealing but feel they lack the requisite support, resources, or know-how to proceed, which is not surprising given the current dearth of research on sexual identities."
("Sexual Identities in ESL: Queer Theory and Classroom Inquiry" Cynthia Nelson )

In the second part of her article Nelson argues that a way forward for gay-friendly pedagogies might be to leave behind a lesbian and gay identity framework and embrace queer theory. Now the issue of lesbian & gay identity vs. queer theory is quite a thorny one.

To understand the importance of lesbian & gay identity we have to go back to the 1960s and 1970s when a lesbian and gay movement and cultural community developed that began to counter the widespread invisibility and denigration of "homosexuals" with messages of equality. A major objective of this movement was lobbying for civil rights and establishing legislation that would prohibit discrimination. It is a struggle that is still going on. Look at Section 28 in Britain. Look at the lack of a "Ley de Parejas" in Spain.

"Queer Theory" can be traced back to Judith Butler's Gender Trouble published in 1990. Butler argued that gender should be seen as fluid and variable - the way we behave at different times and in different situations as opposed to who we are. She advocates "gender trouble" as a way of challenging traditional notions of gender identities. Her main metaphor for this is drag. By dressing up as a member of the opposite sex, drag artists are subverting and challenging the idea of gender norms. Homosexual acts do the same they challenge the norm and notice the terminology not homosexuals, but "acts". Queer theory does not talk about who we are but what we do at certain times. It is fluid and performative. Therefore it rejects identity and labelling and celebrates differences. Intellectually, it is a seductive idea. After all, who wants to label themselves? Why conform when you can challenge? Why be the same when you can be different?

The problem with queer theory for me is that it is too theoretical and removed from reality. It might be a nice thing to try out when there really is equality for lesbians and gays in society, but as Tim Edwards has argued: "Judith Butler's followers ignore real-life oppression and instead support their optimistic worldview by gazing at gender-blending movies and photography. Discrimination at home and at work, for everyday gay people, are forgotten about in this approach."
(www.theory.org.uk Resources: Queer Theory critics)

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