Closing Remarks on Negotiating LGBTQ+-inclusion in ELT Classes

Issues of sexuality and sexual literacy are an essential consideration in ELT, and a queer-informed pedagogy can have positive impacts on student learning and acculturation through addressing affective considerations, modeling respectful engagement, and drawing attention to issues that are relevant in the target culture (see Alexander, 2008; Nelson, 2009; Paiz, 2018). Moreover, creating more inclusive classrooms can serve as a critical step in addressing bullying and bringing attention to the issues faced by a marginalized population. For example, a recent report from GLSEN—a U.S.-based, K-12-focused, LGBTQ+ advocacy group—shows that over 70% of LGBTQ+ youth at American schools face bullying and harassment of some form, which has led to more endemic academic and attendance issues (GLSEN, 2017, pp. 13-16). Conversely, LGBTQ+ students that are in classes that take an inclusive pedagogical approach report feeling significantly less likely to be bullied or harassed because of their sexual orientation (perceived or actual (GLESEN, 2017, p. xxii). This fact again points to the potential power of creating LGBTQ+ inclusive classes for English language learners, not only at the K-12 level but at the post-secondary level as well. Also note, that the advantages of the inclusive classroom do not just impact LGBTQ+-identified students, but straight-identified students as well, as it can equip them to become better advocates for their friends and family that may be LGBTQ+-identified.

That being said, this chapter has sought to cast light on the occasionally fraught nature of creating LGBTQ+-inclusive classrooms and pedagogy. As we educators are rarely truly independent operators, we must take in to account a range of contextual considerations that include our relevant stakeholders—our students, our professional peers, and our administrators. In K-12 settings, this is further complicated by needing to take into account national standards and parental stakeholders, which were not discussed in this chapter. However, this chapter has drawn attention to the negotiated nature of creating more inclusive classroom spaces because of the importance of creating of doing so and the concomitant issues that may arise during our endeavors. By way of conclusion, I want to leave the reader with these final recommendations when engaging in the negotiations that often come with trying to include LGBTQ+ voices and lives in our English language classrooms.

Regarding Self-negotiations

  1. Reflect critically on your underlying assumptions about the topic.
  2. Consider why you are considering creating more inclusive classroom spaces and what material affordances and constraints you may face.
  3. Take time to think through the resistance that you may face and find institutional/disciplinary allies to help you work through tough spots.
  4. Link your attempts to create a more LGBTQ+-inclusive pedagogy to programmatic missions and classroom goals and outcomes.
  5. Reflect again on the changes that you have made as you have built a more inclusive pedagogy and its impact on the classroom environment and student learning.

Regarding Peer Negotiations

  1. Share your pedagogical rationale for engaging in the work of queering your classroom, using more LGBTQ+ inclusive pedagogies.
  2. Accept critical, contentious comments as a moment to jointly reflect on your practice as language educators.
  3. Be patient as we are all at different stages in our engagement with the notion that sexuality matters in education, more generally, and in ELT, more specifically.
  4. Use moments of disagreement as a chance to model respectful disagreement for students (Pandavar & Paiz, 2018).

Regarding Administrative Negotiations

  1. Highlight the ways this pedagogical approach is beneficial to all students; not just LGBTQ+ identified ones.
  2. Connect the inclusive classroom and pedagogy to institutional mission/vision statements or more extensive diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
  3. Bring in the literature on LGBTQ+ issues in English language teaching to provide a research-based foundation for your pedagogical efforts.
  4. Show how more inclusive classrooms can help students to acclimate to their local context and to understand the target culture better.

Closing Thoughts

            I want to close by acknowledging that frigid contexts exist (see Pawelczyk, Pakuła, & Sunderland (2014). Frigid contexts are those places where either institutional or legal pressures exist that would cause a teacher using a more LGBTQ+-inclusive pedagogy to face sanctions which may include the loss of employment or personal freedom. What I have advocated for here, and elsewhere, will not work in every context. That being said, I feel that any time we can address normative discourses, that we can use critical pedagogies, and that we can highlight for students the mainstream and the margins—of language, of culture, of knowledge—we do them a service and begin to build an emancipatory pedagogy (see Nouri & Sajjadi, 2014; Pennycook, 2001). However, every educator must make an individual decision based on what they feel will best serve their student population.

Advocating to Peers and Administrators for more LGBTQ+-inclusive ELT Classes

Few of us exist outside of an institutional ecology, which means that the vast majority of us, as practitioners, exist inside of networks of peer connections and institutional power structures. As this is the case, we must engage in negotiations with peers and administrators as we endeavor to make our classrooms more LGBTQ+-inclusive. Often, these negotiations are rather explicit and contained to specific moments of peer/administrative engage, such as when discussing pedagogy during a faculty meeting or when assisting administration with curriculum review and revision projects. Occasionally, they may seem more benign or to come entirely out of the proverbial left field,[1] arising during small talk being made while waiting for the copier or while attending a seminar together.  In this section, I will turn to my personal experiences as an ELT practitioner and a queer TESOL scholar to discuss these negotiations in further detail.

