The ESL Classroom is composed of a mixture of people with various backgrounds and identities. This mixture of identities is a given and a large part of the identity of the ESL class itself. But besides the obvious identities—ethnic and language backgrounds, gender, teacher versus student—many identities can be or are hidden, invisible (emphasis mine (Vandrick, 1997, p. 153)
Often, or at least in my Intro to TESOL Theory seminar at Purdue, the formal inception of the field of TESOL is set in the early 1960’s. From this start date until the early 1990’s many critical issues in the field were largely ignored—race, ethnicity, native English speaking teachers (NESTs)/non-native English speaking teachers (NNESTs), and sexuality among them. Now, part of this is because of the strong cognitivist bent to TESOL and Applied Linguistics that was a hallmark of the fields during those early decades. However, in the 1990’s things began to change and what David Block (2003) would come to identify as the social turn in the field would start to nudge the research and scholarly agenda of these two fields away from their cognitivist roots. All that to say, identity was on the menu; it was now an option for research and scholarship.
Coupling this newfound interest in identity issues with a time of increasing awareness of identity politics-related issues and increased visibility of LGBTQ+ individuals in the public sphere—at first because of the AIDS crisis (Parkinson, 2013) and then through a slow process of normalization in popular media during the post-AIDS era (Lewin & Leap, 2002)—LGBTQ+ issues slowly rose to disciplinary attention.
In this brief review of the early days of queer TESOL, I focus on the two women who drove much of this early work, calling out the inequality and invisibility that they saw as problematic in the system—Cynthia Nelson and Stephanie Vandrick. Without their pioneering work, and the bravery highlight the ways that disciplinary discourses force LGBTQ+ educators and students to remain hidden, queer TESOL and lavender ALx would both have had a rougher and a later start.
Heterosexism and Invisibility
The earliest piece that I’ve been able to find in mainline disciplinary journals that explicitly engages with LGBTQ+ issues is Nelson’s (1993) “Heterosexism in ESL: Examining our attitudes. In this piece, Nelson makes the bold for its time statement that we LGBTQ+ teachers, researchers, administrators, and students exist—even if the discipline had, at best, turned a blind eye to our existence or, at worst, had willfully painted us as straight even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Pinning this invisibility on heterosexism, what more modern takes on queer theory might refer to as a heteronormative bias, or presenting heterosexuality as the only valued and valid sexual identity, Nelson identified seven attitudes in the field of TESOL that she saw as contributing to the invisibility (or erasure) of gay lives and of queer perspectives. They ranged from the seemingly pedestrian, student-centered attitude that many ESL students come from counties that have so few gay people that talking about it opening in the classroom would be controversial (Attitude 3, p. 146) to the more exceptional attitudes that view LGBTQ+ issues as non-issues because “there are a lot of gay men in ESL (Attitude 4, p. 147).
Taken as a whole these attitudes shed light on some of the major issues with taking a queer-informed approach to ESL that adequately gives spaces not just to LGBTQ+ issues, but to how all identities are shaped by dominant social discourses through tools like language. Many of the attitudes in Nelson (1993) are ones that you’ll still encounter today. For example, her attitudes 1, 2, 4, and 5 all attempt to take paint the attitude-holder as taking a neutral stance. There’s one major problem with this stance. There’s no such thing as a neutral stance in education. Every positioning, evening claiming to take no position, is an ideologically fraught act, and one intimately tied to matters of social power. Any critical educator can see that when we attempt to take the neutral road, our students often see it as a tacit endorsement of the status quo, of heteronormative, marginalizing discourses that may be sidelining either themselves, their friends, or their loved ones. And, this can have profound impacts on language learning and teaching by creating environments that encourage some to disengage, to fall silent because they feel that they don’t have the right the speak.
Vandrick (1997) focused on what she termed as hidden identities, which could encompass an identity or identity positioning that individuals might wish to hide from others. She gave examples that included socioeconomic identities, such as the girl from an upper-class family in a class of lower-middle-class peers wanting to hide her wealthier class identity in order to better fit in; religious identity, such as the muslim boy wanting to mask his religious identity in order to prevent being singled out because of the global impacts of radical Islam and its conflation with the West’s so-called War on Terror and mainstream Islam (a slightly modern updating on my part); and, of course, sexual identity, such as the bisexual femail student who only highlights their opposite sex relationships out of fear of teasing or being told for the umpteenth time that they, “just haven’t met the right guy yet.”
In this work, Vandrick gave the discipline two very important wake-up calls about identity. First, identity can become salient in the classroom and can impact teaching and learning. Second, individuals are invested in their various identities and will, if they feel threatened or ill at ease, attempt to hide their identities leading to increased cognitive and affective strain—think of the mental stress of having to keep track of the half-truths told to peers and the emotional burden of not being able to share important parts of your life with your close classmates and friends. ..
Calling attention to hidden identities
After this early and, in some ways careful, starting point of awareness raising, Nelson and Vandrick returned a short time later with discussions about what disciplinary next steps should be. For Nelson (1999), an apparent moment of opportunity could be found in interfacing TESOL and Applied Linguistics theory with advances from queer theory. This would lead her to call for the creation of LGBTQ+-friendly pedagogies through the careful deployment of queer theory in the ESL classroom. For Nelson, this included a careful examination of the various ways that classroom materials and practices constructed and constrained student identities, with a central focus on issues of power and control. Once this was understood, the student would be better positioned to understand how these discourses created social value around specific identities while marginalizing others. The end goal is to give a voice to the marginalized and allow them to find a voice and value.
Vandrick (2001) gave a thoughtful and impassioned plea for greater engagement with LGBTQ+ issues in the field. Two of the most memorable moments in this pieces is an explicit engagement with transgender issues, which are still largely ignored by the field and by researchers, and the call for straight-identified teachers to take up the baton of helping address LGBTQ+ issues and of creating inclusive classroom spaces. Vandrick, perhaps correctly, pointed out that straight-identified educators may be less at risk when introducing queer topics into the classroom, something true even today in some educational and national contexts. Regarding how to go about bring queer content into the classroom, Vandrick advised tying it to a discussion of human diversity and human rights. There is one critical note here, one more nail in the coffin of so-called neutral approaches. Vandrick (2001) is very clear in stating that homophobic comments must be met head-on and explicitly and publicly addressed. Failure to do so, even in the name of ideological neutrality, is tantamount to endorsement and will be seen as such in the eyes of the students.
Block, D. (2003). The social turn in second language acquisition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Lewin, E., & Leap, W. L. (Eds.). (2002). Out in theory: The emergence of gay and lesbian anthropology. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Nelson, C. D. (1993). Heterosexism in ESL: Examining our attitudes [The Forum]. TESOL Quarterly, 27(1), 143-150. DOI: 10.2307/2586966
Nelson, C. D. (1999). Sexual identities in ESL: Queer theory and classroom inquiry. TESOL Quarterly, 33(3), 371-391. DOI: 10.2307/3587670
Parkinson, R. B. (2013). A little gay history: Desire and diversity across the world. New York: University of Columbia Press.
Vandrick, S. (1997). The role of hidden identities in the postsecondary ESL classroom. TESOL Quarterly, 31(1), 153-157. DOI: 10.2307/3587980
Vandrick, S. (2001, February 28). Teaching sexual identity in the ESL classroom. Paper presented at the 35th annual meeting of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). Saint Louis, MO: TESOL.