From Closet to Classroom: Gay Issues in ESL/EFL
Daito Bunka University
It goes without saying that consciousness about the varieties
of relationships and even families is growing here in Japan. Partially as
a result of the media and feminist and human rights movements, our students
have an interest in gay relations (Ishino & Wakabayashi, 1995). Some
of our students are gay themselves, understandably cautious about coming
out in a still homophobic society.
Moreover, any discussion of gender would be incomplete without a corresponding
discussion of sexuality (for more information consult Smith, 1996). Note
that we're talking about sexuality--sexual orientation or sexual identity--not
sex. Talking about the relation between gender and sexuality doesn't mean
we're going to get down to what people do in the bedroom. Issues around
sexuality involve issues of identity and being. One does not need a working
knowledge of the theory of compulsory heterosexuality to understand that
(1) gays exist; (2) gay existence has been denied or suppressed in this
society that fears differences; (3) gays are emerging from the closet and
are becoming visible, albeit often held up for ridicule by the media; (4)
gays are beginning to push for rights and recognition vis-`a-vis the Lesbian
and Gay Film Festival scheduled for May 8 to 10 this year, the Gay Pride
March held every year in Tokyo in August attracting nearly 1500 marchers,
and other actions.
Perhaps many heterosexual teachers might say, "It's important, but
it's not my issue." But race is, even if we're white? Anti-Semitism
is, even if we're not Jewish? Human rights issues are, even if we're not
Even though we may feel sexuality is an important topic, we may feel
uncomfortable about approaching it in the classroom. So how can we do it?
I've found that the following ways have been very successful in presenting
the theme of sexuality: a) integration into a continuing discussion on human
rights; b) using literary characters from films or books to inspire discussion;
c) using elements of film review to raise consciousness; d) using summaries
of newspaper articles; and e) bringing in speakers to address realities
of gay life in Japan.
Students are interested in themes connected to sexuality but feel threatened
or uncomfortable in discussing them at first. It is especially important
for us as teachers to minimize the discomfort and provide an atmosphere
where the issues can be discussed honestly with respect for our various
values. Therefore, it is my experience that integration of gay themes into
a continuing discussion or presentation on diversity or human rights works
best. In the past when I taught conversation or listening, I used Paul McCartney
and Stevie Wonder's song "Ebony and Ivory," first, fill in the
blanks as students listened to the song, then discussion questions on the
subject--discrimination. When asked the kinds of discrimination seen in
Japan, students immediately thought of the discrimination against Koreans
and Southeast Asians. With more prompting and eventually a student would
mention "homos." I would write on the board gay/lesbian and then
ask at the end if human rights extend to all these groups. If so, what does
that mean? Equality in jobs? Marriage? Hiring?
Now I teach mostly content classes, including women's studies, literature,
and American thought and culture. In the units on family I've successfully
used Heather Has Two Mommies (Newman, 1989), an American children's
book that introduces not only a lesbian family but, through Heather's daycare
center friends, all the varieties of contemporary American families, including
single-parent, all adopted children, gay male, big extended and what might
otherwise be called "normal"-- father, mother and three children.
Since this is a children's book, it is easy to read and so very well presented
the students could relax with the discussion. Other source materials include
Making Love Visible (Swallow & Manasse, 1996), and Both My
Moms' Names Are Judy (Levey & Massin, 1995). Depending on the level
of the class, I can then ask the purpose of a family, what a family is,
and what we need to do to make a family. My classes never fail to come up
with love and commitment as two key elements. Discussion also covers topics
such as whether these families should be accepted by law and society, but
it is here that I get some disagreement. I encourage students to try and
explain why and why not, and I don't argue with them. At the end of every
year, many students mention in their class evaluations these lessons as
important in raising their consciousness on the varieties of human relations.