In my experience, the negotiations over LGBTQ+ inclusivity that we must have with our peers are net positive conversations. I have, at conferences and faculty meetings, been asked to clarify what I mean by queer pedagogy and to defend its use in the English language classroom. These conversations have taken place in my office, at conferences, and at professional seminars at which I have been invited to speak as a panelist. Most often, peers are seeking clarification on what your approach to queer pedagogy entails, and they are asking questions such as: Is it merely including LGBTQ+ representation in examples and texts? Is it modeling respectful engagement? How do you overcome student resistance? What do you do with homophobic comments or actions? I would encourage any person who chooses to make their classrooms more LGBTQ+-inclusive to have answers ready for these kinds of questions, as I will not provide answers here because they are so context- and instructor dependent.

Occasionally, however, the conversations with our peers can take a more strident, antagonistic tone. In my experience, these often occur when engaging with individuals that fall at the far end of Macdonald, El-Metoui, and Gray’s (2014) cline, individuals that feel that issues of sexuality are inherently private matters that have no place whatsoever in the language classroom. For example, in the spring of 2017, I was invited to sit on a lunchtime professional development panel on diversity and inclusion in teaching at NYU Shanghai, where I was a faculty member. After the panel presented their views, the floor was open to questions from the attendees. Almost immediately, a member of the EAP faculty started interrogating the need to address issues of race, gender, and sexuality in the language classroom. She felt it irresponsible to valuable class time introducing and addressing these issues with students when there was a greater need to address linguistic development. Moreover, she felt it was an intensely personal conversation that had no bearing on language learning and acquisition. To these concerns, I pointed out that creating LGBTQ+-inclusive classes goes beyond having a “gay day” in class. Instead, it requires us to rethink our materials and our lessons, looking for moments where normativity creeps into them. When we talk about family, do we present non-traditional, non-nuclear families? Do we show single fathers? Do we show working mothers? Do we show LGBTQ+ families? When we assign our students readings, do we move away from the Western canon or works by monolingual, monocultural, cisgender, or heterosexual authors? While she saw the value in what I was advocating for, she still felt sexuality was too politicized a topic and that if we were to create space for it, we must create space for dissenting voices lest they feel marginalized, which may then create an unwelcoming atmosphere and open the door to homophobic worldviews. My response to this is that dissent is not a negative. Even having to address homophobia is not a negative, if it handled responsibly. These moments allow us to bring the target culture, its evolution, its values, and its contradictions into our classes more fully. This modeling has two benefits to the learner: (1) it allows them to engage with the target culture and the conversations that it values (see Alexander, 2008); (2) it models language that can be used for respectful disagreement and self-advocacy.

A common concern over adding sexual diversity into the curriculum is because of worries about a negative reaction from institutional administrators and the occasionally genuine threat to their continued employment (e.g., Curran, 2002). Negotiations with administration over the inclusion of LGBTQ+ content and materials often arise during curriculum/program review and textbook/materials selection meetings. When navigating these discussions, tying LGBTQ+ inclusion to broader programmatic vision can be particularly helpful. For example, my current institution has a stated dedication to including marginalized voices in the classroom (Office of the Vice Provost, 2018). This linkage creates space for language programs, such as the EAP Program, to advocate for including sexual diversity and literacy as part of our language learning classrooms by linking it to broader institutional mission. It is also often beneficial to make explicit connections between being LGBTQ+-inclusive and the program’s learning outcomes. For example, if your program has a learning outcome that encourages students to engage in critical thinking on complex topics, or showcases the ability to navigate dissenting opinions in an L2, a queer educational approach can help to achieve both of these goals (Moore, 2016; Nelson, 2009; Paiz, forthcoming). Finally, linking LGBTQ+-inclusive pedagogical approaches to the local community and student acculturation can be a useful tool when talking with administrators. For example, a key goal of many EAP programs is to help student acculturate to the English language academic and local context (Tweedie & Kim, 2016). Including local LGBTQ+ voices in the classroom provides a powerful tool to educators to help show students the diversity of the local context and for them to model respectful ways of engaging with marginalized local communities in the L2 (see also O’Mochain, 2006).      

[1] Out of left field is an American slang term that refers to something occurring with little or no advance warning, seemingly unexpectedly. While often attributed to baseball, this may also have some connection to mental heal institutions (see Safire, 1985, pp. 271-272 for a history and linguistic commentary).

