Queering our Professional Spaces
Joshua M. Paiz, Ph.D.
The George Washington University - Columbian College of Arts and Sciences
Organizations such as AAAL, TESOL, and AREA all provide a vital space for professionals of all experiential backgrounds--from novice to expert--to gather and engage with currently relevant ideas in critical yet supportive ways. They also represent the great normative forces of our discipline and our respective sub-fields. They, through the agendas that they advance, the presentations they accept, the publications that they produce, and the mentorships that they facilitate begin to delineate the values, beliefs, and mores that define us as professionals. That is, these organizations play a role in delineating more and less acceptable ways of being an applied linguist, a language specialist, or Spanish as a second language teacher.
And, make no mistake, these organizations have played a vital role in advocating for linguistic diversity and for marginalized professional and student populations through the adoptions of resolutions like TESOL’s adoption of a version of NCTE’s Students Rights to Their Own Language in its position statement on AAVE (TESOL, 1997), or AAAL’s resolution on accented speech and non-discriminatory practices (AAAL, 2011). One area where many of these organizations have increased opportunity, however, is in the realm of LGBTQ+ concerns. While each organization regularly accepts a small number of presentations on the topic each year at their annual conferences/conventions, the degree to which these organizations have legitimized this line of inquiry and this professional concern vary.
And, this is increasingly problematic. It’s troublesome for our colleagues, who are to paraphrase Nelson (1993) here, queer, and far too often silenced or marginalized. It’s dangerous for our students who may be seeking to perform an authentic self in a second language while navigating the tricky waters of acculturating into a new national context (see Moore, 2016 for just one example). And, it’s increasingly irresponsible when we consider the daily attacks on LGBTQ+ peoples and basic human rights across the globe, even here in the United States where discrimination, assaults, and murders of transgender and queer family members inch higher year-over-year (HRC, 2019).
As a queer education scholar--in both senses of the phrase--I have a particular interest in what happens in our classrooms and how we responsibly equip our students to navigate fraught social interactions in a second language (ESL in my case). For me, this means examining how we build pedagogies and materials that include LGBTQ+ lives in a variety of ways and that make space for LGBTQ+ learners’ voices. One question that I have been working to address in my recent works is just how we do this in the classroom. Based on that work, here are a five of “quick tips” for you to make your own practice more queer-inclusive, and hopefully through these small changes, we can start to challenge our broader professional community to more critically consider their own roles in this endeavor.
1. Keep in mind that it takes time to be an advocate for our students and colleagues, and we’ll never get it 100% right, 100% of the time. So, challenge yourself to continue growing in this area.
2. We, both us and our students, often worry that we’ll “say something wrong”. You both will. But, this brings opportunity, as it allows us to model important strategic competencies for our students. For example, how do we repair communication when we inadvertently misgender someone? And, how can we avoid it in the first place? Hint: Active listening goes a long way and is a highly transferable skill.
3. Queer your practice by decentering it. Learn and explore alongside your students as you consider how LGBTQ+ issues and identities become salient in new national or international contexts as realized through language. This helps our students trouble their notions of “expert”, while also allowing you to become a more effective advocate for your students by tying your efforts to local considerations.
4. Make respectful engagement the foundation of everything you do and model linguistic and rhetorical tools to facilitate it in your classroom practice. We must acknowledge that our students all have different comfort levels with LGBTQ+ topics and have different attitudes towards it. While we most certainly cannot permit homo- and transphobic language to go unchecked, we also cannot squelch the voices of students who are just encountering this discourse for the first time. So, avoid an “evangelical hearts-and-minds” approach in favor of showing students how to respectfully make their dissenting views on a controversial, yet socially-relevant topic known.
5. Engage in self-care. Engaging in work that is squarely situated in the “critical” areas of our fields (Pennycook, 2001) is wildly rewarding, but also exceptionally draining. We love when we make an LGBTQ+ student feel represented, heard, and respected. However, dealing with the hecklers or the seemingly endless negative stories emerging in the world around us is draining. For the benefit of yourself and your students, watch out for your own health as well. This also becomes a useful object lesson for our students and more novice peers.
AAAL. (2011). AAAL resolution on against discrimination on the basis of accented speech. AAAL. Retrieved from: https://www.aaal.org/position-statements
HRC. (2019). Violence against the transgender community in 2019. Human Rights Campaign. Retrieved from: https://www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-transgender-community-in-2019
Moore, A. (2016). Inclusion and exclusion: A case study of an English class for LGBT learners. TESOL Quarterly, 50(1), 86-108.
Nelson, C. (1993). Heterosexism in ESL: Examining our attitudes. TESOL Quarterly, 27(1), 143-150.
TESOL International. (1997). Position statement of the TESOL Board on African American Vernacular English. TESOL. Retrieved from: https://www.tesol.org/advance-the-field/advocacy-resources/position-statements/position-statement-of-the-tesol-board-on-african-american-vernacular-english-march-1997