Representing Queerness in the ESL Classroom

I believe that representation is important. However, like many marginalized groups, I was not exposed to positive role models growing up- in my case, LGBTQ+ role models. In fact, I was not exposed to many adults who identified as gay, lesbian, bi, trans or queer at all! I grew up in a little conservative town in Louisiana, surrounded by typical religious ideas that homosexuality is a sin, disgusting, unnatural. There were many people I knew who did not have a problem with homosexuality, but they did reduce the idea of homosexuality to being only about who one loves or sleeps with, ignoring how being gay shaped how I saw the world socially, politically, and culturally.

To make things worse, my desire to be a teacher was repressed by conservative media that said LGBTQ+ members should not be teachers. This idea was also perpetuated by reductive ideas that gay men are pedophiles and that LGBTQ+ members “have an agenda,” so their voices should be silenced. Despite this, there were teachers who were gay in my high school, but I never had them and did not question them about their experiences. I resisted the urge to pursue a degree in education for these reasons, and I tried many different majors before I found applied linguistics, which rekindled my desire to be an educator.

My experiences influenced my research interests, including how ESL teachers address LGBTQ+ related topics in the classroom. Dr. Cynthia Nelson, who is arguably the lead researcher in queer-related issues in TESOL, is one of my biggest influences as a language teacher and researcher, and I have started presenting and writing about these same topics because of her work. But although I have been a follower and reader of her research for years now, I realized sometime last year that I wasn’t coming out to my own ESL students because I was afraid. I have taught in many different contexts where I was afraid to come out because it would have messed up a research project or because it would have caused animosity with my students or administrators. I was stifling my own teaching philosophy by doing so! I wanted to be the positive role model of a queer teacher. I wanted to be the teacher- and the person- I needed when I was younger, but I wasn’t doing so because of my own experiences with homophobia and homophobic rhetoric.

Annoyed and frustrated by my decisions to remain closeted, I decided that I was going to be daring and come out to all of my students and co-workers when I received my job offer to move to Germany.

I would like to give a positive example of representation here to illustrate my belief that representation is important. As part of my teaching job, I give weekly study skills workshops to first-year students of English Studies. At the beginning of the semester, I taught a workshop about lecture skills. Halfway through my workshop, to illustrate a point about eliminating personal bias, I decided to  used myself as an example. I explained that I have personal bias when it comes to queer related issues because I am a gay man.

When I came out, I didn’t feel like it phased my students at all. In a German academic context, I knew it would not be very controversial to come out, but it was freeing to talk about myself so casually as other teachers who are not queer would.

I had my students give me some feedback at the end of class. I collected the feedback from the eight students who attended that session, and then brought it back to my office to read. I got many positive responses from the workshop, but the very last piece of feedback I read had this message on it:

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As you can imagine, I was touched when I received this feedback. It solidified my belief in how important representation is.

I believe many teachers feel that they are in the classroom “strictly to teach,” usually meaning that if they are an ESL instructor, they are there just to teach content and language skills. These teachers would probably think that coming out is a controversial political statement, and as such, does not belong in the classroom. I do agree that it is a political statement, and I do believe that it is controversial, but it is only because of the way that sexuality has been constructed in our society. English is already a language embedded with politics, culture, imperialism, and colonialism. Therefore, I believe ESL education in itself is a great platform to discuss these kinds of issues, especially within English for academic purposes. I do not feel as though politics or controversial material should be avoided, especially if it is handled with care in a safe learning environment. I think it is problematic to avoid controversial material when so many ESL students are part of marginalized groups, and politics affect them everyday.

But representation should not be controversial, especially queer representation. Many ESL students are coming from countries where homosexuality is a crime, some of which sentence “offenders” to the death penalty. Many ESL students have never even encountered open LGBTQ+ members in their home countries. If the world is going to change its attitude towards queerness altogether, it needs more than just theory and rhetoric. It needs to hear and see lived experiences.

Teachers’ actions, big or small, can have a great impact on their students. I strongly recommend that teachers make sure that there are more examples of the LGBTQ+ community in their teaching materials, lectures,  seminars, and one-on-one discussions with students. Engage students in critical thought about queer-related issues, extending beyond the right to marry. I believe that the more representation that is present within our classrooms, the more “normalized” queerness will become.



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