Negotiating LGBTQ+ Inclusivity with Student Stakeholders

One of the more salient arenas where the negotiation of LGBTQ+ inclusion must take place is in our classrooms with the students that we work with every day. These negotiations often happen tacitly—almost below the level of conscious access, and it often gets swept up with other “more pressing” teaching concerns such as getting through the lesson, preparing students for standardized exams, or trying to give each student time to produce language in class. These tacit negotiations can take many different forms—from the student attempting to play with and co-opt gender roles in a role play activity (see Nguyen & Yang, 2015), to creatively playing the pronoun game (see Shippee, 2011),[1] using their emerging linguistic abilities to make classroom contributions that reveal their authentic lives (see Liddicoat, 2009). However, these negotiations can also happen more explicitly, such as when students approach the teacher—often after class or during office hours—asking to include LGBTQ+ discussions or themes as part of the course content (see Moita-Lopez, 2006; Nelson, 2015). Whether explicit or implicit, the most significant problem is, as I have argued elsewhere, that ELT practitioners across the globe are ill-equipped to recognize and navigate these negotiations because of how few TESOL teacher preparation courses give any space to LGBTQ+ concerns or the emerging body of research and scholarship from lavender linguistics/applied linguistics (Paiz, 2018). I will now turn our focus to how we can begin to recognize and negotiate these moments with our students by turning to my own experiences as a practitioner and to a re-reading of selected pieces of the literature, which while not focused on negotiating the inclusion of queer content do shed some light on the situation (e.g., Liddcoat, 2009; Moita-Lopes, 2006).

Again, bear in mind that negotiations with students over the inclusion of LGBTQ+ content and issues is ongoing and emergent. It may happen with whole groups of students explicitly while negotiating other aspects of the course or implicitly during one-to-one or small group interventions—often we do not recognize these moments until well after they have passed and we have had time to reflect on them. However, being away that creating LGBTQ+-inclusive classes is an ongoing and emergent type of negotiation can increase our sensitivity to when these moments arise in our teaching, allowing us to handle them more purposefully. Here are two examples of how we implicitly negotiate LGBTQ+-inclusion with our students, both of these have occurred during moments of my teaching in EAP and L2 writing classrooms in Washington, D.C. and Shanghai, China. And, to be completely honest with you, I did not notice them as moments of tacit negotiation until I started reflecting on them in the context of writing this chapter.

During the fall of 2018, I was finishing out my first year teaching at a private, research-intensive university in Washington, D.C. The class in which the following encounter took place was credit-bearing, academic literacy course for undergraduates. We were at a point in the semester where we needed to review information related to APA citation and formatting. So, as most teachers do, I decided to gamify the lesson, creating a Jeopardy-inspired Powerpoint Deck. In one of the sections that I taught, two of the teams had tied and needing to break the tie I decided to have a sudden death round. Having not anticipated a tie, I did not have pre-selected questions on APA ready to go. So, we decided to have “Dr. Paíz Trivia” based on what I had shared a few weeks ago when I gave my self-introduction—research interest, hobbies, family. I asked questions like, “What project is Dr. Paiz currently working on?”, “What foreign country has he worked in before?”, etc. This went back and forth for a few rounds with no one able to break the tie. So, when two students that regularly come to my office hours were up, I decided to switch to a new question, “Who am I with in the three photos on the bookshelves in my office?” The students quickly shot off their answers, one saying “your spouse” and the other saying “your husband” at almost the same time. So, the tie persisted.

What I failed to notice at the moment, however, was that this was a moment of implicit negotiation with my students over the inclusion of LGBTQ+ content. One student responded with a gender-neutral term, the other with the distinctly gendered alternative. For the readers that don’t know me, my gender identity is male and I physically present as undoubtedly American male—bald head, goatee, and so on. So, in this moment we see to student performances. One that could be seen as taking safe ground and not challenging heteronormative discourse; one that could be seen almost as an attempt to get the answer right, while also protecting the professor from a potential loss of face. The other student could be seen as giving a response that very clearly subverts that heteronormative social discourses by correctly answering the question in the most accurate manner possible. The photos do indeed show me and my husband in our home with our dog and on holiday in Japan. Now, this reading of these responses was not carried out in situ—as I was more distracted by yet another tie and the need to come up with another tiebreaker question.

However, upon reflection, it shows a place where negotiation over LGBTQ+-inclusive themes could have taken place if I had allowed myself to be more aware of it at that time. The reason I see this as a potential site of negotiation is that the responses of these two students open the door to a teachable moment on respectful engagement, gendered language, and their intersections. While both answers are right—and in-line with how I have referred to my marital status in class periods—there is a real difference between referring to a spouse, which leaves the door open to interpretation by the interlocutor, and referring to a husband when the other member of that relationship is also very clearly male. If I had been more conscious of the tacit manner of these negotiations, I could have created a small teaching moment that brought in LGBTQ+ themes and that sought to equip my students to better engage with native speakers in their L2s about matters of personal interests and life.

