The Importance of Being … Out

Why Sexuality Matters in English

Chris Waugh reflects on his experiences as a gay English teacher, arguing that openness about sexuality is a crucial element of the work of the English classroom.

If I were given the opportunity to speak for ten minutes to my fifteen year old schoolboy self,  I would give that angry kid the information that I know for a certainty would have made a real difference to his life. One of the first things I would tell him is that Oscar Wilde was gay. It is with that young man in mind, and the thousands of them who have passed through the threshold of my classrooms since then, that I am open with my students about my being a gay man.

Those two decades ago when I sat in an English classroom reading Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, my teachers managed, in what on reflection was a mightily sophisticated censorship effort only possible in a pre-internet era, to suppress any mention of the homosexuality of its author, let alone the subtext of the play itself. Given that we were also shown Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 version of A Clockwork Orange in all of its ultraviolent glory, I am now struck by the question: ‘What was so dangerous about Oscar Wilde that we had to be protected from him?’

I developed a teenage obsession with the Merchant-Ivory production of E. M. Forster’s  A Room With a View. I had watched the film, carefully recorded in VHS with pauses for the ad breaks, hundreds of times through my teenage years and into my early twenties. I felt deeply betrayed by my teachers and prior educators when I finally discovered at university that Forster, Wilde and many other authors who I had an affinity with were gay. It was as if I had been denied my own inheritance. It was only then, after being on this planet for 20 years, that I first started to believe that I had a place, a voice, an entitlement and a sense that there was a group to which I belonged. All of this might have been afforded to me by my English teachers, if they had simply had the courage to speak the truth. If I had gone on to tell that troubled young man that a number of his teachers were likely gay as well, I might have saved the fellow a decade of angst and a heck of a lot in therapist fees. I can, however, tell that truth to the fifteen year olds I see in my classroom each day.

A successful classroom in English must encourage the open and free expression of ideas, perspectives, values and responses. It must allow students the scope to test their ideas and it must offer plenty of room for the student to err. A potent tool for encouraging this tolerant environment is to step into it as a teacher. Introducing an aspect of myself, like sexuality, to become part of the classroom discourse, offers that conversation the gravity of personal attachment. It allows students to explore their own tolerant attitudes and indirectly demands that such tolerance is shown towards many forms of difference.

 

The Importance of Being … Honest

Fast-forward to 2012 and the modern English classroom. Oscar Wilde still features, as do many of my other gay brothers and sisters from the great British literary heritage. Now it is illegal to discriminate against me or any of my gay students on the basis of our homosexuality. Yet now, in the boys’ school in which I teach, I am still alone as an openly gay teacher and I know no students who identify as gay. 25 years later, it is as if I am still the only gay in the village.

Today my sexuality is an asset to me as a teacher. I am vastly more effective as a gay teacher than I could ever be as a (sexuality-undisclosed) teacher. The Importance of Being Earnest is taught in the full light of day. When Algernon or Jack go off ‘Bunburying’ no one in our classroom turns a blind eye to the inference of that very direct neologism (just read it slowly). In the Morris Gleitzman novel, Two Weeks With the Queen, when we discover that Ted’s lover is actually a man and is dying of AIDS and not cancer, a full and frank discussion ensues about the gay people we know and I can share my own experience of losing loved ones to the disease. Carol Ann Duffy is allowed to be lesbian and her interest in re-imagining historical figures suddenly makes sense. We can have fun speculating on exactly what influence Siegfried Sassoon had on the uncommonly handsome Wilfred Owen during their short time together in that hospital in Edinburgh during WWI.

The opportunities go deeper than this. My openness sets a precedent for open and frank discussion on all subjects in the classroom. The subject of English reaches its full majesty when it arches towards consideration of identity, culture and sexuality. Tolerance can be cultivated in a classroom where honesty and self-acceptance is the norm, and the inevitable challenges of homophobia, both direct and insidious, are so much more easily confronted from a position of openness. It has always been a paradox of some interest to me that, in a domain so incredibly intimate and personal as the teaching of English to children, the dominant advice to gay teachers has been to maintain a distant, oblique presence in the classroom, to keep our personal selves ‘on a low light’. This, to me, seems the wrong approach.

