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Sexual Identities in English Language Education: Classroom Conversations

reviewed by Stephanie Vandrick - July 17, 2009

coverTitle: Sexual Identities in English Language Education: Classroom Conversations
Author(s): Cynthia D. Nelson
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0805863672, Pages: 242, Year: 2008
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Cynthia Nelsons book, Sexual Identities in English Language Education: Classroom Conversations, is cause for celebration, as it is the first and so far only book on sexual identities in the context of English language education. Scholarship on this topic has been sparse in the field of TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), with Nelson herself having published the bulk of what has been available, in her many articles (e.g., Nelson, 1993, 1999, 2004a, 2004b, 2006) and in a riveting readers theater piece titled Queer as a Second Language (Nelson, 2002).  

Nelson reminds us of what should be obvious, but is often ignored or unmentioned:  there are lesbian and gay students in English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classes, as there are in all types of classes. She reminds us, too, that it is not acceptable for educators to ignore this fact. In her own words,

The central question of this book is how language teaching practices are changing and should be changing given the worldwide proliferation of increasingly visible lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer identities and communities and the widespread circulation of discourses, images, and information pertaining to sexual diversity. (p. 3)

But Nelson also acknowledges that many instructors find it difficult to address sexual identity issues, and that because the topic has been so seldom discussed in professional venues, teachers are at a loss, and often, if they engage with the topic at all, make it up as they go along (p. xiv). So rather than being critical or directive, she, as the books title suggests, engages in conversations with teachers to find out what their concerns and questions are; she also honors their words by giving direct quotations rather than paraphrases whenever possible. Better still, she genuinely listens to them, and shapes this book around their concerns, as well as around her own observations of classrooms. The issues she hears about from the teachers and consequently addresses in her book, include: supporting lesbian and gay students; students coming out to their teachers and/or classes; addressing sexual identity issues in class; stereotyping; and homophobia, heterosexism, and heteronormativity.

Early in the book, Nelson also reminds readers, as do many queer theorists, that not only lesbians and gays but also heterosexuals have sexual identities; however, because heterosexuality is the norm, the majority and therefore unmarked identity, it is generally not visible or highlighted. This inclusive concept of the term sexual identities, and of a term she also uses in the book, sexual diversity, informs and underlies much of the rest of the book.

This book grew out of a research project in which the author interviewed more than 40 language teachers from the United States and other countries, and more than 60 language students from many countries who were then studying in the United States; she also observed three classrooms over a period of at least two weeks each. In each of these classrooms, teachers either taught units on sexual identity, or foresaw that discussions on the topic would arise.

In the excellent introductory chapter, Queering language education, the author describes the theories, concepts, and terminology she uses as a basis for her research, and outlines the scope of the book. In the four chapters in Part II, Teachers perspectives, she reports on various aspects of the participant teachers experiences, concerns, and questions. In Part III, Inside three classes, she devotes a chapter each to the three classrooms she observed, providing generous quotations and rich details about Tonys, Ginas, and Roxannes classes as teachers and students grapple with sexual diversity issues. Most of these issues have to do with students attitudes, questions, and comments regarding sexual identity; these situations will resonate for most classroom teachers, many of whom have experienced similar dilemmas of how to deal with some students ignorance, prejudices, stereotypes, and perplexities. Part IV consists of a concluding summary chapter.

Some of the many admirable qualities of this book include the following. First, the book is well grounded in queer theory; Nelson provides a brief, clear, and helpful framework for the book, based on the work of queer theorists. Second, she draws on work in various disciplines on social identities, giving readers the benefit of research and practice across a wide academic spectrum. She particularly draws on poststructuralist and feminist theories to illuminate the interrelationships between language, learning/teaching, and identity (p. 13). Third, as indicated by the books subtitle, Classroom conversations, the book is not only grounded in theory but also firmly rooted in the classroom. Unfortunately, many scholarly books neglect (or sometimes do not deign) to apply educational and other theory to real classroom settings, leaving readers, especially classroom teachers, frustrated. Nelson, in contrast, makes clear connections between theory and practice, thus ensuring that classroom teachers will find this book accessible and useful. Fourth, attention is paid to the international nature of English language teaching; as indicated earlier, teachers and students from many countries and settings were interviewed and/or observed. Fifth, the book is suffused with a positive, action-oriented tone; it not only addresses problems, but also focuses on how lesbian and gay students, and discussions of sexual identity and diversity, can contribute to the learning that takes place in classrooms. The title of the concluding chapter, Framing sexual diversity as a pedagogic resource, encapsulates the positive tenor displayed in this volume. Sixth and finally, Nelson is generous with useful advice for classroom teachers; in the concluding chapter she groups her recommendations into five macro-strategies, such as (continuing the positive tone mentioned above) Strategy IV:  Valuing multisexual student and teacher cohorts (p. 213).

