To come out, or not to come out? This is the question I have been facing for as long as I can remember. Born and bred in Poland, the most homophobic country in the EU (Rainbow Europe, 2021), I had stayed in the ‘closet’ for most of my life. It was not until I arrived in the UK that, at the age of 24, I mustered up enough courage to come out to my family and friends. Although I have come a long way in terms of self-acceptance and openness, I have not been brave enough to come out to my learners. I work as an ESOL teacher in the North of England, with learners aged 14-16. Many of them are of Asian, African and Eastern European origin, which increases my wariness even more, as I am aware their backgrounds may be even more homophobic than Poland. Consequently, I go to great lengths to hide this particular part of my identity from them, convincing myself I’m not obliged to share my personal life with anyone. Nevertheless, I simultaneously feel that, as a language teacher, I am, in a way, limited. I can’t, for instance, use personal stories as teaching opportunities, or build better relationships with my students by being honest with them. This inability to be a ‘whole’ person in the classroom and the constant fear of being ‘caught red-handed’ by my learners made me question the suitability of my identity for the teaching profession many times. It also inspired me to embark on a personal quest (which took the form of my MA dissertation project) to investigate whether other LGBTQ+ English language teachers working in the UK face similar issues, bearing in mind the UK is a relatively tolerant country where LGBTQ+ people are legally protected by the Equality Act 2010 and can enter into civil partnerships/marriages and adopt children (Stonewall, 2018).
According to literature, language teachers’ identities are extremely multidimensional (Schutz et al., 2018), comprising such components as one’s place of origin, accent, race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation (Yazan & Rudolph, 2018). All of these might have an important impact on one’s teaching (Varghese et al., 2005). Kayi-Aydar (2019) argues the way teachers perceive themselves may tremendously influence their professional development/relationships, pedagogical choices and classroom practices, impacting their teaching abilities. Not having to conceal a significant part of one’s identity contributes to classroom dynamics and learning processes; open queer teachers may, for instance, illustrate the importance of honesty (Lander, 2018). For some, this may even be a precondition for successful/confident teaching, facilitating richer debates, enhancing student awareness/tolerance and encouraging them to express opinions more freely (Orlov & Allen, 2014). Although teachers’ sexuality may not be an appropriate classroom topic, it is easy for heterosexuals to mention their husbands/wives, and if a female teacher is married, her name is often prefixed with Mrs (Gray, 2010), which Connell (2015:69) calls “the invisible privileges granted straight teachers”. Contrastingly, many LGBTQ+ teachers have to declare their sexuality (Gray, 2010). Connell (2015) places them in three categories:
Splitters try to separate their personal and professional life by staying in the closet. A “lack of discursive space” for non-heteronormative identities in the workplace usually renders them invisible and/or silenced (Gray, 2013a). Some do not know how/when to do it whereas others think it is inappropriate/unprofessional, too personal or irrelevant. Others claim educators should be ‘neutral’; worry about being pigeonholed or losing their students’ respect. One’s internalised homophobia may be a factor, too, and those working with children may fear accusations of ‘recruitment’ (i.e. trying to indoctrinate children into homosexuality) and/or ‘molestation’ (Connell, 2015; Snelbecker, 1994). Splitting may also impact one’s life decisions, e.g. living outside the catchment area (Lee, 2019).
Knitters implement their queerness at work, which may range from coming out solely to colleagues to a full identity incorporation (Connell, 2015). Some carefully plan their disclosure, often integrating it into the curriculum (Leal & Crookes, 2018); others do it more casually/spontaneously, when good opportunities arise (Snelbecker, 1994). Usually, a friendly relationship with learners helps (ibid.). Many feel obliged to be visible/vocal LGBTQ+ role models (Henderson, 2017, Leal & Crookes 2018), educating learners about the LGBTQ+ myths and realities and combating homophobia/stereotypes (Snelbecker, 1994). For others, hiding is simply too costly emotionally (Gray, 2013a), making them feel inauthentic, hampered and stressed (Orlov & Allen, 2014). Moreover, self-disclosure can develop one’s rapport with learners; let them be their genuine selves and evoke greater feelings of fulfilment (Leal & Crookes, 2018).
Quitters fail to achieve the above and cannot function as teachers at all, choosing a new career or moving into administration positions requiring less teacher-student interaction (Connell, 2015).
As a firm ‘splitter’ myself, I wished to discover the percentage of ‘splitters’, ‘knitters’ and ‘quitters’ out there. To achieve this, I adopted a mixed-methods approach (Dörnyei, 2007). My study, conducted in 2020, was open to practitioners from various ELT settings including EAL in primary/secondary schools, ESOL in further education, and EAP at universities. In total, 35 queer-identifying teachers completed the survey and 4 took part in the follow-up semi-structured interviews. I used content analysis to quantify all the qualitative data (Dörnyei, 2007).
