My name is Hannah Gurr, I’m an EAP tutor and my sexual orientation is none of your business.
‘Hang on a sec,’ you might protest, ‘I didn’t even speculate, let alone ask!’
And of course, you are absolutely right.
But all that being the case, why did I decide to tell a class of university students last term that I was gay? If you would like to know the answer, read on…
It was at the beginning of the eighth session of ten of a course which aimed to improve learners’ speaking and listening skills in an academic context.
In the first session, I set up the task of having regular practice seminars during the course in which students were required to research a topic in preparation for discussion with their classmates. The intended learning outcomes (ILOs) were that students would improve their skills in providing oral summaries, building on each other’s contributions in seminars and justifying personal contributions with appropriate evidence.
I chose the first topic of vaping and e-cigarettes for the seminar in session 2 (suggesting that students might want to explore differences in attitudes to smoking across cultures and/or over time, smoking bans, standardised packaging, the tobacco industry, and so on).
After this, I handed over the choice of subject matter to the class (made up of four women and four men; four French, one Spanish, one Italian, one Czech and one Omani; all roughly the same age). The topics they chose were contentious ones: abortion (session 3), Clinton vs Trump (session 4), assisted suicide/euthanasia (session 7) and same-sex marriage (session 8).
These all clearly fell under the PARSNIP taboo topics (politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, –isms, pork) that many teachers might understandably shy away from. However, I felt that (a) the students should be allowed self-determination in choosing their topics for debate and (b) that young adults at university should be capable of discussing such themes.
In the discussions, I took notes on language and seminar skills, etc. but did not participate. Two students were chosen to chair the discussion each time, so everybody had a chance to perform this role.
In the abortion and euthanasia discussions, the debate (perhaps understandably) remained at an abstract level. I cannot be sure (and would not have wanted to invade my learners’ privacy to find out) but I felt that none of the student participants had any direct experience of the reality of the issues, as would, say, the family of Noel Conway, who is currently in the news campaigning for his right to die.
However, knowing that the following week’s discussion topic was going to be same-sex marriage, the realisation struck me that I finally had the opportunity to bring reality into the classroom. I did not want to impose my views on the students, but I did want to drive home the message that same-sex marriage and adoption legislation affects real, not hypothetical, people. I could have reeled off the old cliché: ‘some of my friends / family members / colleagues are gay’ (which is true). But I wanted to go a step further: I wanted to say, in effect, ‘I’m Spartacus!’ (probably inspired by Kirk Douglas reaching 100 years old around the same time – what a legend!)
So after taking the register and making announcements regarding assignments and self-study for the session, and before handing over to the two students who were to chair the seminar, I flashed up a couple of pictures on the IWB: ‘This is my fiancée, Susie. This is us when we first met three years ago. And this is her with our dog, Ruffles. Yes, I’m gay!’
I was surprised at how anxious I was about coming out to my class. Despite it being my choice to make that declaration, despite being twice their age, and a tutor, despite the fact that I would probably only see them once or twice more before they went home to their respective countries, I felt my nerve starting to fail me before I’d even got to the end of my announcement. I noticed a couple of students exchanging looks, and others looking surprised, albeit pleasantly. Anyway, I had thrown my little bombshell, and the seminar discussion proceeded in much the same way that the others had before. I was pleased to see that what I had said did not seem to have a freezing effect on the discussion, and students seemed to be reacting to me in the same way (as I wrote up useful vocabulary on the board).
So why did I do it? Throughout my teaching career, LGBT+ rights have regularly been in the news: in England and Wales, the age of homosexual and heterosexual consent was equalised in 2001, civil partnerships were allowed in 2004, equal marriage in 2014 – laws have been changing, in one direction or the other, in many other countries around the world. The international students that I have met during my 16 years of teaching have expressed a wide range of views on the subject.
We must assume that some of our students identify as LGBT+. But often the debate unfolds as if nobody in the class were. I do not expect anyone, staff or student, to feel they have to declare their sexual orientation – and in writing this blog post, I have deliberately tried to keep my true sexual orientation ambiguous, for the reason I gave right at the beginning. On the other hand, if people do not come out, the default seems to be that we assume everybody is heterosexual, which makes LGBT+ people ‘other’ rather than ‘us’.
I expect neither praise nor censure for what I chose to do, but I *am* interested in reading your reactions to this experiment. What would happen in your classroom if you were to say: ‘for the purposes of this lesson, I’m coming out as gay. Today, I’m Spartacus.’
February is LGBT+ History Month . Click here for events at UoB.
For more information about LGBT+ issues, please contact Suzanne Doyle / Nick Skelton, Co-Chairs of the University of Bristol LGBT+ Staff Network on the 3rd Floor of the Richmond Building, Queens Road, Clifton, Bristol, BS8 1LN. [Thank you Suzanne for your very useful feedback on this post – H.]
- UoB Equality and Diversity LGBT+ Page
- LGBT+ Staff Network
- For students: UoB LGBT+ Society Facebook page
- UoB Equality and Diversity Policy
- UoB Strategy – inclusivity and diversity strand
Show your support of LGBT+ staff and students with a rainbow lanyard 🙂