Like any research study, the one described here has its limitations. Because the three classrooms observed, and the settings in which most of the teachers worked, were in the United States, there is less attention paid to the different issues that arise in English language classes in other countries. However, because many of the teachers and almost all of the students came from other countries, issues of diverse cultures and beliefs are inherently part of the research described in the book. Another possible limitation is that the instructors in the three classrooms were already known to Nelson as those who were open to introducing or at least addressing sexual identity topics. Thus what Nelson observed were teachers generally positive (although not always unproblematic) attitudes and ways of dealing with these sensitive issues, rather than the less enlightened attitudes and behaviors that are demonstrated by teachers as well as students in some other classrooms. It is true that without this prior knowledge, the classroom observations would have been of little use for the authors purposes, but the result is that these three classrooms are not representative of English language classrooms in general.

The main value of this book is the revealing and useful description and discussion of English language teachers concerns about sexual identity issues in their classes. This description in turn, along with the descriptions of interviews of students themselves, uncovers student views and behaviors. The focuses on both teachers and students concerns are complementary and provide a rounded view of the topic. In addition, stepping back to take a wider view, beyond the specific topic of sexual diversity, this volume thoughtfully addresses and provides guidance regarding the broader topic of how to address social diversity, social inequity, and social inquiry in a classroom context (p. x).

Sexual Identities in English Language Education is written in a very accessible, reader-friendly manner. Partly because of its generous descriptions of actual students, teachers, and classrooms, including many direct quotations, the book makes compelling reading. It is one that readers will, once they have begun reading it, likely continue reading cover to cover. Further, it is the kind of book that will make educators think about their own classes, connect with the issues portrayed, and consider changes that they can make in their classes and in their interactions with students.


Nelson, C. (1993).  Heterosexism in ESL:  Examining our attitudes.  TESOL Quarterly, 27(1), 143-150.  

Nelson, C. (1999).  Sexual identities in ESL:  Queer theory and classroom inquiry.  TESOL Quarterly, 33(3), 371-391.

Nelson, C. (2002, March).  Queer as a second language:  Classroom theater for everyone.  Spotlight session presented at the annual meeting of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Salt Lake City, UT.

Nelson, C.D. (2004a).  Beyond straight grammar:  Using lesbian/gay themes to explore cultural meanings.  In B. Norton & A. Pavlenko (Eds.), Gender and English language learners (pp. 15-28).  Virginia:  TESOL Inc.

Nelson, C.D.  (2004b). A queer chaos of meanings:  Coming out conundrums in globalised classrooms. Journal of Gay and Lesbian Issues in Education, 2(1), 27-46.

Nelson, C.D. (2006).  Queer inquiry in language education.  Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 5(1), 1-9.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 17, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15721, Date Accessed: 1/17/2022 2:10:52 AM

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About the Author
  • Stephanie Vandrick
    University of San Francisco
    E-mail Author
    STEPHANIE VANDRICK is a professor in the Communication Studies Department at the University of San Francisco, where she teaches English for Academic Purposes (EAP). Her research interests include critical and feminist pedagogies in EAP, sexual identity issues in pedagogy, and the uses of narrative in scholarly writing. Her most recent book, Interrogating Privilege: Reflections of a Second Language Educator, will appear from the University of Michigan Press in late 2009. She is currently working on a new book on feminist pedagogy and EAP.
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