The questionnaire revealed almost all of the LGBTQ+ questionnaire respondents (97%) thought their queer identity was compatible with their teaching role and they had never thought they should not be teachers because of it. However, only about half of them (54%) felt free to fully
express their identities in the classroom. 29% felt limited at work due to their identities and 34% thought it has a negative impact on their quality of teaching. 31% felt they were in a worse position than their straight colleagues (in terms of teaching opportunities and feeling comfortable) and 37% sometimes felt jealous when their straight colleagues talked freely/openly about their personal lives. When asked about their private lives by learners (e.g. about being married), 63% of the LGBTQ+ teachers told them the truth. The interviews showed that the queer teachers found it easier to be fully themselves in the UK than in other countries, but also stressed the importance of their right to privacy. Interestingly, 23% of the LGBTQ+ respondents had made career decisions based on their queer identities; 6% made life decisions based on their queer status (e.g. buying a house outside the catchment area) and 11% suffered from mental health issues caused by being a queer teacher (e.g. stress/anxiety caused by hiding from students).
While most of the questionnaire respondents were ‘out’ to all/most/some of their close friends (91%), family members (74%), colleagues (65%) and managers (57%), only 34% came out to all/most/some of their learners. Some of them neither manifested nor denied their sexuality. Those questionnaire respondents who had come out to their learners gave various reasons for this decision; the top three answers were:
(1) to be a role model for LGBTQ+ learners
(2) to broaden learners’ cultural knowledge
(3) to educate learners about LGBTQ+ myths and realities.
The ‘role model’ factor was particularly emphasised by the interviewees. The top three coming out strategies among the questionnaire respondents were:
(1) spontaneously, when a good opportunity presents itself
(2) wearing an LGBTQ+ symbol, or having it in the classroom
(3) establishing a rapport with learners first.
The significance of a friendly relationship was highlighted by the interviewees. Moreover, none of the ‘out’ questionnaire respondents reported negative reactions from their learners; on the contrary, the reactions were either positive/mostly positive (65%) or neutral (35%), which was confirmed by the interviews.
Those survey respondents who were not ‘out’ to any/some of their learners provided several reasons, however, the top three answers were:
(1) to avoid confrontation with culturally/religiously conservative learners (2) feeling this is not relevant/important to their teaching role
(3) to avoid confusing learners with limited cultural knowledge.
The interviewees additionally emphasised people’s ignorance and traditional views.
My small-scale research suggested about half of the LGBTQ+ teachers based in the UK are feeling comfortable to fully express their identities in the workplace. Most of them seem to accept themselves and feel comfortable in their own skin, and very few made career/life decisions based purely on their queerness, which suggests more and more of queer teachers are determined to live and work wherever they like.
Nevertheless, although most of the LGBTQ+ teachers are ‘out’ to their colleagues, only 1/3 have come out to their learners; therefore, they could be described as ‘splitters’. The main reason given was to avoid conflict with religiously conservative learners who have limited cultural competence. This therefore implies that teaching international learners in the UK may involve extra obstacles for queer teachers, which may be less the case for non-ELT contexts.
Those LGBTQ+ teachers who do come out to their learners do so for various reasons but mostly to act as role models for potential queer students. Others come out as they feel obliged to educate learners and broaden their horizons. Depending on the situation, my participants used a variety of coming out strategies; however, it was confirmed that developing a close bond with learners is crucial for one’s coming out decision. Interestingly, none of the ‘out’ respondents/interviewees reported negative reactions to their coming outs, which might suggest that being an openly queer teacher is not such a ‘big deal’ as one might imagine, or, simply, that these teachers felt comfortable with their students and knew them well enough to gauge that they would take this information well. This would therefore imply that the tutors who didn’t tell their students did so as they had accurately predicted that for their specific student group this wouldn’t go too well.
It seems it would make a huge difference if more LGBTQ+ teachers were brave enough to come out and fully embrace their identities. Personally, I have not yet officially come out to any of my learners, although I am sure most of them have an inkling. Am I going to? Definitely. It is just a matter of time. And courage.
If there are any LGBTQ+ English language teachers reading this article, I have several questions for you. Are you ‘out’ to your learners? Why? Why not? Do you openly discuss your personal life in class when suitable? Are there any limitations? Please share your story in the comments below or contribute to the Emerging Voices Padlet here https://padlet.com/eap4socialjustice/zwyhw6oji4pq5rlf.
If you’d like to contribute to @EAP4SJ Tweet Meet discussion, we’re launching our first #EAP4SJ #EmergingVoices Tweet Meet on Monday 11 October 2021 at 1:15 – 2:15pm BST – you’ll also be able to join the Twitter event later if the time is unsuitable. We’re looking forward to hearing from you!
K. is an English language practitioner working in West Yorkshire, England. Having previously taught EAL within secondary education, he is currently teaching ESOL at an FE college to learners aged 14-16. In the future, he would like to pursue a career in higher education, as an EAP tutor. He holds both the Cambridge DELTA and a Master’s degree in English Language Teaching. His most recent academic interests centre around language teacher identity and queer pedagogy, and their implications for the ELT classroom. So far, he has published two articles.
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