June 2017
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Molly Kelley, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA & Andrew Lewis, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA

Molly Kelley

Andrew Lewis

According to a 2013 National Bureau of Economic Research study, 19% of the population is non-heterosexual, roughly one out of five students in any given classroom (Coffman, Coffman, & Ericson, 2013). This says nothing of students who are transgender nor those who are intersex. Despite these numbers, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA) students are “assumed straight…until proven gay” (Calleja, 2013, p. 7).

This assumption of heterosexuality negatively affects the language-learning outcomes of LGBTQIA students. It is not inconsequential that queer English as a second language (ESL) students have reported both anxiety in heteronormative classrooms and a desire to learn in more inclusive spaces (Calleja, 2013). Couple this with the reality that factors of motivation, such as anxiety and attitude toward the learning environment, negatively influence our students: “Without sufficient motivation, even individuals with the most remarkable abilities cannot accomplish long-term goals, and neither are appropriate curricula and good teaching enough on their own to ensure student achievement” (Dörnyei, 2005, p. 65).

So, why are ESL educators ignoring the needs of roughly 20% of their students? On the one hand, there is often a lack of awareness on the part of the instructor; we hope that the preceding information has helped shed light on this important issue and has convinced readers to prioritize the needs of queer students. On the other hand, many instructors seek to avoid perceived discomfort on behalf of their students. They may abstain from addressing topics they find controversial, topics they expect their students to be offended by. For a number of reasons, avoidance of discomfort does a huge disservice to all students. One example of this disservice can be found when instructors make gross assumptions about large swaths of their students based solely on place of origin. Assuming, for example, that students from the Middle East will not be open to a discussion even tangentially related to queer issues ignores their individuality as students and otherizes them. In addition, we also deprive our students of the vocabulary and exposure they need in order to discuss issues of gender and sexual literacy with fluency and sophistication.

More important, avoiding discomfort specifically punishes LGBTQIA students by flipping the script: we treat homophobic students and students with bigoted thoughts as “victims” of a diverse classroom. Nelson (2009) discusses this when she says, “Pedagogically, this translates into a primary focus on those who ‘suffer’ from having homophobic feelings, not those who suffer as a result of being hated or feared” (p. 73).

Ultimately, we are left with a classroom culture where we limit our students in their exposure to LGBTQIA topics, further normalize heterosexism/cissexism (prejudice or discrimination against transgender people), and leave both LGBTQIA students and potential allies without the skills they need to combat homophobia both in and out of the classroom.

We propose that ESL instructors prioritize inclusive learning environments for all students rather than catering to cisgender, heterosexual students. We acknowledge that making our classrooms safe and inclusive may make homophobic students feel uncomfortable; however, given the negative relationship in the research between a repressive learning environment and LGBTQIA students’ language-learning outcomes, this does not particularly concern us. In what follows, we provide some practical ways to make the classroom more inclusive for students who truly need our support.

Provide Expectations

First of all, instructors will find that many issues of homophobia dissolve when clear, authoritative expectations are provided early in the semester. These expectations should be written plainly in course syllabi and explained thoroughly on the first day. Begin by discussing the vocabulary students need to understand these topics and continue by giving specific examples of homophobic behaviors. Explain, for example, how laughing at the mere mention of homosexuality is unacceptable.

Support Queer Students

Another way to make classrooms more inclusive is to offer support to queer students. This could be as simple as bringing attention to any LGBTQIA resource centers or counseling services that are available to them. Many campuses also offer Safe Zone training (The Safe Zone Project, 2016), which seeks to train better allies and increase visibility. Instructors who have completed their Safe Zone training put a sign on their door that signals to students that this instructor is someone who can be safely approached with concerns or assistance on LGBTQIA topics. For more information and access to a free online curriculum, visit The Safe Zone Project.

