Invisibility Breeds Contempt: Gay and Lesbian Representation (Non-representation) in TEFL .

Something quite remarkable about the New English File series (Oxford University Press) which has largely been neglected in discussions of this TEFL publication for the hard of thinking is the way that it has ironed out some troublesome references to gay sexuality. In the previous Elementary version there were two leather-jacketed biker looking men discussing records. When the teacher plays the tape it appears the men have very high voices and are discussing Abba, which is generally a cue for widespread giggles around the classroom. Something which is surprisingly not mentioned in the otherwise exhaustive teachers guide accompanying the book. Similarly, but less dramatically, in the blue book (now deemed pre-intermediate) Bruce, a black designer, is quite camp when complaining of his unsatisfactory holiday. Maybe in both cases there was cause for concern  in the manner in which “sexuality” was presented  but surely the current invisibility is worse?

This issue of the invisibility of Gay and Lesbians in TEFL course books is extremely well-dealt with in Scott Thornbury’s “Window-dressing vs cross-dressing in the EFL sub-culture”.. However, Thornbury never discusses how these issues should be dealt with at the level of teacher training and the classroom, something we here at Marxist TEFL are quite keen on. Admittedly there is something of a chicken and egg situation with respect to materials and teaching but if this issue is not dealt with at the level of training then how can one begin to address materials writing? Gay and Lesbian issues will quite often arise in the classroom (planned or unplanned) and teachers must be equipped to deal with all possible prejudice.

To illustrate this point we would draw your attention to a popular source of free lesson plan material, In one offering they have an interesting piece on the film Alexander the Great which as in an excellent introduction to changing notions of sexuality across history. Equipped with resources to tackle homophobia, the teacher would be in an excellent position to launch a challenging and fun lesson with a wide ranging discussion of films and actors linked to the issue. On the other hand, there is another piece on “Gay Rights for Penguins” where students are asked:

Do insects have gay rights?

And the following four more questions in this order:

a. If someone asked whether or not you had homosexual tendencies, what would your reaction be?

b. If someone asked whether or not you had homophobic thoughts, what would your reaction be?

c. Is it possible to change a penguin’s, or a person’s sexuality?

d. Do you like zoos?

Admittedly, it is so bad as to be perversely funny but given there are few other offerings on this subject, surely it is time to address this key area of materials and teaching. Given that an estimated one in ten of us are gay or lesbian it is time to prioritise this area in challenging prejudice and addressing invisibility. Workers can start by forcing schools to adopt and publicise a clear equal opportunities policy in schools and colleges that explicitly includes gay and lesbian rights,  Teachers and students must know they have the “backing of the schools” when issues of sexuality are discussed in the classroom. We must also endeavour to ensure that teachers are taught to tackle issues of homophobia and other prejudice when starting their pre-service training. Materials are only effective when workers and students can feel comfortable with their sexuality within the classroom.



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17 responses to “Invisibility Breeds Contempt: Gay and Lesbian Representation (Non-representation) in TEFL .

  1. Interesting topic and one that is indeed usually left untouched, but I think that another factor has to be considered here. Meaning: Where you are teaching.

    Obviously homophobia shouldn’t be tolerated in the classroom, but at the same time, if you are teaching in Saudi Arabia, your personal safety might be at risk if you defend gay rights.

    The absence of any reference to same sex relationships in EFL resources is simply a matter of business. Any such reference would be no-go in the Arab world or most of Asia, huge markets for Oxford and Cambridge.

    All of this is ironic when we consider the extremely high proportion of gay TEFL teachers. You mention the 1 in 10 stat, but the average in any English teacher’s room around the world is certainly quite a bit higher. Maybe politically incorrect, but another interesting topic to explore.

    • akismet-58cffac6415c7e5927986fe79c1e86de

      Troy: On what basis are you claiming “the extremely high proportion of gay TEFL teachers?” As a gay teacher of English, I would be interested in knowing who has gathered statistics, in what manner, and from which countries, which show how many TEFL teachers self-identify as gay/lesbian. I personally haven’t met many gay/lesbian TEFL professionals in the country in which I teach who are open to their students or administrators about their orientation. Please elaborate.

