July 2018
TESOL HOME Convention Jobs Book Store TESOL Community

James D. Mitchell, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, USA

I am a White, gay cis-man from Southern Louisiana. My upbringing was characterized by antifeminist sentiments, White supremacy, homophobia, and conservative values. I was bullied relentlessly throughout middle and high school, and I heard homophobic slurs almost every day. Hardly any teachers at my school assisted in stopping the harassment, and I was forced to suffer through it until graduation. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to move to the West Coast of the United States when I began college, where I attended a very liberal, progressive university. I found solidarity in my women’s studies courses, mended any hint of internalized homophobia, and learned a great deal about social issues and equity. Though the student body was not entirely liberal, I never really worried about someone being derogatory toward my historical and personal lived experiences as a gay man. I was truly fortunate.

However, in my first 2 years of college, I enrolled in a Japanese course, which met every day for 1 hour. Because it was my first time ever being on the West Coast and away from the Deep South, I brought preconceived, negative notions about how professors and other students might respond to my flamboyant behavior, any mention of my relationship with my boyfriend, or references to anything that might indicate that I was a gay man. Though I later discovered I had nothing to worry about, my life experience growing up as a gay man in the Deep South informed some of the anxiety I had about speaking in a second language in class. I was very cautious and attempted to stay ambiguous about my sexuality.

Foreign language anxiety then became a personal topic of interest to me. Horwitz, Horwitz, and Cope (1986) define foreign language anxiety as a situation-specific anxiety that surfaces in the foreign language classroom and affects even those who may not normally experience anxiety. The emotions I felt in my Japanese class, which were related to avoiding conversation because of possible homophobia, were the inspiration for the topic of my master’s thesis. In my research about the relationship between foreign language anxiety, gender identity, and sexual identity (Mitchell, 2018), one of my main findings, broadly put, was that the lived experiences and identities of my participants shaped the anxiety or lack of anxiety they felt in a language learning context. One theme that emerged is one that I labeled as invalidated identity. I define the act of invalidating someone’s identity as “when one’s character, personality, or an experience that has shaped them is judged, dismissed or denied by another or in a larger context (such as politics)” (Mitchell, 2018, p. 115). My participants, who were four lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, and other sexual minority (LGBTQ+) university students learning foreign languages, discussed avoiding conversations with students they assumed were homophobic or sexist, disassociating from class discussions, or dreading attending class because of students’ and teachers’ behaviors that colluded to oppression.

To illustrate this point, I discuss Mark (a pseudonym), a White masculine presenting “skater dude” from a conservative East Coast area. Mark and I have a couple of similarities: both of us are White cis-men who grew up in very homophobic places. Mark, too, took a Japanese class when he first started taking courses at his university. One day during his Japanese course, he chose to identify himself using atashi (あたし), a feminine first person pronoun that he felt most comfortable using at the time. However, after using this term in his class, the teacher told him his response was incorrect because of the wrong choice in pronoun. Before Mark had a chance to respond or explain himself to the teacher, as to whether he would “correct” himself to use the neutral first person pronoun watashi () or an informal, masculine pronoun such as boku (), the teacher moved on to ask another student the question. As a result, Mark received a low participation score for the day. We do not know if the teacher was homophobic; it could have just been a problematic assumption. Nonetheless, such experiences are invalidating because the implication was that Mark’s choice in gender expression was incorrect, that his identity was wrong.

I, too, would possibly feel invalidated and hurt if I were in Mark’s situation. Invalidated identity resonates with me because of my own experiences with oppression. I lost friends when I came out to them, and as a result, I avoided getting close to others out of fear I would be rejected for who I am. My father and I have not spoken in more than 10 years. I listened to well-meaning, accepting people use microaggressions like “That’s so gay” about things they believed were stupid. Even people who I called friends told me they did not believe in gay marriage. This ideology carried over into my work as well. I was phased out of my part-time job when a supervisor learned that I had interest in men. When I began teaching English as a second language, I had students ask me why I did not have a girlfriend and tell me how I should get married to a beautiful woman. These experiences were hurtful. However, all of these experiences made me who I am today. They have contributed to the motivation I have to be successful throughout my career, the anxiety I experience in possible, oppressive situations, and the self-confidence I have had to build in the face of adversity.

The experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals are numerous and vary. There are possibly many LGBTQ+ folks who have the same kinds of stories. Many of them might have had much more devastating life circumstances; some of them might have had more fortunate upbringings. Intersectionality, a term used by Crenshaw (1989) to explain how one’s identities overlap, sheds more light on the diversity of experiences. How does my experience differ from, for example, a queer Black woman’s? Or someone’s who is trans? In the context of the foreign or second language classroom, how do these identities influence the anxiety that a student could experience in a foreign language classroom? We take our identities wherever we go. We carry our lived experiences with us, and with them come the pain, trauma, and anguish as well as the happiness, joy, and pleasure. We do not leave them at the door when we walk into any classroom.

The language classroom is a place where learners can build language authentically by using their personal interests or facts about their life. Teachers who have not experienced oppression, who might also not have examined their privilege, might easily cause a student to feel anxious by ostracizing them, even accidentally. For example, what happens when a teacher assigns students to have a debate in class about a sensitive topic related to identity, such as legalizing same-sex marriage or whether Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization? What happens when a homophobic, racist, or sexist event happens in the classroom, and a teacher chooses to ignore it? What happens when a teacher does not have classroom management strategies to create inclusive, accepting spaces to prevent harassment in the classroom? In any of these circumstances, how might a student feel? For this reason, it is important to think about how a student’s identity can influence foreign language anxiety.

Teachers should be aware of the ways their actions might invalidate the identity of their students. The language classroom is made up of people from different cultures, lived experiences, and multifaceted identities. As teachers, we actively need to avoid oppression because students “may not be invested in the language practices of a given classroom if the practices are racist, sexist, or homophobic” (Darvin & Norton, 2015, p. 37). If a student feels that a classroom harbors oppressive practices, it is possible that anxiety will manifest because of traumatic, hurtful, life-shaping experiences. Therefore, we as teachers must honor and respect student experiences in order to have ethical classroom practices (for ideas, see Mitchell & Krause, 2016). I ask you to think about the following: How might you be contributing to identity invalidation without realizing it? Do you critically question how you are colluding to marginalization, ignorance, or bigotry in the classroom? It is pertinent to create change through our words, actions, teaching materials, and classroom management. Only then can we lower the affective filters of students who have faced countless acts of oppression.


Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. The University of Chicago Legal Forum, 140, 139–167.

Darvin R., & Norton, B. (2015). Identity and a model of investment in applied linguistics. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 35, 36–56.

Horwitz, E. K., Horwitz, M. B., & Cope, J. A. (1986). Foreign language classroom anxiety. The Modern Language Journal, 70, 125–132.

Mitchell, J. D. (2018). Foreign language anxiety, sexuality, and gender: Lived experiences of four LGBTQ+ students (Master’s thesis). Portland State University, Portland, OR.

Mitchell, J. D., & Krause, T. (2016). Steps towards addressing sexual diversity in the English language classroom. ORTESOL Journal, 33, 41–43.

James D. Mitchell is an assistant researcher on the Alternate English Language Learning Assessment (ALTELLA) project at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He holds an MA TESOL from Portland State University and has experience teaching ESL in the United States and Germany. His research interests include social justice in English language teaching, critical applied linguistics, and emotion and affect in language learning and teaching.

« Previous Newsletter Home Print Article Next »
Post a CommentView Comments
 Rate This Article
Share LinkedIn Twitter Facebook
In This Issue
Search Back Issues
Forward to a Friend
Print Issue
RSS Feed
Community Manager Needed
Do you want to join the SRIS leadership team? We’re looking for someone to manage our online presences on Facebook, Twitter, and myTESOL. Please send us an email if you’re interested in volunteering.
Next Issue's Theme: Allyship
What is our responsibility to stand up in the face of oppression? How are teachers allies to their students? What can TESOLers do to advocate for others? Submissions due 1 September.