Can English language teachers afford to ignore lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues? Following her recent British Council Seminar, education consultant Laila El-Metoui tells us about the importance of creating an inclusive and positive atmosphere in the classroom.
Why should LGBT issues matter to English language teachers?
If learners are not in an environment where they feel free to talk about themselves - their identities and personal lives - then this will hinder language acquisition. The issue is particularly relevant to LGBT English students whose classmates may have strong homophobic views linked to culture, religion and personal beliefs.
What has been your own experience of dealing with LGBT issues in the classroom?
When I first encountered discrimination I tried to change people's minds by saying it was 'OK to be gay' and that to think otherwise was ‘wrong’. However, over the 20 years of my teaching and managing career, I've come to realise that people with strong homophobic views are like people wearing red-coloured glasses - they want everyone to see the world in the same way. Now I try to get students to understand that other people can view things through a different-coloured lens. They might not like what they see or agree with it, but they have to accept it. For me, it is about celebrating differences and fostering an inclusive and positive atmosphere in a way that respects different opinions.
Should people disclose they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender?
As soon as you make the invisible visible, people react - often in very negative or aggressive manner. To come out or not to come out? It's a difficult question and involves many factors including personal choice, the law of the country you live in and your personality. Some people are naturally private and others are more extroverted and inclined to share details about their personal lives. It’s much easier for a heterosexual person to talk about their spouse or partner than it is for an LGBT person. This is a choice based on the risks and consequences involved.
What strategies do you use to deal with issues of homophobia/transphobia in the classroom?
I start on the first day of my class. I use pictures of a variety of people and elicit the language describing them. Then we talk about what respect is and what respect means.
From a linguistic perspective, teachers should aim to elicit the difference between
• an insult and an opinion
• accepting and agreeing
• normal and normative
• religious teaching and personal interpretation
The subtlety and indirectness of English can at times be a difficult concept to grasp for cultures that have a more direct way of expressing needs or opinions. As a non-native speaker myself, I remember feeling bemused by the language when I first arrived in the UK. I can therefore help students understand how to communicate in a way which is not seen as abrupt, aggressive or emotional. For example, students can say ‘I find this difficult to understand’ or ‘my religion doesn’t agree with this’, rather than ‘being gay is a sin’ or ‘this is wrong’.
It’s important to get the students to think about the impact of what they say and how this can affect the recipient. Challenging homo/bi/transphobia in the classroom is not about changing people’s minds. It's about developing students’ ability to express their opinions in a non-offensive and more respectful way. All opinions and views are valid as long as they are not harmful or hurtful to others.
For me, teaching English is not just about the language. It’s about developing critical thinking skills, encouraging students to question things and find out answers for themselves. It’s about supporting them to become independent learners and take ownership of their learning. I feel I've succeeded when students can express their opinion in English in a way that doesn't offend others.
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