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Queerience: I am neither a taboo nor an issue

The author, with glasses, is sitting in a restaurant surrounded by four Japanese ladies. They are his students of English.
Me and my Wednesday ladies in Kitanarashino, Chiba, Japan in 2003

I’ve recently been on a bit of a reminisce about things and found some old photos. It got me thinking about my experience as an ELT professional. On social media, somebody brought up the well-known and well-used book for ELT teachers, Taboos and Issues (2001) and this got me thinking about my identity as a professional, especially as I have used the book in my teaching experience.

For those of you who don’t know it, Taboos and Issues is billed as ‘Photocopiable lessons on controversial topics’ and has 40 double-page spreads on various topics, most of which can be found on the PARSNIPS acronym (see Scott Thornbury’s blog here on T is for Taboo). Some of the topics include death, body size, sexual harrassment and begging.

Unit 14 – Gays and Jobs, Unit 26 – Changing Sex and Unit 32. -Gay Families are more problematic for me. Yes, it’s great that there is visibility, but it’s still problematic. I’ll be focusing on Gays and Jobs.

Bear in mind that this was published in 2001 (before anyone says ‘ … but that was a different era’ – I acknowledge the changing times). For a start, the very title of the book, Taboos and Issues, suggests that being gay is taboo and an issue. I am neither.

I’m also at fault here. I didn’t fully grasp the implications of using this in a classroom without properly understanding the students. How might this look to a querying student who is unsure of their sexuality? Also, for me, the unit title is insulting. For me, gay is an adjective – I don’t say ‘I am a gay’, but I do say ‘I am a gay man’. I realise that this is language for personal choice (I also, only recently, have come to accept identifying as queer – many others don’t – and that’s fine.)

Even by the very nature of question 1, it infers that there are, in fact, jobs which homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed to do – and this comes from 2001? (The reading texts on this page include a military situation – gay and lesbian citizens have been allowed to serve openly in the UK since 2000). Question 3 asks students to think of reasons why a gay person shouldn’t be employed, inviting negative (and potentially hateful) opinions of homosexuality.

We are not a taboo. We are not an issue.

I’m only going to very lightly touch on the Changing Sex unit, which talks about a trans woman being banned from a pub. It attempts to define transsexuality, gender and sex, but unfortunately comes up with this final sentence: A common treatment for this condition is to change the person’s physical sex by an operation and hormone treatment. As not having lived experience of being trans, I can’t for definite say, but I think this could be rather offensive – being seen as an illness? As a gay man, this reeks of recycled homophobia.

I first came into contact with trans people in 1997/1998 while I was at uni. I worked in a gay pub in Cambridge (the Five Bells, now defunct and due for demolition).

One trans lady (I forget her name, so I’ll say Sandra) was lovely and we spent many evenings talking about everything and anything. As a pub community, we rallied round her when she was unfairly dismissed from her job and we comforted her, advised her and were there for her. Another, Lisa (I remember bright red hair) came in regularly and once appeared on one of those TV shows like Jeremy Kyle. They were (and are) pushed out of heteronormative society and so became and remain part of the LGBTQ+ community – and always will.

My time in Japan was revelatory, both professionally and personally. I was there in 2001, and then again from 2003 to 2004 – in total about two and a half years.

Bright lights of a Tokyo square, busy with people at night.
I can’t remember which part of Tokyo this was taken in, but this must be in 2003.

My sexuality didn’t really come up in Japan. I mean, it was there, but it wasn’t really talked about. In my first job, more than half of the male teachers in the school were gay (it was a big school, with around 25-30 teachers). We would go to gay bars and nightclubs en masse and generally be open about who we were. I suppose in a way, because it wasn’t really mentioned, it’s still sort of oppressed, but maybe in a more polite way. Being in Japan allowed me to (almost) fully accept myself. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s was difficult as a questioning gay man. Section 28 came into effect in 1988 when I was ten. So, the time that I would’ve needed discussions about identity was at secondary school – and that completely passed me by. It was devised by the government to stop the ‘promotion of homosexuality’. For a generation and more of young LGBTQ+ people, we were forbidden from discussing it at school. The clause was not repealed in England and Wales until 2003. I’m sure it has affected many in the same way. The feeling of being ‘other’, ‘not to be talked about’, intense self-hate, embarrassment and shame. It takes decades for some to get over it. For others, it never leaves. I’m determined that this will not be the case for those studying English as a foreign language.

The next country on my list was Russia.

I know what you’re thinking – it’s difficult now for LGBTQ+ people in Russia, let alone in the past. Yes. Agreed.

A long, grand building lit up with Christmas lights with a cobblestone square in front of it.
GUM Department Store, Red Square, 2008.

I was in Moscow in 2008 for a period of 10 months (should’ve been a year). Being LGBTQ+ in Moscow was very difficult. I sort of shut my identity off and only revealed my secret to those I could trust. Even by not being openly gay, I was threatened with a broken bottle outside a metro station and followed back to my apartment building. Being in Russia made me feel as if my identity was stolen and that it was something to be frightened of or ashamed of. I don’t regret going to Moscow, because it has helped to teach me that my identity is vitally important and that I should never lose sight of it again.

After leaving Russia, I moved to London, where I’d stay for over 10 years.

a sepia image of Tower Bridge
Tower Bridge

Once more, I wasn’t sure where I stood in terms of having my sexuality ‘out there’ in the schools I worked in. I think in the staff rooms, it was all pretty much open, but in my first school in the classroom, I was certainly not. I’m not sure why. I think it might have been the fallout still from Section 28. Then, as I was working in a different school, the gay identity came up naturally in a class discussion. It was a small class, all boys (teens). The overwhelming response was that gay people were disgusting and unnatural, along with some other negative opinions. Just then, the bell for break time rang.

I went to my managers to ask whether it would be OK if I came out to the class. Thankfully, very supportive managers (although I did have to complain a few years later when one of them was homophobic) said I could if I wanted to. So I did. I went back to the classroom after break and said that they were describing me. I understand that they had probably never met an openly out gay person before, and that they were recycling things they had heard. It’s way beyond time to break those connections to the past. A week or so later, one of the students asked to speak to me privately. He came out to me and it was probably one of the proudest moments of my life to hear him say thank you.

I’d welcome any stories like this (not necessarily LGBTQ+) and also to consider the questions – how can you be a better ally to the LGBTQ+ in the ELT industry? and/or How have you felt, as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, about teaching heteronormative lives?

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