  2. marxistelf

    Yes these are really key points Troy. I would add, however, that it’s not only muslim countries like Saudi Arabia which are a problem but christian countries like Russia, Poland and Lithuania too where homophobia is rampant and the governments are ambiguous in defending gay and lesbian rights.
    And in any country in any school, where is the guarantee that a school will put a teacher’s rights before those of bigots?
    As for publications, you are so right. They are bland because they don’t “want to offend” (i.e. they want to sell). But how many of these books are “suitable” for other cultures? What values are they selling?
    The examples in the article come from a new series of books specifically for the Spanish market. Where is the excuse for invisibilty there?
    Again, I liked your cheeky comment about TEFL being an industry with a higher than normal percentage of gay workers. Maybe, it’s because it’s more dificult to live the straight nuclear family with two kids dream in this low paid industry.
    Don’t know..Would be interesting to hear diffrent views/experiences from around the world on all these questions.

  3. bythebook


    I’m totally excited to find this site. Left wing TEFL thinking seems to be hard to find (I have the CELTA and have worked abroad but I’m not in the industry now for a number of reasons. And I’m a Marxist ;))

    I think one problem with the implementation of gay and lesbian representation is one I’ve personally witnessed in the classroom, and it’s to do with teaching diverse bands of students and having an aggressive rather than a positive attitude. I’ve worked mostly with absolute beginners – students who are still struggling with using “he, she or it”. Those students had a fellow teacher putting in front of them pictures of transvestites and asking them to discuss. They barely had the vocab to talk about likes or dislikes, let alone a complex issue like that, and were penalised for using “he” and not “she”.

    That same teacher wanted to play the “clothing game” where the students are in teams and when the name of the item’s called out, have to rush and put it on over their clothes. He was planning to use bikinis and male and female underwear. This would work in a relatively disinhibited class of certain types of students but in a class with shy Muslim girls I thought it was a step too far to take. He said in response to my disagreement “well they come here and they have to learn our culture not the backwards culture they come from.” That’s just another variety of imperialism.

    I think we have to work with the students and let them bring up topics in their own time throughout the whole EFL experience for them. We can gently nudge them along by having content which provides something they’re interested in talking about (some of my best classroom experiences have been when I’ve had students excitedly discuss an article I’ve simplified for them about something they’re interested in – maybe relationships, bringing up children, sport, politics…) but we can’t be dogmatic and we have to realise the issues of the students in front of us, not the ideal students in our heads.

    I will be reading this blog with interest!

  4. Kapitano

    On the one hand, students *do* want to talk about big issues – politics, war, human rights etc. The average DOS is horrified that they do, and the average textbook writer seems morbidly afraid of any conversation that isn’t anodyne and tedious, but they do.

    On the other hand, they generally don’t want to *think about* big issues. My classes often practice their English by disagreeing over controversial issues they feel passionately about – against the express instructions of my employer – but at the end all they’ve done is assert and re-assert their opinions.

    I think this is partly just the way most people have been raised, but it’s also a matter of fluency. Most *native* speakers don’t have the language to justify (or even clearly forumulate) their political opinions. So how can we expect coherant discussion from students who (a) most likely aren’t in the habit of rational debate even in their own language and (b) just aren’t advanced enough in English?

    There’s another issue, which is that tolerance is in a sense a “non-position” – it’s a matter of passively not hating something, as opposed to actively loving it.

    Intolerance has a lot of arguments for it. All the arguments are crap, but there’s a lot of them. Arguing for tolerance consists in demolishing all the arguments for intolerance, rather than making positive claims.

    You can’t make the case for tolerance in the same way you can’t create a “thing” called a vacuum.