Respond Appropriately to Homophobia

The next practice we suggest arises due to the spontaneous nature of homophobia. Homophobia happens casually and puts those who oppose it in the position of reacting immediately. More often than not this plays out with an instructor getting angry and lecturing their students about what to think, rarely an effective strategy in establishing inclusive classrooms. For this reason, we suggest responding more thoughtfully, rather than reacting immediately, to homophobia. To respond to an instance of homophobia in your classroom, begin by bringing the classroom to a halt. Tell the students to stop what they are working on. Tell them to stop talking. Give yourself a few moments to assess the situation and check in with your own emotions before talking to the students. To be clear, we are not suggesting being silent on issues of homophobia, but rather allowing the weight of a frozen classroom to inform the students there has been a misstep before it is directly addressed. Use this time to decide what you would like to say to your students. Explicitly state that you do not share the sentiment they have expressed. Explain that homophobia is not shared among the vast majority of Americans. If your institution has an antidiscrimination policy, remind them of such, and question the reasoning behind the student’s behavior. Because homophobic ideas rarely stand up to strict scrutiny, asking the offending student why they hold a specific opinion is effective in showing the classroom where you stand and why. A benefit of this strategy is that LGBTQIA students are shown support without having to out or defend themselves.

Responding rather than reacting to homophobic behavior is effective in showing students that they exist in a community where homophobia is rejected and that homophobic opinions are neither welcome nor shared. Rather than dogmatizing at our students and telling them what to think, we simply articulate that they are not in a space that welcomes bigoted thinking. This is more effective in terms of getting students to think critically about their assumptions and ideas, and it happens of their own will rather than by your command. Notably, this strategy also models for students and allies a way to defend themselves and others against future homophobic behavior.

In addition, this process gives students experience with dissenting opinion in an academic setting, something that ESL courses should be preparing university-level students for, anyway. This is alluded to in Nelson (2009) when she says that “the pedagogic goal…is not to stop students from saying something offensive…but to look at how interlocutors identify and manage interactions in which rules about ‘correctness’ and ‘appropriacy’ are not shared” (p. 89).

Include Topics of Sexual Literacy

One final way to make ESL classrooms more inclusive is to work topics of sexual literacy into our courses. This is not the same as overtly teaching gender or sexuality studies, nor is this spotlighting sexuality; rather, we can address curricular goals while including media that feature a wide range of gender and sexual representation. This can be hugely beneficial for several reasons. One is that this technique normalizes LGBTQIA identities rather than treating them as controversies. Treating queerness as a controversy gives students the mistaken perception that they have a say in how LGBTQIA individuals choose to live their lives or even whether they have a right to exist at all. Another issue that comes up when we frame LGBTQIA topics as controversies is that we force our queer students to closet, defend, or out themselves in order to participate. Another benefit to normalizing LGBTQIA identities through a wide range of representation is that it exposes students to non-heterosexual and non-cisgender characters without instructors lecturing to their students that homosexuality is okay. This helps students negotiate the importance and impact of sexuality on an internal level.

A few examples of inclusive media follow; however, it should be said that whereas finding media that normalize gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters is fairly easy, the same is not true for transgender, intersex, and asexual representation. As such, we consider this a working list, and look forward to expanding it in the future.


David Sedaris
Malinda Lo
Imogen Binnie


Gold, by Dan Rhodes
Shallow Graves, by Kali Wallace
Bleeding Earth, by Kaitlin Ward
More Than This, by Patrick Ness

Spoken Word

Dark Matter, by Janani Balasubramanian and Alok Vaid-Menon


Welcome to Night Vale, by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
Alice Isn’t Dead, by Joseph Fink
The Bright Sessions, by Lauren Shippen
EOS 10, a scifi radio play, by Justin McLachlan
Wooden Overcoats, by David K. Barnes
The Mortified, by David Nadelberg


Calleja, R. E. (2013). Sexual identity in the ESL classroom: Exploring attitudes of LGBT adult ESL students (Master’s thesis). Hunter College of the City University of New York, NY.

Coffman, K. B., Coffman, L. C., & Ericson, K. M. (2013). The size of the LGBT population and the magnitude of anti-gay sentiments are substantially underestimated. National Bureau of Economic Research, 12. doi: 10.3386/w19508.

Dörnyei, Z. (2005). The psychology of the language learner: Individual differences in second language acquisition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Nelson, C. D. (2009). Sexual identities in English language education. New York, NY: Routledge.

Safe Zone Project. (2016). One safe zone to rule them all. Retrieved from http://thesafezoneproject.com/about/

Molly Kelley is an ESL teacher and student advocate from Iowa City, Iowa, USA. Her professional interests include second language acquisition, creating inclusive classrooms for LGBTQIA students, and adapting popular culture for ESL use. She currently teaches at the University of Iowa.

Andrew Lewis is an ESL instructor currently teaching at the University of Iowa. His interests lie in materials development focusing on diversity and representation, the use of popular fiction podcasts in ESL classrooms, test development, and addressing student motivation.

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