These tacit negotiations also do not always take place in contained episodes. My first job after getting my Ph.D. was at a Sino-American joint venture university on the east coast of the People’s Republic of China. That year, I was teaching a first-year writing course for L2 English students, and I had students writing a critical literacy narrative about gaining literate ability in either their L1s or their L2s. One of my male Chinese students ended up talking about how his Canadian boyfriend helped him to gain the linguistic and literate ability to participate more fully in English-speaking LGBTQ+ online communities. The student had come to my office hours to discuss their paper before an in-class peer review, and as I read it, I noticed gendered references that indexed a male, same-sex relationship. Now, in that class, my students knew that I did LGBTQ+ research, but I used more gender-neutral ways of mentioning my then-fiancé. So, I was rather impressed that this student was willing to perform such an explicitly out identity in their paper. I did not, however, make any mention of it. A few days later, we held the in-class peer review, and I gathered copies of the paper to provide the students with some teacher commentary. Upon reading the new draft of this student’s paper, however, I noticed that they had revised the story about their boyfriend to being about a friend that helped them understand some unnamed online community better, opting to used gender-neutral, singular they/them as pronouns. Some of the peer reviewers’ comments that they thought they/them was a grammatical error.

Here, again, we see the space for tacit negotiations around the inclusion of LGBTQ+ content in a university-level writing class, at two different levels. Regarding the student’s changing of his story to be more gender neutral, to be less transgressive of perceived heteronormative expectations, the negotiation is not around getting that student to perform a more authentic self in their writing. It is never about outing anyone. Each student must have agency over their performance of sexual identity. Instead, the negotiation is around creating more inclusive classroom spaces by including materials that are written by and about the local LGBTQ+ community and that naturalizes queer voices in the classroom. Perhaps by seeing this inclusive discourse modeled in the writing in the classroom, the student would feel more comfortable sharing a more authentic performance of self with his classmates. There is additional space to negotiate the inclusion of LGBTQ+ material in response to the student-reviewers’ comments about the grammaticality of singular “they/them.” This comment opens the door to a teachable moment in a subsequent class that acknowledges the evolving nature of language and how they/them is increasingly being used in a gender-neutral manner in English. This discussion can then show how they/them has previously been used by the LGBTQ+ community as a way to share lived experiences in a manner that allows them to pass in a heteronormative society safely (see Doherty & Conklin, 2016; Shippee, 2011). This discussion then shows the role of grammatical structures in maintaining heteronormative discourses and allows us to talk about how language can be used to engage with others respectfully, especially members of marginalized communities.

Negotiations with students can also be more explicit, although I would argue it is still up to the educator to recognize when these moments arise and to act on them appropriately. Moreover, as stated above, it requires a rethinking and a queering of mainstream teacher preparation and professional development programs to help raise awareness of LGBTQ+ classroom issues (see Paiz, 2018; Saunston, 2018). To better highlight some of the forms these more explicit negotiations may take, I will be presenting data from Liddicoat’s (2009) study that looks at damaging effects of heteronormative classroom practices and Moita-Lopes’ (2006) paper discussing queer inclusion in K-12 classes in Brazil.

Figure 1, below, is an excerpt from a Spanish language class at an Australian university. In it, Liddicoat shows how a teacher’s implicitly heteronormative approach to teaching casts that language learners’ attempt to add a queer turn to the classroom discourse as signs of linguistic deficiency on the part of the learner (Liddicoat, 2009, 193-194).

Figure 1. SFL classroom excerpt of attempted negotiated inclusion of LGBTQ+ discourses in the classroom (Liddicoat, 2009, p. 193).

One reading of the excerpt in figure 1, above, is to see it as the student’s attempt to negotiate the inclusion of the queer lived experiences into the classroom. Sam is a cisgendered man and responds to the teacher’s normative question of, “What’s your girlfriend like/¿Como es tu novia?”, by responding with masculine forms of the noun and adjectives, responding with “My boyfriend is tall and slim/Mi novio es alto y delgado           . However, the teacher does not take this attempted inclusion at face value; they do not see this as a rather explicit attempt to begin negotiation of queer discourses in the classroom. Instead, the teacher sees this as a failure to understand gendered forms in the target language. The rest of the transcript shows continued negotiation attempts on the part of the student. It shows their rejection of the teacher’s recasts and finally their addition of an even more explicit statement that they are indeed talking about another male with whom they have a romantic relationship. This move is shown in turn 8 when they unequivocally state that they do not have a girlfriend, they have a boyfriend and one with very masculine features, namely a beard: Oh. No, es novio. Mi novio el alto y delgado. Y tiene una barba (Liddicoat, 2009, p. 193). In the next turn, turn 9, the teacher further rejects the opportunity to engage in negotiation with the now explicitly LGBTQ+-identified student, choosing instead to move on to the next student after a brief (0.7-second pause).

