The growth of social movements in defense of sexual freedom makes discrimination against people belonging to the LGBTQIAP+ group more explicit. Dealing with issues related to sexual and gender diversity in English language teaching is a way of promoting respect for human rights. We spoke with English teacher Akemi Iwasa, a consultant at Troika, a company that develops educational materials and projects for students and teachers. With a postgraduate degree in neuroscience and currently studying specialization in human rights and social responsibility, Iwasa talks about the importance of transforming the classroom into a space that promotes social inclusion.
How important is it to include topics related to the LGBTQIAP+ world in English teaching?
Akemi Iwasa (AI) — Including diversity in general in the teaching of a foreign language is, foremost, to teach with a view of respect for human rights. When we talk about LGBTQIAP+ issues specifically, we are talking about the right of everyone to assume and live their own sexuality. And the English classes provide an opportunity to approach this subject critically. Dealing with sexual diversity is a way to enable students to express themselves better, considering the reality of the world we live in, in the 21st century.
How is this different from the traditional teaching?
AI — The difference appears both in the didactic material and in the conduct of classes, for example in the exploration of images. The books usually feature pictures or illustrations of families — but it is common for them to be families with the traditional configuration, with the father characterized as belonging to the male gender, and the mother, to the female gender. The image of a family with two fathers or two mothers, on the other hand, may cause estrangement among some students. The same reaction can arise when young people are asked to describe a photo of a trans person. It is common, in these cases, that even those who do not express explicit discrimination find it difficult to choose nouns and pronouns for people with sexual orientation or gender identity that escape the male-female binary.
How are these issues approached in class?
AI — The idea is to do consistent work, class by class, taking advantage of the comments that eventually arise as a starting point for a debate. A comment may initially sound like an opinion, but carry offense. In the example above, any negative comments about non traditional families can be the starting point for a debate: why do you find it strange that there are different families? Where does this idea come from? As in the case of the Portuguese language, in English we must also learn terms and choose words in a respectful way. It is not about judging the person who makes the negative or derogatory comment, but about challenging their thinking, encouraging a line of reasoning that leads them to realize the discrimination that exists there.
So is teaching with diversity aimed specifically at students who do not belong to the LGBTQIAP+ group?
AI — Not only. While we lead students to analyze issues of social inequality, we also give those belonging to the LGBTQIAP+ group the chance to express themselves. We can say that we deal with diversity with two approaches: the window approach, which concerns empathy, opening everyone’s eyes to a discrimination embedded in the culture in such a way that it may not even be noticed and recognized — what we call structural prejudice. And the mirror approach, aimed at the representation of young people who belong to the discriminated group. In fact, there are initiatives for teaching English aimed at the LGBTQIAP+ group, such as the English to Trans-form project. Developed in Casa 1, a cultural and welcoming center for LGBTQIAP+ people and other groups regularly discriminated against, in São Paulo, the project was created by teacher Paolo Capistrano and addresses gender issues from the standpoint of self-esteem, with images and debates that value sexual diversity. In addition to the linguistic and cultural aspects, we also work with practical information that is important to this group — for example, what is a social name, how to adopt a new name according to each person’s identity, which public bodies are used for this.
But the concept of diversity goes beyond LGBTQIAP+ issues, right?
AI — Yes, there are other fundamental topics on which diversity can be discussed, such as ethnic-racial and socioeconomic discrimination. Some books bring classy and elitist content. Let me go back to the example of the family image. If the family is white and is in an airport environment, ready to board, one can ask: what is the meaning of this image for the black or indigenous student? And for that disadvantaged young person who doesn’t see travel as an immediate possibility? How do these students see themselves represented in the teaching material and in the classes? Teaching that takes diversity into account is concerned with these differences, seeking that each student recognizes their particular reality.
So working diversity in the classroom is fundamentally about the concept of social justice.
AI — Exactly. Awakening students to differences and analyzing the reasons for prejudice helps them to locate themselves in the world. The same happens with the representation of young people from discriminated groups, when we work on their self-esteem. We all have to understand this 21st century world and find our place in it. We have, above all, to understand how we can change this world for the better.