Another approach is using literary characters or films and other visual
aids to inspire discussion. The Color Purple (Walker, 1982) is a
great book and film to introduce many contemporary themes, such as family
violence, male dominance, and racism. I use it in my seminar where students
read it in Japanese and discuss it in English. Over these past ten years,
no book I've used has been as popular as The Color Purple, with its
triangle of love between, Celie and Shug, Shug and Albert (Celie's husband),
and the relationship between Celie and Albert. In the movie, Celie was played
by Whoopie Goldberg and Albert by Danny Glover. In this class students don't
seem to exhibit as much discomfort with the subject of lesbian love because
they are focused on the characters and their development. It takes four
classes to adequately cover the novel and film. For language rather than
content classes, it might work better picking up a few scenes from the movie
or taking one chapter from the book. This would involve some careful preparation
but would be worth it.
When I was teaching composition, I introduced the elements of film review
and presented reviews on Maurice, E. M. Forster's (1920) novel-made-celluloid.
Discussion and comprehension questions followed and then their assignment
was to write a review of a film from a list I gave them which included "The
Color Purple," "My Own Private Idaho," and "Philadelphia."
A few students chose these films to review.
One good exercise to use in conversation or reading and topics classes
is a mix-and-match on issues presented in the newspapers. Your selection
of articles could move from easy-to-read to more difficult, on contemporary
topics including an article on gay marriage or gay film stars or other topics
with articles on other subjects. After students match headlines with stories,
in small groups they can work out a short summary and commentary on each
article, or one article can be assigned to each group. It helps to introduce
the journalistic style 5Ws, 1H--who, what, where, when, why, and how--that
should be included in the first two paragraphs of any good news story. The
students identify the 5Ws, 1H (if they can) and move on to the summary.
Then discussion questions include: Is this article surprising? Why? What
do you think of the article?
Speakers rivet the attention of everyone in the classroom on the realities
of gay life. Last year I invited a lesbian, a bisexual, and a gay man to
speak to my women's studies class. Not only were all my students
present, there were visiting professors and students from other classes.
Each speaker told his or her story in Japanese and talked about their involvement
or connection with the gay movements active in Japan. The male speaker was
a graduate student at another university and was near my students' own age
and so was able to address "the things you all talk about outside the
classroom." In any case, there was very little time left for questions
at the end, but I had the students write their impressions for the next
week's homework. Many students tried to confront their own prejudices, most
were glad to have had the opportunity to hear these stories of an ignored
minority just now coming out. It was one time I especially looked forward
to reading student papers!
At this point, some teachers may wonder how safe they are in bringing
speakers to campus on controversial issues. Since there is a growing visible
gay presence in Japan, it cannot be denied that it is a topic of discussion
(Ishino & Wakabayashi, 1995). For those seeking academic validity, it
may be pointed out that many universities in America have lesbian and gay
studies departments. Further, in Japan, Ueno Chizuko, a renowned professor
of Tokyo University, held a symposium on gay studies in May, 1997. Several
years ago, I received an Education Ministry research grant to do a study
on the lesbian community of southern Oregon. Universities may be more open
than imagined, especially with the degree of freedom allowed individual
teachers to decide their course contents and materials. The issue may be
different at language institutes which exercise more control over speakers,
courses and texts. If you are seriously considering inviting speakers, it
might be wise to consult another faculty member you trust. Teachers may
wish to ask students to vote for speakers on themes they're most interested
in. I have given student options for composition, discussions, and readings
that included gay themes. More third-year students choose gay themes than
first-year students, more boys than girls. Giving students some choice on
what they will research or study demonstrates an attitude of trust and taking
Many times I wished for ESL/EFL materials that simply used language inclusive
of our diversities instead of having to reinvent the wheel. The sad fact
is not just that writers of ESL/EFL texts are reluctant to tackle gay issues,
but that publishers also censor such materials. In a presentation reporting
the results of a survey presented at the international TESOL conference
of 1996, Jim Ward and Kirk L. Van Scoyoc found that an overwhelming number
of teachers (51 yes to 5 no) thought that gays should be included in ESL
materials. But in response to queries to textbook writers about their including
gays in their texts, less than half said they did. Moreover, four authors
reported being asked by the publishers to leave gay and lesbians out of
the materials (Ward & Van Scoyoc, 1996). Available from the Gay and
Lesbian Educators to Speakers of Other Languages (GLESOL) is the full report,
with a list of texts that do have gays included in a positive way.