            This exchange highlights a failed negotiation that stems from an underprepared educator. Because, as I have argued before, so many teacher preparation and professional development programs ignore LGBTQ+ TESOL and applied linguistics literature, we have practitioners that are ill-equipped to recognize these moments of negotiation in their teaching (Paiz, 2018). Moreover, they often miss these explicit opportunities for the negotiation of LGBTQ+ inclusivity when they reflect on the day’s practice. Indeed, there is more at play here than just ill-prepared practitioners. There is also the fact that early-service teachers are reported to be overly beholden to textbooks and lesson plans (see Alverman, 1987; Ball, 1988), concerns about including LGBTQ+ voices because of institutional or cultural pressures (Barozzi & Guijarro, 2014; Nelson, 2015), and time considerations—especially in larger classes and ones focused on oral communication. That being said, the impacts of not being cognizant of moments like this cannot be understated. Namely, failure to be aware of LGBTQ+ issues, especially when coupled with a deficiency view of our students, leads to the silencing of queer voices and casting queer learners as linguistically deficient when they attempt to bring their lived experiences into the classroom. Moreover, it is this, that can have radically negative impacts on learner motivation and that can halt second language acquisition processes (see Dörnyei & Ushida, 2009).

            The work of Brazilian professor Moita-Lopes (2006) can also be used to elucidate the nature of more explicit, student-facing negotiations over the inclusion of LGBTQ+ content and themes into language classes, specifically at the primary and secondary levels. The student/teacher interaction presented in figure 2, below, highlights the very explicit negotiation of the expansion of classroom discourses to make room for queer themes and discussions (Moita-Lopes, 2006, pp. 37-38). In this passage, a teacher is providing direction on a student assignment that discusses prejudice, and one of their students responds by asking if discussing sexuality-based discrimination would be acceptable. Moita-Lopes (2006) includes this vignette to show

how students, even in primary and secondary levels often wish to discuss LGBTQ+ issues because they are part of their lived experiences.

Turn 2 of this exchange shows Juca, a student, asking the teacher if anti-homosexual

Figure 2. Brazilian Portuguese heritage language classroom assignment negotiation interaction (Moita-Lopes, 2006, pp. 37-38

prejudice would be an acceptable topic for the paper that they have to write. Moita-Lopes (2006) suggests that this highlights the fact that this topic was not one commonly addressed in this classroom (p. 38). I would push further and say that it also signals the student’s attempt to negotiate the parameters of the assignment with the teacher explicitly. This turn signals more than just an attempt to clarify an unclear assignment; this represents the students attempt to negotiate an expansion of classroom discourse to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ content and issues. Also note, that this opening move is made using respectful language to address the classroom teacher directly. However, turn 3 shows us a recalcitrant educator who offers a borderline petulant response by suggesting that the students’ question in turn 3 is somehow disrespectful, it was not based on the transcript and analysis in Moita-Lopes (2006), and then threatening to pack up their books and go home (figure 2, line 10). This move by the teacher, whom Moita-Lopes suggests is uncomfortable with LGBTQ+-inclusive discussion (pp. 38-39), effectively shuts down the negotiation, as we can see Juca adds nothing further to it. It further taints the educational moment for other students as a flustered teacher then bulldozes over another student’s requests to slow down so that they can catch up with their instruction (figure 2, lines 13-20).

What we see here isn’t just a failed negotiation, it is a reactionary shutting down of this, and quite possibly future, student-initiated negotiations regarding LGBTQ+ lives and content in the classroom. If, as Moita-Lopes (2006) suggests this reaction stems from the teacher’s discomfort, then it would further suggest the need for increased focus in teacher preparation and professional development programs on raising awareness of queer issues. This recommendation could help to make sure that the future negotiations are handled in a way that model respectful engagement with LGBTQ+ topics and individuals. Understand, I am not saying that the teacher has to be an LGBTQ+ ally. What I am arguing, however, is that educators must be trained to handle these moments of discomfort, and potential ideological disalignment, in ways that allow them to model civility and respect to their students. So that whether or not they hold socially liberal or conservative views towards homosexuality, they can meaningfully engage with these conversations in the L2s, because these conversations form part of national discourses across the globe (see Alexander, 2008).

A more fruitful tactic would have been for the educator to hit pause on the lesson and to operationalize for the student what they meant by respectful versus disrespectful approaches to talking about LGBTQ+ content. This could have been a great moment to bring in the shared viewpoints of the other students in the class by asking them to think of times they have seen people engage with this kind of prejudice. This could have then allowed students to work through the negotiation together to agree on what is respectful or disrespectful when speaking of sexual minorities. The teacher could then have asked the original student to talk a little more about how they might approach the topic allowing them to see how it might fit into the cline of respect that the class had co-generated through the earlier discussion. Alternatively, if time is an issue the conversation can be moved outside of the classroom to the last few minutes when other students are packing up or to during office hours.

This section has looked at the tacit and explicit negotiations that can occur with students over the inclusion of LGBTQ+ content and themes in the language classroom. While some of the examples have come from modern foreign/heritage language classrooms, there are indeed parallels to ELT (compare to Nelson, 2015). In the next section, I will briefly discuss negotiating LGBTQ+ inclusion with peers and institutional administrators.

