Sexuality, Gender and English

By Snapper, Gary | English Drama Media, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Sexuality, Gender and English


Snapper, Gary, English Drama Media


The main theme of this edition of EDM is the relationship between sexuality, gender and English teaching--focusing on attitudes to homosexuality; the ways in which such attitudes are constructed and perpetuated through approaches to gender and sexuality in schools and society; and some of the things that might be done by English teachers to fight against homophobia and to build communities where potentially damaging stereotypes of sexuality can be acknowledged, explored and overcome.

There is relatively little written on this crucial topic in professional literature in the UK, and even less that takes on board contemporary theories about sexuality in formulating effective ways of dealing with such issues in the English classroom. The leading commentator on this topic in the UK, Viv Ellis, contributed a timely and original article to the very first edition of EDM (in 2003)--Beyond Legz Akimbo: Sexuality and School English after Section 28 --which aimed to explore new ways of thinking about sexuality and English. Since then, EDM has rarely returned to questions of sexuality and gender in English--so this edition aims to begin to make up that deficit.

There are of course many other questions about gender and English that we might want to explore, and which are undoubtedly related to questions of sexuality--for instance, the ways in which sexism still manifests itself in the English classroom and curriculum, the extent to which feminism has changed things, the ways in which language and literature betray the patriarchal structures of society, the implications of the under-achievement of boys in English, and so on. A future edition of EDM is planned to explore some of these avenues.

Tackling homophobia in English

Despite the enormous progress that has been made in recent years in relation to positive representations of and attitudes to gay people (see for instance Torchwood's Jack and Ianto featured on our cover), it sometimes seems that homophobia is the one remaining prejudice of the 'big three' (sexism, racism, homophobia) still allowed in schools--perhaps because students know that teachers are still often scared of challenging it, for a variety of reasons.

Much of the debate in recent years has centred on the use of the word 'gay' as a derogatory descriptor for anything considered 'uncool'. There are still those who would argue that this is a harmless usage, failing to recognise that 'harmless' linguistic joshing of this sort reveals the underlying prejudices that continue to make life a misery for the thousands of young people in the school system who are trying to understand, come to terms with and seek acceptance for their homosexuality.

As Chris Waugh, an English teacher in an inner-city London school, points out, in the opening article of this edition, one of the things that makes this stubborn prejudice more resilient and potentially more crushing than others is that so many have to suffer it alone. Gay children do not generally have gay parents, only rarely have gay siblings, and are very likely not to have gay friends; they may well have no-one to turn to, no forum for finding reliable information, support or affirmation. As Chris argues, English is the place where such students are perhaps most likely to find such affirmation. Similarly, because of the silence which so often surrounds sexuality in schools (and outside), English is the place where homophobic children are perhaps most likely to have their assumptions and prejudices challenged. The opportunities English offers for exploration of representations of sexuality in literature, and in culture and language more generally, are invaluable.

Chris's article is a passionate, personal, and exceptionally well-written reflection on being a gay English teacher, on being open about sexuality, on why sexuality matters in English, and on the importance of honesty and trust in the English classroom. If you read only one article in this edition, I recommend it be this one. …

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