 

The Importance of Sexuality in the Classroom

Some of our students are gay. Just as some are female, some black, some Muslim – and it is our obligation to generate an environment where they feel safe, respected and where their individuality is celebrated. These students have a right to be represented in the curriculum. It should be as absurd to consider suppressing an author’s sexuality as it would be to suppress their gender or race. And the case for gay people is so much stronger. While most who are in the minority in society at least have a family who share this experience, gay people often grow up in straight households. They don’t have a refuge at home to which they can retreat from the sense of being an outsider and the frequent persecution associated with it. They often don’t have adults at home who share their experience of growing up different. The opportunity for us to create a place where these young people feel acknowledged and entitled is enormous. It can, quite literally, be life saving.

If the strength of this argument is not self-evident, you need only to look at the statistics. The lesbian, gay and bisexual charity Stonewall’s research identifies that 60% of young lesbian and gay people say that there is no adult at school nor at home with whom they can talk about being gay. It is unimaginable that 60% of children any other minority might have no-one to talk to about their identity. Aside from the value to all students in showing acceptance of difference in the classroom, we have a primary responsibility to those gay kids, and a secondary responsibility to the straight kids, to teach tolerance for all.

English is about exploring and understanding the making of meaning. The means by which we make meaning asks us to examine different perspectives. We consider the ethnicity, gender, class of an author or a character in order to fully understand their intentions, their actions – to make meaning of the text. Sexuality is as important a perspective as these others. Ignoring it undermines a text. When first reading Earnest, I was amused by Lady Bracknell’s obsession with surface over substance, but I was betrayed as an English scholar in being denied the opportunity to examine the gay political subtext of her determination to elevate the maintaining of appearances to the status of a religion. The cleverness of the multiplicity of the character of John/Jack/Ernest Worthing was not simply a farcical conceit – it was deep social commentary, gay commentary, written by a gay man whose experience of the world informed his writing so deeply that it is inextricable. The same is so of me as a teacher. My sexuality informs my teaching and to deny my students access to that information is nothing more than an act of ‘Bunburying’ of the highest order.

..as a high moral tone can hardly be said to conduce very much to either one’s health or one’s happiness, in order to get up to town I have always pretended to have a younger brother of the name of Ernest, who lives in the Albany, and gets into the most dreadful scrapes. (Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, I.83)

 

The Importance of Being … Yourself with Your Students

Authenticity is one of the most prized dispositions in the classroom and young people can ferret out insincerity and half-truths with lightning acuity. One of my favourite and most memorable moments in teaching occurred in my earlier years when I worked in a rural school. I was working with a challenging group, mainly boys. Shakespeare was the topic and I was earnestly trying to tease out of them a response to a question about Romeo’s belief in fate. A particularly disengaged young man put his hand up, for what felt like for the first time, and I eagerly nominated him to speak. ‘Are you gay?’ was the question. It was a small town, he knew the answer to this question, but my answer to this question was what mattered. The instinct to demur was strong, but to my enduring pride, I managed to squeeze out a calm-sounding, ‘yes’. From that moment forward all the class’s resistance to learning disappeared.

Young people need to see courage and honesty in the people around them. They test us for it and they are attracted to, and show tremendous trust in, those who embody those qualities. This opportunity for me to demonstrate my confidence in my students, my willingness to be true to myself, my belief in the relevance of my sexuality to my role in the classroom is a moment of courage. This moment immediately shatters the invisible panes of carefully maintained unspoken anxiety around the subject of homosexuality; moreover it is an act of faith in the students I work with. My experience has affirmed the maxim that the best way to be trusted is to show trust.

 

The Importance of … Teaching Tolerance

As education achingly re-orientates itself to face the challenge of meeting the needs of the 21st century child there is an increasingly strong argument for bringing sexuality into the light of day; both the sexuality of the teacher and the sexuality of the student. The modern classroom has deconstructed the old frameworks of teacher authority in favour of a student-centred approach to learning. As a result, teachers rely on authentic learning relationships with their students to be effective. This is an opportunity to transform our classrooms and face these 21st century challenges head-on. With the consideration of sexuality as the prism, a classroom can become more authentic, tolerant, critical, capable of managing ambiguity, aware of subtext, responsive to change and aware of the power of media, language and literature.