[1] The pronoun game refers to purposefully using gender-neutral and ambiguous language to “pass” in a heterosexual/normative world (Shippee, 2011).

Negotiating with the Self Over Including LGBTQ+ Content in the English Language Classroom

In 2014, Macdonald, El-Metoui, and Gray released the final report of their ESOL Nexus Awards study into how LGBTQ+ issues affect teaching and learning English as a second language in the United Kingdom. A crucial part of this study involved examining teacher’s attitudes towards including and engaging with LGBTQ+ themed content in the English language curriculum and organizing these findings around four central themes ranging from non-engagement due to blissful ignorance to head on engagement through transformative critical practice. While I maintain elsewhere that ignorance, blissful or willful, is not an excuse for being unwilling to engage with LGBTQ+ issues (Paiz, 2018, in press), I believe that Macdonald, El-Metoui, and Gray (2014) provide a useful roadmap to the different entry points for self-negotiations that ELT practitioners face when deciding whether or not to include LGBTQ+ content and themes in their classes. Moreover, I believe we see variations on this theme appearing elsewhere in the literature on teacher’s attitudes towards LGBTQ+ issues and their place, if any, in ELT classrooms (e.g., Barozzi & Guijarro Ojeda, 2014; Nelson, 2015; Rhodes & Coda, 2017). Before continuing any further with a discussion of these entry points, however, I want to take a step and offer a small acknowledgment.
It doesn’t matter where you or your colleagues are at in your consideration of LGBTQ+ issues, as long as you’re not willfully ignorant of these issues. Engaging with matters of social justice and equity—whether it’s race, class, gender, ethnicity, or sexuality—takes time and an open mind. You, your understanding, and your beliefs are likely to evolve over time (see also, Rodriguez & Pinar, 2007). You must, however, be open to the idea that social justice concerns warrant some place in language pedagogy. When I first started teaching in 2009, I was most certainly in the blissfully unaware category mentioned above. I can distinctly recall a slightly heated debated with a colleague about what I then saw as his needless inclusion of LGBTQ+ discussion in a class that was supposed to be focused on academic literacy acquisition. If you had told me then than LGBTQ+ issues as they relate to pedagogy and materials would come to play a central part of my scholarly agenda not even a decade later, I would have laughed and called it nonsense and a non-issue. Now, understand that to get to this point has required a constant reexamination of my professional assumptions and renegotiation of my teaching philosophy. What does matter is that one is being open and receptive to the message that comes out of critical approaches to ELT and applied linguistics (see Pennycook, 2001), and, of course, that you give the ideas time to integrate with your practice and a more inclusive and welcoming view of your work as an educator.

Unprepared Educators

“It had never crossed my mind (Macdonald, El-Metoui, & Gray, 2014, p. 8)” is the first theme identified by the authors as they report on LGBTQ+ issues in adult ESOL in the U.K. To me, this also represents a sort of blissful, yet unintentional, ignorance on the part of the educator. Understand, that I am not denigrating people that fall into this category. Rather, I feel that it represents a moment of true opportunity, space where self-directed negotiations over LGBTQ+ content and themes and their inclusion in the language learning classroom can be most easily had. During the time that I have been actively writing and presenting this topic, I’ve been approached by a handful of people at every conference that has admitted they never really considered that sexuality might play any role whatsoever in the language classroom. For these individuals, I find that creating the space to reflect on their teaching experiences often uncovers moments where sexuality has become educationally salient in their classrooms—usually when working with LGBTQ+-identified students on lessons that focus on the body, the family, or on personal matters. It’s often during these kinds of lessons that pre-planned (often heteronormative) activities can break down. For example, it’s not uncommon for educators to recast answers to questions about family or personal lives that don’t fit the pre-determined, often textbook-based, scripts for the lesson—such as when a cisgender, female student starts talking of her girlfriend. The go-to response may be recast with the “correct” vocabulary item of boyfriend or to just assume that she means a girl with whom she shares a platonic bond (see Liddicoat, 2009; Moore, 2016).
Once a person at this stage has found space to reflect on their practices, getting them to ask critical questions is an essential next step. Asking them to think about the impacts of representation and repression of identities on a person’s life and development and to consider the role of language in maintaining the marginalization of certain groups—or language’s power to facilitate advocacy for the marginalized is helpful. In seeking answers to this question, a good mentor or strong personal learning network (PLN) can be useful as the practitioner seeks to tease out their answers and how sexuality and ELT theory intersect with their own practice. I often find that open-minded, critically reflective educators that are at this stage of engagement are most open to the self-negotiations that must occur before they move to a place of fuller participation. What they often need is exposure and the opportunity to reflect and to ask critical questions in a judgment-free space. If anything, as I have argued elsewhere, this really speaks to the need for the greater inclusion of literature from the growing subfield of lavender applied linguistics and TESOL in the teacher training preparation (see Paiz, 2018, forthcoming). We as scholars and teacher trainers are falling woefully short in creating the space in our classes for the critical engagement on many issues (sexuality, gender, race, etc.), and in doing so, we are leaving educators underprepared for teaching in 21st-century classrooms.

