Including LGBT issues in the ELT classroom.

Intimate migrations_family (2)Image Courtesy of Intimate Migrations

My first experience of discussing LGBT issues in the ESOL classroom was not a positive one. It became a ‘critical incident’ in my ELT teaching career.  It all started with the film Life in a Day which shows a snapshot of many different film-makers across the globe going about their lives on the 24th of July 2010.  The film has a scene with a same sex couple which got my students ‘talking’ after watching.  When I say talking, I mean screaming that it was ‘an abomination’ accompanied by the beating fists on the table.  The lesson ended with me simply drawing attention to the 2010 Equality Act’s nine protected characteristics and asking students to be aware that in the UK everyone has the right to equal treatment and respect.

This incident really made me reflect on my student’s backgrounds.  The students involved were very religious, and from countries that have severe punishments for being gay.  Of course they’d be shocked at the idea of same sex couples.  That was everything they’d experienced for most of their lives; just like all I’d been taught for my entire life was tolerance and that homosexuality is completely natural.  Was it really my place to try to change their minds?  Was that imposing my beliefs?  But then I also have the duty to promote the Equality Act as part of my role as ESOL Lecturer.  I had some staff room chats and we came to the conclusion that we could make students aware of all the protected characteristics and encourage students to treat each other with respect.

Since then I’ve been finding more creative ways to cover these topics and introduce equality and diversity issues. Mostly, I like ‘drip-feeding’ by mentioning briefly in passing at any available opportunity that relationships can be same-sex.  The first time I do this, I’m often met with shocked looks or sniggers.  The second time with slightly less shock and after a while with just an eye-roll and a ‘Yes, teacher, we know, let’s go back to the lesson!’

Although sex is a ‘parsnip‘ (aka taboo) subject in most ELT coursebooks and published materials, I am thankful that my own Publisher, Academic Study Kit, are forward thinking and allowed the inclusion of equality and diversity within my book.  D is for Diversity is one of my favourite lessons for introducing the protected characteristics.  It gives an example of each and encourages students to discuss how each might face discrimination. F is for Forms doesn’t hold back on the equalities monitoring and allows teachers to introduce diversity from starter level.

I always think that Equality and Diversity should be integrated throughout the teaching programme so I was delighted that Intimate Migrations now also have an ESOL resource pack for promoting LGBT awareness. I have used it in the classroom and can safely say that it was a hit with the students.  I did the lesson on protected characteristics (first using my D for Diversity lesson from the A-Z of ESOL as a warmer) then followed up with Nadya and Marta‘s story.  Introducing the protected characteristics first was a great way to get them interacting with equality issues in general, seeing the bigger picture and reflecting on their own experiences.

Nadya and Marta’s story is a true story of a same sex couple that moved from Poland to Scotland so that they could have the legal right to get married and have children (with both their names on the birth certificate).  The story raised a lot of discussion points, including having the freedom to live as you wish to live, and how same sex couples can become parents (new vocabulary: IVF, adoption, surrogacy).  I then asked students to write about one protected characteristic of their choice and compare how people with that characteristic are treated in their home country and in Scotland.  Interestingly, the majority chose LGBT rights.  The responses were reflective and respectful and at emotional.

If you’d like more ideas on integrating LGBT rights into the ELT curriculum then Laila El Metoui and Derek Philip-Xu have great blogs to check out.

I hope these teaching ideas have inspired you. Do you know of any other ways to teach LGBT issues in the classroom?  What experiences have you had?

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4 thoughts on “Including LGBT issues in the ELT classroom.”

  1. I’ve done it a few times. In Morocco I invited teenagers to brainstorm and then vote for what topics they’d like to debate, and they chose homophobia amongst other things. I don’t know if that’s appropriate however, because I’m very aware that there could be gay students in the class and they shouldn’t be made to feel uncomfortable by possible homophobic comments from classmates. However, most of the students were pretty open-minded.

    I also had another lesson based around the first episode of Modern Family. The first task is to guess the relationships between the characters and then watch the start and check. Two of the characters are a gay couple who have adopted a daughter. I then used an activity from Taboos and Issues to discuss relationships with big age gaps based around the grandpa’s relationship with his much younger wife , and another discussion about gay adoption and adopting children from other countries. But framed it as more of a “what problems might they have in society?” rather than “do you think it’s right?” which I think is a better way to do these things. That lesson was a bit of a hit and a lot of other teachers borrowed it.

    I think it’s probably better to do it more subtly though and just increase representation in your stories, pictures, etc. I’m not in the classroom to campaign for gay rights in a Muslim country, but my materials should be representing the world as it is, not a 1950s sanitized version of it. I’m currently working in Malaysia and it probably has one of the most visible transgender communities around, but I’ve never seen them represented in materials. Although one of the risks you have is speaking for them, and marginalised groups are often not in a position to speak for themselves (or at least produce the sort of content I might be able to use in a classroom without a massive amount of sourcing and prep). So then you end up turning to Western voices, which is a whole problem in itself, where diversity is defined from the POV of white British or American people. If I want to improve the diversity of my curriculum in Malaysia, should I really be turning to African-Americans or British trans people or should I be looking to voices of the Orang Asli or local transgender people? But as I say, that’s often not the easiest thing to find when you’ve got a tight schedule, so you end up falling back on well-produced Western materials about Rosa Parks or Greta Thunberg.

    Disability is the other big area that is often missing. I recently did a unit on inspiring people, and I knew before I opened it that there would be the obligatory lesson on an inspiring disabled person who is inspiring purely because they are disabled. The only time disabled people have ever appeared in the materials I’ve been given, of course. And I can guarantee that not a single disabled person was involved in the making of it, because they wouldn’t have come up with this delicious bit of dialogue: (speaking to a woman with no arms or legs) “Is there anything you can’t do?” “Not really, no.” I mean I know they’re trying to be inspiring, but would a person with that disability really give that answer?

    1. Wow! Thanks so much for your comment. I always appreciate hearing others experiences. Your Modern Family lesson sounds like a really great idea. It’s not a show I watch, but I’ll add it to my viewing bucket list and might use it in my own classes. I love any show that has a diverse cast. Atypical is great too. Transparent could be another good one to use.

      I agree that it’s difficult to find materials that are truly global. As a materials writer I always try my best to represent people from around the world and from diverse groups, but it can often be hard to find them. I’ve spent A LOT of time on search engines. I guess one of the main difficulties is that searching from the UK, in English returns UK-centric results. I try to ask friends in other countries or add a country name to my searches. I also make a note of anyone who I encounter so I can use them later if I think they’d suit the topic.

      I also agree with what you say re: disability and inspiration. It’s really important to seek the voices of people with disabilities when creating materials. There’s a really great TED Talk by Stella Young on the topic of disability and inspiration:

      There’s also a really great Facebook group you may wish to join. Reflecting Reality: Diverse and Inclusive ELT Materials:

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