  5. Damn right, Dave – it’s about time time we left-handed lesbian vegetarian skateboarders came out of the closet and started asserting ourselves. I myself started a ‘cross-dressing for salad-lovers day’ at our school, but as it was a Saturday only I attended.

    Still, we can’t expect too much, can we? Solidarity with gay penguins today – who knows what tomorrow, eh?

  6. marxistelf

    Really important contributions from all so far. Good to see Kapitano wandering on to our blog, we would like to hear more from him. Kapitano and Troy both write entertaining, personal and thought-provoking blogs, which you can find at and respectively.

    In view of the topic, I would also strongly urge you to read Kapitano’s article “East is Pink” on

    I’m not sure bythebook has a blog but he or she is certainly welcome to publish a guest piece here (as are Kapitano and Troy of course).

    Keep the ideas/experiences coming please.

  7. Brightred Ted

    I thought it would be interesting here to mention an article I’ve just found from the Asain EFl Jounal (dated March 2003) where they quote numerous studies in the field of gender representation (non-representation). It’s very academic (i.e up its own arse) but it has some interesting information. What I particularly like is that its authors are based in Iran and talking about sexism in books specifically produced for that market (perhaps it would not have been allowed if it hadn’t been academic, i.e “up its own arse”). After reading Kapitano’s piece on “liberal” warmongerers on his blog, I thought it was a good correction to simplistic ideas about the nature of oppression in this country and the balance of political forces. This is not to overlook the horrific and monstruous treatment of gays and lesbians under the curent regime (which includes torture and public executions) but to highlight the contradictions that exists within politics and to remind the world that “smart bombs” kill smart people as well as “the baddies”.
    Check it out :

  8. bythebook

    Thank you, no I don’t have a blog 😉 And I’m a she.

    I would love to write an article for inclusion here some day, the more I look back on my TEFL experience the more certain themes stand out – teachers’ attitudes towards their students, the ways in which EFL can be an oppressive project rather than a transfer of knowledge in both directions, debates between tutors and student teachers, how lesson materials are handled…so many themes which I would really enjoy hearing discussed from a left wing perspective.

    Kapitano, I agree completely. It’s not seen as a desirable outcome that the students should go further than “practical English”.

    I’ve mostly worked with beginners so I’m speaking from that perspective. So while I agree with you about barriers to doing anything more than asserting and reasserting, one of the biggest problems with beginner classes is sometimes (especially with adults) actually getting them engaged with the subject and enjoying the lesson. I wouldn’t particularly enjoy being 42 and doing “I like dogs/I prefer cats” “Hello, I’m Yuriko, I’m a student, pleased to meet you” over and over again.

    I’d rather (back in the day) clumsy but enthusiastic English than drilled, correct and forgotten English. You’re right, it’s not debate, but even positioned discussion may be worthwhile when it stretches the students’ abilities?

  9. I’m extremely glad to have found this conversation after a fairly long-winded google search and many dead ends.

    I am a 26-year-old lesbian Cambridge University graduate from London, and I will be taking a 4-week intensive CELTA course in June 2009.

    I initially applied last year and was offered a place but decided not to take it up. This was partly because of the course tutor’s weak response to my questions about being out to my students (as almost all straight people are) and the generally staid atmosphere of the school.

    This year I’m feeling excited about TEFL, and have much greater confidence that I’ll be able to choose my battles and prepare well for the situations I may find myself in.

    Luckily I have a wealth of experience and knowledge, and brilliant and supportive professional contacts – in the past few years I’ve done a lot of work with Schools Out ( which campaigns and supports lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans people involved in education (teachers, students, parents, everyone).

    A very important thing for teachers to be able to say is – I have an IDENTITY, not a “sexual orientation” or “sexual preference” or even worse “alternative lifestyle” (lesbian/gay/bi/trans people’s lives are often indistinguishable from straight people’s lives). I belong to my own CULTURE, somewhat shared with many other lesbians worldwide. I can and do speak about aspects of my identity and culture to all sorts of people of all ages. There’s loads I can share about my own lesbian identity and culture that is not “inappropriate”.