Private Life has No Place in the Classroom

I find that the most challenging educators to induce into (re-) negotiating the role of sexuality in their practice are the educators that fall into Macdonald, El-Metoui, and Gray’s (2014) category of private life is private. Individuals that fall into this category often have a range of responses when encountering scholarship and research that advocates for an increased focus on LGBTQ+ content in their classrooms, all of which come back to this distinction between private and public lives of our students. For example, I once heard an English for academic purposes (EAP) practitioner state that they are preparing their students for the “objective world of the STEM labor market, a place where it’s about ability and skill and where no one cares whether you’re gay, straight, cis, trans, man, woman, local, or immigrant.” And, since this was the case, they had no need to consider these issues in their teaching. In another example, we often see people fretting about the inclusion of sexuality because it is a private matter and if we open the door to it, we must therefore open the door to other discussions about individual issues, such as religious beliefs, political leanings, class identifications, etc., and to do this risks the safety and comfort of the language classroom, which should be insulated from such concerns because it’s primary focus is on language (Pandavar & Paiz, 2017).
It would be tempting to write off people that hold these views as people who would be unwilling to engage in the critical reflection and self-negotiations necessary to move the needle on their beliefs. But, as I have stated earlier in this chapter, non-engagement is not an option. It is just as ideologically fraught a position as taking a firm stand on either side of the argument of this chapter. While individuals with this position may be difficult to engage with and it may seem that they will be unwilling to change their beliefs, we must work to create space for engagement and for self-reflection and negotiation. A good starting point here is to highlight how the language learning classroom is always already a personal space, which means that it is always already a sexualized, a gendered, an embodied space (see Alexander, 2008; Waite, 2017). It is always already personal in many ways. In many ESL contexts, language learning classrooms tend to be rather small. The EAP classes that I teach at George Washington University average 12 students per section. The IEP classes that I taught for the American Language Institute at the University of Toledo averaged 10. In these small, intimate classroom settings, we come to know our students, and they come to know us. Moreover, our lessons already sanction personal discussions on topics ranging from family to dating to hobbies to personal aspirations. To say that sexuality has no place in the language classroom because it is too personal, too private, too sensitive is to ignore the way our teaching of language already encourages students to open up about their private lives. To worry that engaging with discussions of sexuality would be too raw, too emotional for some students is to ignore how a student who is the child of a bitter divorce might react to lessons that only acknowledge the perfect, nuclear family as indeed being a family (for a discussion on hidden identities, see Vandrick, 1997).
For individuals who feel the primary focus should be on language and not on the personal (or the political as LGBTQ+ identities are often cast), the entry point for self-negotiation becomes somewhat different. Here, it is helpful to create space for engagement by acknowledging the beliefs that we share—that the language classroom is primarily a site for language learning. Once we have this shared starting point, it is necessary to reflect on what exactly the role and use of language are—not just in our classes or for our students (although this is important), but in life and in society. Language, even language in the workplace (as is the target in ESP instruction), is about more than just being able to talk about a limited set of proscribed topics (e.g., family, coding, or finance). To be successful language users in broader society and in the workplace, students must be able to respectfully engage with the sticky, tricky content that makes up essential parts of cultural discourses (Alexander, 2008). Whether we like it or not, this includes issues of race, gender, and sexuality, as these are topics that can come up during workplace HR interventions, watercooler conversations, and so on. To fully engage in the workplace in their L2s our students must be equipped to respectfully and critically engage in these conversations. This is a concern that must be kept in mind even in foundational literacy classes, because as Alexander (2008) has argued, “[l]earning to talk fluently and critically about sex and sexuality composes a significant part of becoming literate in [western] society (p. 2).” Drawing these connections for people that are at this stage of engagement can be an essential step in their self-negotiations about the inclusion of LGBTQ+ content in their practice.

