This week’s guest blogger is Ashley R. Moore, Assistant Professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at Boston University, Wheelock College of Education and Human Development. His work on queer/trans-affirming language education has been published in TESOL Quarterly, The Modern Language Journal, ELT Journal, and the Journal of Language, Identity & Education. He thanks Jennifer Altavilla-Giordano, Kaye Hare, Julia Spiegelman, and the students of his Critical Applied Linguistics class for feedback and ideas that improved this blog post.
Despite growing up in England, I’m not a fan of football. But as an activist researcher and teacher educator who is passionate about making language education more inclusive and affirming for queer and trans learners, the recent FIFA World Cup in Qatar got my attention. That’s because, as the event drew closer, the global conversation turned to LGBTQ+ rights. The crux of the issue? Despite FIFA’s assurances that the World Cup in Qatar would be “a celebration of unity and diversity,” Qatar remains one of the most hostile countries on the planet towards LGBTQ+ people.
So, what did this mean for the LGBTQ+ football fans who wanted to attend the games in person? (Not to mention the LGBTQ+ players and team staff!) Would they be safe to be who they are in Qatar? Or should they follow Qatari norms and refrain from public displays of their identity? Rights organisations, pundits, and politicians all weighed in. While many expressed concern for the rights and welfare of LGBTQ+ visitors and Qataris, others argued that visiting fans should respect local laws and social mores.
Hassan al-Thawadi, secretary general of the supreme World Cup committee for delivery and legacy, pushed back against those criticizing Qatar, claiming that an anti-LGBTQ+ stance was “regional.” “It’s for the Islamic world, it’s for the Arab world, it’s for the Middle East,” he asserted. In the UK, the Conservative Foreign Secretary James Cleverly was heavily criticised for urging British LGBTQ+ fans to “be respectful” to the host nation which he described as “an Islamic country with a very different set of cultural norms to our own”.
Cultural and Religious Claims Make Queer- & Trans-Affirming Language Education Harder to Implement
I’ve found that similar debates arise when people like me suggest the implementation of queer- and trans-affirming language education. LGBTQ+ people and their concerns have been systematically erased from the vast majority of language textbooks and research (e.g., Spiegelman, 2022) suggests that most language classrooms remain frosty environments for students who express queer or trans identities. This is a problem, and not just for queer and trans people. To erase our existence in language education is to deny the fact we exist in all societies, and this ultimately impoverishes language learning for everyone.
But just like in the debates swirling around the 2022 World Cup, cultural norms and religious beliefs are often invoked by those resistant to implementing queer- and trans-affirming language education. Homophobic students can defend their bigotry by claiming, “I can’t help it, that’s what we believe in my country” (Rhodes, 2019, p. 162). Would-be ally teachers may talk a good game, but fail to act for fear of offending some students. As one adult ESL teacher explained, “We have many students, Muslims in particular, who would feel very uncomfortable if they felt pressured to accept what they view to be western values they do not agree with” (Rhodes & Coda, 2017, p. 102).
A Sleight of Hand
However, in all these counterarguments, the same sleight of hand is performed. All make incredibly broad claims about the supposed values and beliefs of people belonging to a particular geographic area (“the Middle East”) or religion (“Muslims”), claims that couldn’t possibly hold true when we consider the actual diversity of identities and beliefs within those groups. For example, the pseudo-factual statements of al-Thawadi and Cleverly erase the existence and beliefs of queer and trans Qataris, as well as Qataris who are LGBTQ+-friendly. Assuming that all Muslim students would be offended by LGBTQ+ topics belies the existence of queer and trans Muslims, as well as Muslims who consider themselves friends and allies of the community (and I know more than a few!).
The arguments that act to stifle queer- and trans-affirming language education rely on essentialism, a form of thinking that reduces a particular group of people to a fixed set of characteristics and beliefs. Essentialism underpins the stereotypes that fuel xenophobia and racism. Essentialism is also a handy tool for those in positions of power to assert that their practices and beliefs are the only possibilities; “That’s what we believe in my country.”
If we are to have the courage of our convictions when it comes to enacting queer- and trans-affirming language pedagogies, we must resist cultural and religious essentialism when we find it, both in the claims of others and in our own assumptions about others.
Of course, we must be wary of imposing our beliefs onto others. Our aim is not to be cultural imperialists. It would also be foolish to deny the fact that many Qataris and Muslims (as well as Americans, Netherlanders, Christians, Jews, atheists, and so on) do hold anti-LGBTQ+ views. On top of this, challenging any overgeneralised claims is all the more difficult in language classes that use textbooks that, in the absence of critical discussion, often seem to invite essentialist thinking.
So, What Can Be Done?
First, we must confront ourselves. My research (Moore, 2019) has shown we often use another person’s most salient characteristics, such as their nationality and religious affiliation, as indicators of their LGBTQ+-friendliness. However, we must question ourselves when making assumptions based on such unreliable information. For example, despite the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric spouted by some vocal Christians, I can walk through the streets of Boston and Vancouver (the cities I call home) and observe several churches proudly displaying the Philly Pride flag and declaring that all are welcome, loved, and accepted. We must remind ourselves of the diversity of identities and beliefs that exist among any group of people, and resist letting ourselves off the hook so easily when it comes to implementing queer- and trans-affirming language education.
The second strategy is to challenge claims to any singular cultural or religious authority. When we hear others make essentialising claims, we can point out that, while that may be their opinion (and it may even be shared by many others), not all members of the group for whom they claim to be speaking share those beliefs. While such counter statements may initially be dismissed or disbelieved, they are crucial if we are to decentre essentialising discourses. These counter statements don’t even have to come from the teacher; instead, students could be invited to participate in searching for LGBTQ+ people, organisations, and allies where others might claim there are none.
Let’s be real; we all make broad claims about groups of people. Usually, it’s harmless (did you know all gay men, including me, love iced coffee?). But sometimes those claims erase or harm others. Sometimes those claims prevent us from appreciating another person as a unique, multidimensional individual. Sometimes those claims thwart something new and much needed, like queer/trans-affirming pedagogy, before we even try it. To improve language education for all of us, we must resist those claims.
Moore, A. R. (2019). Interpersonal factors affecting queer second or foreign language learners’ identity management in class. The Modern Language Journal, 103(2), 428–442. https://doi.org/10.1111/modl.12558
Rhodes, C. M. (2019). A practical guide to queering the adult English language classroom. Adult Learning, 30(4), 160–166. https://doi.org/10.1177/1045159519840334
Rhodes, C. M., & Coda, J. (2017). It’s not in the curriculum: Adult English language teachers and LGBQ topics. Adult Learning, 28(3), 99–106. https://doi.org/10.1177/1045159517712483
Spiegelman, J. D. (2022). “You used ‘elle,’ so now you’re a girl”: Discursive possibilities for a non-binary teenager in French class. L2 Journal, 14(3). http://dx.doi.org/10.5070/L214351439