    I hope to develop great inclusive course materials and lesson plans for raising awareness of all rights and cultures in the UK (for use in language schools in the UK), and to include TEFL in Schools Out’s range of resources.

    I’d love to hear from you if you are a TEFL diversity ally!


  10. Annie

    If you are looking to persuade people about gay/lesbian presence in the classroom you might want to consider placing a different picture in your article. Having a big sloppy kiss heading an article that dicusses professional issues is really doing the “Inappropriate” Brigade a huge favour. Perhaps a picture of a same-sex couple with their kids (for example) would be kinder to our cause.

    • marxistelf

      Welcome to the world of TEFL Annie, I hope you and your ideas are going to make a big impact. The is a great link which we urge all readers to use.
      Keep your ideas coming.

  11. It’s a tough issue … in teaching English, are we teaching values, the “right” way of thinking? I’m in Japan, a culture which, although not violently homophobic in general, is still stuck with the camp/freaky stereotype of homosexuality (this might give you an indication of the average media representation….).
    Now, I “know” there is absolutely nothing wrong with being gay. But do I have to force this opinion on my students? What do I say if they express sexist, homophobic, racist or other “incorrect” opinions? Is this promotion of western liberal values an expression of cultural imperialism; is telling students not to be racist a racist act?

    I don’t think it is, but the process of helping students find their way towards critical analysis of stereotypes and values must be delicately trodden. You might be pleased to hear that several of my students made well researched presentations in favour of same-sex unions recently, without me ever expressing an opinion one way or the other …. I was quite proud of that ; )

  12. Brightred Ted

    Well Darren, I think the answer to your question is in the contributions of both bythebook and kapitano above. While they may seem contradictory, they are both committed socialists relating to the specific situations before them. They are not into ethical relativism, nor are they superior about the cultures they come from, like you, they want to engage their students and not to force ideas down their students’ throats. We do what we can given the real conditions before us. Liberation politics is like Krashens plus 1 or Vygotskys proximal zone, we don’t overload we start from where people are but seek to to give them confidence to move on to a more a fluent position. Finally, as a Brit, I recognise that Britain is a racist state with a shocking history (Slavery/British Empire) and awful present (Afghanistan/Kosovo/Iraq), so from this point of view, once I have accepted this obvious truth and make no claim to superiority, how is it racist to criticise other nation states for the same behaviour? Surely racism is racism, and are only task is to avoid hypocrisy by claiming some sort of superiority due to our nationality.

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  15. Perun

    All interesting ideas…I think we need to define what “we’re” tolerating. Homosexuality exists. Always has. Always will. What seems to be the “topic” here is tolerance of a homosexual lifestyle at the same level, if you will with a heterosexual lifestyle, i.e. marriage, adoption, openness about one’s partner/sexuality. Other places and other cultures have homosexuality but it may be understood differently or “accepted” by the culture in another way but not as the “West” sees or wants it or is working towards. Other cultures may not see the need for such a thing. For some it may be a rite of passage, others a “hobby” with little or no impact/influence or meaning such as it is understood by another culture. It may exist quite peacefully within the confines of its society. The issue may be the desire to have its status changed within the society and thus redefining the other parts of that society. It is important to understand what the fight is and if it is “necessary/desired.” People have died for this fight. That is the worst of all. Kaptitano’s post is the essence of this:

    “There’s another issue, which is that tolerance is in a sense a “non-position” – it’s a matter of passively not hating something, as opposed to actively loving it.

    Intolerance has a lot of arguments for it. All the arguments are crap, but there’s a lot of them. Arguing for tolerance consists in demolishing all the arguments for intolerance, rather than making positive claims.

    You can’t make the case for tolerance in the same way you can’t create a “thing” called a vacuum.”

    I don’t think this is “another issue” but THE issue.
    People don’t need or necessarily want to be accepted but they do want to be left alone to live their lives as they see fit without fear of not being able to provide for themselves, injury or even death.

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