“Sitting in the Fire”: Tolerance is What we Teach Anyways

Macdonald, El-Metoui, and Gray’s (2014) final two categories represent educators who have already decided that LGBTQ+ material and lives have a place in their language classrooms. It may seem, on the surface, that these individuals have reached the successful conclusion of their self-negotiations on this matter and that there is little left to say regarding individuals at these two stages. However, I would encourage all practitioners, myself included, to be open to the occasional renegotiation of our views regarding the inclusion of LGBTQ+ content in our classes. Not so that we can, potentially, talk ourselves out of it, but so that we can make sure that we are including this material in ways that are ethical and accessible to our students. Even if you feel that you do a pretty good job of what Nelson (2006, 2009) describe as queering the classroom, one must return to their self-negotiations as there are changes in their national, institutional, and local classroom environments. Different student populations will have different needs, expectations, and experiences. So, a lesson that worked very well at including trans lives one year with one student population may need tweaking the next year with a different student population. For example, I found working with older adult learners in China far more challenging than working with teens and young adults when it came to queering the classroom. Part of this is because of the increased positive views towards LGBTQ+ individuals along this generational divide. As proof of this, I would offer my experiences judging the 2018 China Thinks Big competition. China Thinks Big is a high school competition in China that is organized by the Harvard College Association for U.S.-China Relations and invites high school students to create projects that address social issues in modern China through either STEM or humanities interventions. When I judged the social sciences and humanities strand in 2018 about 10 of the projects were to increase awareness of LGBTQ+ lives and to foster inclusive dialogue and sexual literacy for LGBTQ+ individuals. These student-led projects where delivered in English and showed a passion for redressing negative attitudes towards LGBTQ+ youth in China. This to me speaks to grass-roots attempts to change hearts and minds in the PRC about queer issues. It also suggests to me the need to be critical about how I would craft lessons for youth and older adults about LGBTQ+ issues. For older adults, it may be more about awareness raising and modeling respectful engagement, while for the youth it would be more about equipping students with language to advocate for self- and for others and creating space to gain perspective on both conservative and liberal views towards LGBTQ+ lives and bodies (see also Krause, 2017).
Simply put, the self-negotiation that the critical educator must be willing to take on regarding any social equity issue—race, gender, sexuality, religion, political identity, etc.—is a continuous process. We may all fall on different points of the engagement/attitudinal spectrum described by Macdonald, El-Metoui, and Gray (2014), but we need to critically evaluate our positioning, our attitudes, and our beliefs in conjunction with the needs of our students to become critical language users. In the next sections, the focus will shift away from self to others with an examination of some of the explicit and implicit negotiations we have with other stakeholders as we try to create more LGBTQ+-inclusive classroom spaces.

Introduction to Negotiating LGBTQ+ Inclusion in ELT

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing a draft of some parts of an invited chapter that I’m writing on negotiating LGBTQ+ inclusion in English language teaching. This represents my first rough pass at the chapter and some initial ideas. This series will be organized around four levels of negotiation that often occur when we attempt to queer the classroom: self-negotiations, student/teacher negotiations, peer/administrator negotiations, and parent-stakeholder negotiations.

The need to address LGBTQ+ issues in English language teaching (ELT) can be traced back to a small colloquium organized for the 1992 TESOL Conference in Vancouver, Canada (Cascadden, Ward, & Nelson, 1992), the key takeaways of which were published a year later by Nelson (1993). In this seminal piece, “Heterosexism in ESL: Examining out Attitudes”, Nelson rightly critiqued the blind eye being turned towards LGBTQ+ concerns by the field of teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL), going so far as to point out that there was a then-rampant, almost willful, desexualization of the field that favored, and enforced, heterosexual identities. That is, TESOL was more than willing, at the time, to assume that its teachers, administrators, researchers, and its students were all straight—even if it was proven otherwise. Nelson (1993) and others have rightly pointed out that this can be potentially damaging to language learners and second language acquisition processes (see also Coda, 2018, Paiz, 2018, Vandrick, 1997, 2001).

In the intervening 27 years, LGBTQ+ issues have come to represent a growing subfield of TESOL and its parent discipline of Applied Linguistics (see Rowlett & King, 2017; Leap & Motschenbacher, 2012; Paiz, In Press). And, this growing body of scholarship and research has made important strides—from outlining pedagogical approaches (Nelson, 2006, 2009), better understand the role and normative nature of curricular materials (Grey, 2013; Paiz, 2015), coming to grips with student and teacher attitudes towards LGBTQ+ discussion (Moita-Lopez, 2006; Macdonald, El-Metoui, & Gray, 2014), to finally including a more direct engagement with trans issues (Nguyen & Yang, 2015). What’s largely still missing is pedagogical descriptions that are theory-grounded yet practitioner accessible (Merse, 2015; Paiz, forthcoming) and a better understanding of the negotiated nature of including LGBTQ+ content in language classroom (see Liddicoat, 2006). This chapter will begin to address these gaps by outlining various levels of negotiation that, sometimes tacitly, occur when we are striving to make our learning spaces more inclusive of LGBTQ+ lives and topics. It will begin by looking at the teacher-internal negotiations that must first occur by discussing my own evolution on this topic and examining some reported teacher’s attitudes towards LGBTQ+ diversity and inclusion in ELT. It will then move on to looking at how these negotiations may play out with different stakeholder populations—from students to parents, offering a targeted rereading of some of the linguistic data that has been reported in the literature thus far—ending with some practical tips for practitioners in navigating these often times complicated and complex negotiations.