This article will examine how the vast majority of current ELT materials serve to perpetuate heterosexual norms, ignoring the social reality and leading to the exclusion of LGBT+ students and teachers. It will suggest ways in which you can make adaptations to be a more inclusive practitioner. By S.L.L., SGI Teacher Trainer
- What is heteronormativity?
Heteronormativity is a somewhat academic term that describes how cultural and institutional systems normalize and privilege heterosexuality, the traditional gender binary and associated roles. How does this manifest itself in everyday life? Well, it is drilled into us from the day we are born. Heteronormativity is the pink-blue divide that prevails in the vast majority of toy departments where toys cannot simply be toys: they are designed to shape children into the traditional gender roles thereby limiting their freedom of expression. When a family friend made the following comment about my 2-year-old daughter: “Aww, isn’t that cute! She’s got a boyfriend!” just because she was playing with a boy, this is heteronormativity at work, not to mention the representations of romantic relationships in mainstream films and television which are almost exclusively heterosexual.
In fact, heteronormativity can be found everywhere, once you start looking. It is even present in the language we use: ‘straight’ for example, has a connotation of honesty & decency and even the concept of ‘coming out’ is based on a presumption of heterosexuality; people don’t need to come out as straight because that’s the default sexuality. When I did an image search for this article, I typed in ‘gay couple’ into one website and immediately had to confirm I was over 18, but when I just typed in ‘couple’ I had instant access to the same type of images – this is heteronormativity.
- What about cultural sensitivity?
First of all, teaching can never be value-free i.e. there is no such thing as being neutral: Every decision we make in terms of lesson content and how we run our classes reflects a set of values. While it might be argued that LGBT+ inclusion is a belief that should not be imposed on students, removing all potentially controversial content will not magically neutralise our teaching – it will simply leave it with a different set of values, and ones that may lead to exclusionary practices. Besides, we will see a bit later on that being inclusive does not mean forcing these topics onto students at all.
I also believe that our role as teachers is to transform reality – that of our students and consequently, the wider social reality. We should be questioning how normal became normal and re-evaluate what is taken for granted so we don’t blindly replicate the status quo.
- How does heteronormativity manifest itself in ELT materials?
Scott Thornbury (1999) sums it up nicely ‘Coursebook characters are never gay.’ The absence of any kind of queer character essentially erases an important part of our social reality. Secondly, all textbook representations of family, love and relationships are… you guessed it – heterosexual.
To see just how prevalent this was, I analysed 2 popular Elementary-level coursebooks and made a tally of all representations of heterosexuality. I knew from experience of using these books that there were no queer characters or topics but drawing from a queer theory approach, I turned my focus towards the taken-for-granted rather than the ‘other’. I was actually quite surprised at the extent to which heterosexuality is quite literally embedded in these books; from a heterosexual perspective these books might appear somehow neutral or de-sexualised, but they’re clearly not. There were 26 obvious examples of heterosexuality in the first book and 39 in the second (this was not a rigorous academic study and a deeper analysis is likely to reveal more examples). The references I found were in the form of pictures or illustrations, family trees, characters talking about their husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend in listening and reading activities, references to films and love stories in popular culture.
There are some exceptions, of course, in which queerness is presented. In some books and online resources you can find topics for discussion such as: Do you know any homosexual people? Should gay marriage / adoption be allowed? However, just because these materials raise LGBT+ issues does not necessarily mean they are doing it in a useful or respectful way. First of all, this type of question tends to be framed with the assumption that the speakers are heterosexual (heteronormativity alert). Secondly, they present queerness and multiple sexualities as problematic and up for debate (BIG no-no). From a student’s perspective, this could create a stigmatising and hostile classroom experience.
The best material by far, is that which presents LGBT+ people and issues as part of social reality, rather than something to be judged; weaving them into the very fabric of the lesson rather than questioning their right to just be.
- Why does it matter?
Self-disclosure is such a core component of our classes (Liddicoat, 2009), especially at lower levels: we expect students to talk about their lives, families, relationships and experiences, yet LGBT+ students and teachers may feel that they have to censor part of their identity. In this respect, ELT provides a natural context to mainstream such issues (Gray, 2013) and inclusion in lesson content serves to legitimise topics (Evripidou, 2015). When students are treated as a ‘monosexual community of interlocutors’ (Nelson, 2006) the traditional idea of the non-conforming deviant other is reinforced. If the moral and ethical arguments are not enough to convince you, it is worth remembering that the Equality Act (2010) protects gender orientation and sex reassignment, so discrimination against these characteristics is illegal in the UK.
- Why aren’t publishers doing anything?
You have probably already guessed that it all boils down to money. Commercial interests are a huge driving factor in the silencing of LGBT+ voices in ELT materials: publishers are not going to be able to sell inclusive books in countries where homosexuality is illegal, for example. According to 2016 data I received from one of the largest ELT publishers, at least five out of their top ten sales districts do not respect LGBT+ rights (Rainbow Europe), and in one of those countries homosexuality is punishable by death.
- So what can I do?
I imagine it’s going to be a long while before queerness is mainstreamed in popular materials, so in the meantime you will need to be a trailblazer. There are transformations you can make to existing material to make it more inclusive: you can retype communicative tasks, for example, that mention couples and make sure there is at least one same-sex couple mentioned; you can redesign family trees to include different types of romantic relationship; you can use more inclusive images than the ones in course books. Remember, these changes are aimed at integrating multiple sexualities into a language lesson without making them the focus of the lesson. Always bear in mind that there may be LGBT+ students in your class when addressing such topics and think about how you might deal with negative reactions from students. Stonewall offers a wealth of guidance and resources on their website on tackling homo/bi/transphobia. You can also find teaching resources online, such as: https://www.equalitiestoolkit.com/content/educate-out-prejudice-film-page. Finally, share what you have created or found with your colleagues and start a discussion about how to make your school’s practice as inclusive as possible.
S.L.L., SGI Teacher Trainer
- Liddicoat, A.J. (2009) Sexual Identity as Linguistic Failure: Trajectories of Interaction in the Heteronormative Language Classroom, Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, Vol.8(2-3), p.191-202.
- Nelson, C.D. (2006) Queer Inquiry in Language Education, Journal of Language, Identity & Education, Vol.5(1), p.1-9.
- Rhodes, C.M. & Coda, J. (2017) It’s Not in the Curriculum: Adult English Language Teachers and LGBQ Topics, Adult Learning, Vol.28(3), p.99-106.
- Gray, J. (2013) Critical perspectives on language teaching materials, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
- O’Mochain, R. (2006) Discussing Gender and Sexuality in a Context-Appropriate Way: Queer Narratives in an EFL College Classroom in Japan, Journal of Language, Identity & Education, Vol.5(1), p.51-66.
- Rondón Cardenas, F. (2012) LGBT Students’ Short Range Narratives and Gender Performance in the EFL Classroom, Colombian Applied Linguistics Journal, Vol.14(1), pp.77-91.
- Dumas, J. (2008) The ESL classroom and the queerly shifting sands of learner identity, TESL Canada Journal, Vol.26(1), p.1(10).
- Evripidou, D. & Çavuşoğlu, Ç. (2015) English Language Teachers’ Attitudes Towards the Incorporation of Gay- and Lesbian-Related Topics in the Classroom: the Case of Greek Cypriot EFL Teachers, Sexuality Research and Social Policy, Vol.12(1), pp.70-80.
- Lueptow, K. (2013) https://everydayfeminism.com/2013/09/mass-producing-heteronormalism/
- Nelson, K. (2015) https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/07/what-is-heteronormativity/
- hooks, b. (1994) Teaching to Transgress, Routledge.