Talking equality in the classroom

‘Those’ People: Talking Equality in the Classroom

Equality – it’s a constantly discussed issue in my adult English Language class. This time however, it takes quite a different path as ‘sexuality’ is mentioned. 

Equality Moment 1

My adult English as an Additional Language (EAL) students are in a job-focused class. We’ve been learning about Workplace Customs and Practices. 

Today’s topic is: Equal Opportunity in the Workplace.

We begin by brainstorming what they already know about the topic. After filling the board with their ideas, I ask them to list the characteristics protected under Equal Opportunity law in Australia. 

  • For example, age, race, marital status, religious beliefs, gender (although we hadn’t explored gender identity as of yet).

Then I paused.

Having been in this situation year after the year in my EAL classes, I always pause.

There’s usually a rapid intake of breath followed by a rapid beating of my heart.

Audibly breathing out, I write sexual orientation on the board.

There’s silence. Now that’s unusual in my class.

Many students are furiously looking up the words I’ve listed on the board, trying to make sense of them. 

I ask them if they know the different words for sexual orientation. One person says, lesbian. Another says, gay.

I write them on the board and we discuss what each means – in simple terms. 

Then I introduce other terms like homosexual, heterosexual, straight, and bisexual.

Students are now furiously writing notes or taking snapshots of the whiteboard.

As I’ve written previously sexuality, especially queer sexualities are rarely discussed in adult EAL classes. 

Over my years as a teacher though, I’ve found there’s an almost insatiable thirst for knowledge that co-exists alongside incredibly strong taboos. 

And so I take another deep breath and prepare to move into territory that can get really tricky.

I can feel the anxiety once more even as I type this sentence.


And so – I refer students back to the notion of Equal Opportunity.

I emphasize the idea that they don’t have to agree but they do have to treat everyone fairly and respectfully – in our classroom and in our country. I continue to reiterate this idea throughout the lesson. 

THEN one student mentions that gay people can’t get married in Australia. I acknowledge this and mention that there may be a vote on this in the future.

They say they would vote ‘no’ (against marriage equality for same-sex attracted people) in a plebiscite. Many other students nod their heads in agreement.

I indicate that I would vote ‘yes’ and looks of shock ripple across the classroom. 

Another student begins to speak up. They’re visibly frustrated.

People don’t want it (same-sex marriage).  

I acknowledge what’s been said and then refer to the opinion polls on the subject . Over many years now in Australia there’s been strong support for same-sex marriage. 

Those people have diseases.

Again I refer back to the idea that we should treat everyone fairly and respectfully, and that we should be sensitive in terms of  the words we use in our classroom.

  • I then briefly challenge the assertions made about disease and indicate that I’ll come back to research in this area later on. 

Students then begin to speak of the racism they’ve experienced. They also talk proudly of the equality they have – in terms of their gender and religious beliefs  – in Australia.

It’s something they’re especially thankful for, something they regularly mention in class. 

We then talk about how some people might not agree with their religious views but these people should still treat them fairly and respectfully. Lots of nods all-round. 

Those People- Talking Equality in the Classroom

One student then interjects, talking of one of her bosses who is gay. She describes him as a ‘nice man’ and a ‘good boss’. She said it didn’t matter if he was gay because he was so good to everyone. 

There’s quiet as I encourage her to elaborate.  She talks of how things are different in Australia compared to their countries. 

I’m mindful in this moment of continuing to reiterate our key values of respect, sensitivity and fairness, whilst regularly referring to the notions of ‘equal opportunity’.

BUT this talk of homosexuality is a bridge too far – for many of my students.

Later as the students are on a break, the student who was quite definitive in his hostility to ‘those’ people – tells me that they kill ‘those people’ in his country.

It’s one thing to know that people hate GLBTI people.

It’s another to have one of your students seemingly unfazed by the killing of people like you.

I want to say  – that’s me you’re talking about. That’s me, my people that you’re talking of being killed. 

I try to stay calm and breathe in as deep as I possibly – then say that I don’t agree with the killing of gay people. 

They won’t let the topic rest –

“Those people have a bar on …street.”

“Yes, I know it,” I reply. “It’s fine with me.”   

And with that I beat a hasty retreat to the staff-room.

I’m feeling more than a little unsettled. It’s been quite a day. I’m on the edge of tears, somewhat shaken.

It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I have these discussions about sexuality, there’s always that niggling, disturbed feeling that goes with them – especially in EAL classrooms. 

Once again I’m back in that ‘what if’ situation – that always seems to hover there at the edge of my consciousness when issues of sexuality come to the fore.

  • What if this person is anti-gay? What if this student is anti-gay?
    • If they are, then there’s that lingering threat of violence, physical or verbal.
    • There’s also that notion that it’s quite okay to make disparaging remarks about ‘those’ people – or the notion that you’re nothing or ‘less than ‘as a GLBTI person. 

I know that there’s cultural norms operating in the classroom  – so some students are wary of showing support for homosexual people because they fear of being ostracised in their community.  

It’s crucial though that we expose these everyday issues to the light of day – rather than being kept in the shadows, hidden and taboo. 

And this can be especially challenging to do so as a same-sex attracted man. 

It’s not easy to divorce Greg the gay man, Greg the man in a 22 year same-sex relationship, from Greg the teacher.

Since day 1, my students have seemed oblivious to the possibility that the man standing in front of them – is gay.

That’s quite a tricky and emotional situation to navigate as a living, breathing person when we’re regularly sharing our experiences of life in class. 

Should I ‘out’ myself at this point? I wonder over and over again. 

I know though from experience that taking time out to consider, reflect and chat with others is always best. Then I’m able to make a more informed decision.

Now’s not the time I think – especially not with this level of hostility. 

So I step back into the closet – keeping that integral part of who I am well hidden. 

Tackling Taboos in the Classroom - Talking EqualityEquality Moment 2

Time moves on. Now we’re talking about feeling welcome and safe in our community. 

We’re taking photos of signs and images in our community that show acceptance and support for different aspects of diversity.

There’s the ‘We Welcome Refugees’ that hang from a number of prominent buildings in Melbourne. 

There’s the disability access signs, and refugee support service signs in our building.

Then there’s the Rainbow flag painted on a number of corners in our suburbs.

I ask them if they know what it is. No-one seems to know or maybe they don’t want to say. 

So I tell them about a little about the history of the Rainbow Flag.

There’s quiet but again there’s visible unease.

  • Then a student shouts out, “There were people with that flag in my mosque.”
  • “My children said, ‘what are those people doing?'”

They didn’t know what the flag was back then so didn’t know what to say.  

Now that they know what that flag is – for many people – it’s clear they’re not particularly happy about it. 

Once again – we’re back in potentially unsettling territory.

Once again – I come back to our key values of respect, sensitivity and fairness.

At the back of my mind though, I can’t help but think those kids growing up in homes with parents or carers who will not accept gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.  

I’m also thinking about me and – that tremendous ache within me – that cauldron of emotion.

I’m staying in the closet – continuing to hide who I am FOR NOW.

STAY TUNED THOUGH…for a development on this front..

GLBTI Resources

If you’re looking for support – or maybe you’d like some ideas for how to broach issues of gender and sexual identity in the classroom – check out my GLBTIQ Resource Page

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