The English classroom is an ideal environment for the interrogation of the importance of sexuality in schools. The history of homosexuality is very much a coded one, in which homosexual literature has often been a powerful form of cultural resistance. Some of the most effective usages of modern language have been seen on the placards of anti-homophobia rallies. It is about time this brilliant material, with its message of tolerance and cleverness in delivery, starts to surface in the national examination papers, as examples of a sector of our wider social discourse.

‘Homosexual agenda: Spend time with Family – Be Treated Equally – Buy Milk’

 

The Importance of … Challenging Assumptions and Representations

My use of the Stonewall-backed anti-homophobic bullying film FIT as source material for a study of the spoken language of South London youth is an example of where material with explicit gay, lesbian and bisexual content is used for another purpose. The study of contemporary spoken language encourages the exploration of unique variances in spoken language as it relates to social groups. The language of sexuality in modern society is rich with exactly the textured interpretations that are needed for developed responses to this task. Even the examination of the use of the word ‘gay’ alone in modern conversation demands a wide set of analytical approaches. ‘Gay’ traditionally meant ‘happy’, latterly has meant ‘homosexual’, and has evolved more recently in urban slang to mean ‘stupid’ or ‘undesirable’. The mobility of the word ‘gay’ offers a unique opportunity to explore the relationship between language and society. In doing so, we de-stigmatise its use, we clarify the effect of its pejorative use, and we advance the students’ understanding of language.

The film is not presented as a social issues drama, but as a source for other linguistic investigation. The inference here is powerful: the gay content is incidental, naturalised, and the film is examined on its wider merits. Because I’m open about my sexuality, my entire classroom has this character. It is a room where a homosexual frame of reference is native, and where other frames of reference, introduced by the students, become important contributions, adding to the conversation. This subtle challenge to the assumption of heterosexuality is necessary if we wish to demonstrate inclusiveness to highly sensitive gay students, and it has the additional benefit of encouraging the heterosexual students to question their own assumptions.

The study of English can encourage challenges to the assumption of heterosexuality. My being a homosexual reader allows for exploration with students of ideas of readership participating in the construction of a text, well before such abstract concepts are formally introduced to a learning programme. Through my taking a clearly defined personal stance in relation to a text, my students are challenged to do the same. Immediately they are catapulted out of the security of acquiring my response as if it were their own and instead they become eager to develop their own personal response. By making my personal perspective uniquely relevant in the classroom, I am igniting the desire in the students to do the same – to differentiate themselves from me by expressing a perspective that is true to their own unique self-perception. Nothing could be more fulfilling for an English teacher than engaging in a conversation with a group of students where each is defending their experience and interpretation, and presenting it as something they are teaching or introducing with its own unique value. Through placing a high value on my unique perspective, I invest my students’ point of view with the same value.

Another aspect of this critical process that has been highly fertile in the classroom has been an examination of the universality of heterosexual representation in the mainstream world. This has led to some brilliant discoveries on the part of students of similar disparities in the representation of diverse genders, cultures, religions and ethnicities. Suddenly the students begin to notice the paucity of black faces in print advertising or of the representation of every bank manager on television as a middle-aged man. Naturally, these conversations are not limited to me as a gay teacher; however my position in society allows me to express a perspective that rings of authentic experience. I am not only a conduit for the experiences and ideas of others but I speak also from the authority and intimacy of my personal experience.

The processes of re-framing a challenging problem, re-creating a series of events in an altered time-frame or physical setting, presenting an argument by exploring its contrary dimensions are all highly prized critical strategies in English. My homosexuality has afforded me a differing perspective from the mainstream which I can offer to the students as a means of illustrating these processes of deeper critical thinking – particularly in the goal of encouraging them to develop their own unique personal response and taking into account their culture, gender, sexuality, religion.

 

The Importance of Being … Courageous


The young people in our care need us to face the truth about sexuality. The ones who are gay, lesbian or bisexual are listening and watching with urgent interest for any sign of our position on their sexuality. The straight ones need our help to interpret the conflicting and coded messages they’re being sent about homosexuality. What better way to do this than through the study of English?

Risk, risk anything! Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.

Publication Information:
This essay was first published in Issue 23, June 2012. of EDM, The professional journal for Teachers of English which is published by NATE. You can download a copy of the original

I have written a companion piece to this that narrates the path I followed to becoming a teacher that you may also be interested in reading.