I have heard many times from teachers that they do not think that they
have any gay students, or that students are too young and lack experience
to know much about sexuality. If that is so, why did NHK, the national broadcasting
corporation, use a dialogue for its junior high school text and national
contest that based its humor on an antigay premise? (A male foreign exchange
student, Tom, tells a Japanese girl about his nightmare in which his Japanese
friend, Ken, sends him a love letter. When Ken shows up for real and says
he has a letter for Tom, Tom runs away. We then learn that Ken just wanted
a letter from his host family explained. Whew!) When Naeko Wakabayashi,
who tutored junior high school students, complained to NHK on behalf of
the Asian Lesbian Network, NHK agreed to meet her and gay activists. NHK
said the dialogue was written with no intention to insult anyone. After
the discussion with members of the gay community, NHK apologized and pulled
This incident demonstrated that writers for NHK were aware junior high
school students have some consciousness of the gay/straight division and
that jokes at the expense of gays are popular. However, the incident also
shows NHK's willingness to change when confronted about the offensive nature
of the dialogue. In such an atmosphere of derision, how can we expect our
gay students to be brave and come out--or even have a high opinion of themselves?
Many gay students have come out to me, but only after I had provided
(I hope) a supportive classroom atmosphere of diversity. Several cautiously
asked me if it would be possible for them to do their graduation thesis
on gay writers or gay culture. When I encouraged them, it was usually then
that they came out. Another time, a Korean woman asked me for information
on Japanese lesbians after I talked about gender and sexuality in my women's
studies class. She wondered how she was going to be able to meet other lesbians.
Isn't our responsibility to give as many chances as possible for self-development
to all our students?
Since TESOL 1992, with "We Are Your Colleagues: Lesbians and Gays
in ESL" (cited in Nelson, 1995), gay educators to speakers of other
languages have been organizing and raising issues internationally. Last
year at the Annual JALT Conference in Hamamatsu, over 30 people attended
a "Rainbow Dinner" for Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay educators and people
interested in teaching these issues. Isn't it about time to come out of
the closet and into the classroom and celebrate our various diversities?
The students are ready. Are we?
Rainbow Educator's Network in Japan: <email@example.com>
GLESOL: email: <firstname.lastname@example.org
>[In the body type: subscribe GLESOL-L].
Lesbian and Gay Movie Festival: Tel: 0353805760, Fax: 0353805767.
Asian Lesbian Network: 0332268314.
OCCUR (Gay Men's Organization): Tel: 0333835556, Fax: 0332297880,
Forster, E. M. (1920). Maurice. Oxford: Oxford University
Ishino, S., & Wakabayashi, N. (1995). Japan. In Unspoken
rule: Sexual orientation and women's human rights (pp. 105-107). Tokyo:
1995 International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
Levey, L., & Massin, P. (1995). Both my moms' names
are Judy. San Francisco: LPGA. Contact Address: 2855 25th St., San Francisco,
CA 94110 USA.
Nelson, C. (1995). Heterosexism and ESL: Examining our
attitudes. TESOL Quarterly, 27 (2), 143-150.
Newman, L. (1989). Heather has two mommies. Los
Angeles: Alyson Press.
Smith, R. (1996). Sexual constructions and lesbian identity.
In T. Cosslett, A. Easton, & P. Summerfields (Eds.), Women, power,
and resistance: An introduction to women's studies (pp. 176-184). Philadelphia:
Open University Press.
Swallow, J., & Manasse, G. (1996, March). Making love
visible. Presentation at Chicago TESOL, March 1996.
Walker, A. (1982). The color purple. New York: Washington
Ward, J., & Van Scoyoc, K. L. (1996, March). Homogeneity
or homophobia: Where are gays in ESL textbooks? Presentation at Chicago
TESOL, March 1996.
© 1998 by the author.
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Last modified: May 20, 1998
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