From Closet to Classroom: Gay Issues in ESL/EFL

Barbara Summerhawk, 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 directly oppressed?

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 them seriously.

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 the dialogue.

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?

Contact Information

  • Rainbow Educator's Network in Japan: <>
  • GLESOL: email: < >[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, email: <>


  • Forster, E. M. (1920). Maurice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • 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 Square Press.
  • Ward, J., & Van Scoyoc, K. L. (1996, March). Homogeneity or homophobia: Where are gays in ESL textbooks? Presentation at Chicago TESOL, March 1996.