Gay identity in university EFL courses in Japan by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa

Acknowledgement: This article, in a different form, appeared in the TESOL Caucus newsletter, Outside In, and in the IATELF Global Issues SIG newsletter (2000).


In my university EFL courses, I have introduced or encouraged students to introduce the "topic" of homosexuality or bisexuality in a myriad of ways. Below I will give a few examples.

"Is something wrong? You look a little bit nervous."
"You know everything?! Well, I decided to tell him an important thing tonight. It is necessary for us to be true friends. He told me what shouldn't be told to another person. Then, I decided it. Even if I would end up losing him, I must let him know the truth about me that no one knows. I....."
"You don't have to tell me." The man carries his coffee to his mouth as if he wished to stop his words.
"I don't mind. I don't know much about you and probably I will never see you again. And I feel something special in you--I know it is strange to say this to a person I met just an hour ago or so, but I can relax with you somehow."
"Then, I can listen to you."
"Sure," he nods. "I'm gay......"

The above is from a story a student of mine wrote this year.

Recently I asked my first year students in an oral communication class to prepare group oral presentations on a group topic of social or global significance subdivided into four subtopics, with each member of the four member group reporting individually on one subtopic. One group's topic was discrimination, and one member chose discrimination against gays. However, on the presentation day this boy changed his topic to racial discrimination, rather than discussing discrimination against gays. I asked him privately why, and he gave the reason that he couldn't find enough information on the original topic. I am almost sure, however, and say this with regret, that was not the real reason. I think the real reason he bailed was fear of peer ridicule or embarrassment. A similar thing happened in another course a few years prior at a different school.

In another course, I used in class chapter 28 of the book "Impact Issues" which is written from the point of view of a young man, Jay, who is tired of "hiding" and wants his romantic relationship with another man, Wing, to be accepted. Following the short reading, students are asked to check which of five opinions they agree with, in answer to the question: "Should people like Wing and Jay be able to live openly as a homosexual couple?". Here are the answer choices from the book:

  1. Sure. Gay people have the same right as everyone else to find a partner and be happy.
  2. I don't know. I just don't think society is ready to accept gays.
  3. I say no. It makes me really uncomfortable to be around people who are homosexuals.
  4. I say yes. If more gay couples lived openly, it would be easier for society to accept them.
  5. Absolutely not. Homosexuality is wrong.

I denoted five physical spaces in the classroom to represent each of the five viewpoints above, and instructed students to physically go to the "position" that they most agreed with. I was frightened, actually, that some students would go to position #5.

I am happy to report that no one in my class chose position #5, and only one student (out of about 50) chose position #3. Most of the class was divided about evenly between positions 1 and 4. A smaller number chose position #2.

For the next step, students were to discuss the reasons for their position within positions and then report to the class their rationale. Position spokespersons reported orally and also wrote their rationales on the blackboard. Here is a summary of what students reported:

Position 1: Students asserted this was merely common sense.
Position 2: Students said although they accepted homosexuality themselves, they knew of people (especially older people) who couldn't.
Position 3: The sole student said, in an apologetic tone, that he didn't know why he felt this way, but believed he simply had a "mental block" about gays. (I admired this student's candor, and also believe it is significant that while he possesses such feelings, he appears to feel it is wrong to possess them.)
Position 4: Students said the reason for non-acceptance of gays is because homosexuality is hidden/invisible in Japan, but if that people routinely "saw"gay couples living openly, it would become routine/normal versus strange.
Position 5: (no one chose this position)

The following week, I distributed letters written by various people who were facing various kinds of discrimination due to various reasons (being handicapped, race, sexual orientation, physical appearance, etc.) chosen from a book ("Life Preservers"--see references below) and asked student groups to compose a reply to one of the letters. There are in fact numerous letters in the book which are written by gay victims of prejudice or discrimination, but the one I chose was the following:

Dear Harriet:
My younger brother is gay and in college. I totally accept his sexual orientation, but I can't help feeling sorry for him. First, he will never be given a chance to make a significant contribution to society. Second, I'm terrified he's get the gay disease, meaning AIDs. Finally, he will face profound discrimination. Given this reality, who would want to be homosexual?

The reply of the group who responded to the letter above emphasized the writer needing the "support" of others. That was fine, although what I didn't like about the group's response was a clear sense of the gay person being victimized and helpless (versus empowered); in other words, the gay person seemed depicted as almost a "pitiful" or "tragic" figure. The reply to the letter in the book however has a different tone, and lists for example prominent gay men, and notes that AIDs is not a "gay disease." Part of the problem could be non native-speaking students not picking up the full nuances in the letter, as well as their difficulties in expressing their own ideas in English, but a bigger part is perhaps due to the image and status of gay people in Japan.

Elsewhere I used in an English lesson a song as a listening exercise in a 3rd year course. The song, entitled "He's Gone," by the British rock/pop band Suede, begins like this:

Tears on a pillow, eyes on the phone
You pour all the love that you keep inside,
into a song. Like "He's Gone."
And these are the thoughts that you keep inside.
You smile from your window, and stand all alone.
And pour all the love that you keep inside,
into the phone, into the phone

And like the leaves on the trees
Like the Carpenters' song
Like the planes and the trains and the lives that were young
He's gone
And it feels like the words to a song.....

After successfully completing the listening cloze (I will send the cloze to anyone who wants it; email me @, students had a discussion about the song. Students claimed to enjoy the song very much. I asked them to tell me what kind of song it was. No one appeared to notice, until I pointed it out, that it was a love song about lost love. I think no one noticed (or admitted noticing?!) because the singer of the song is male and is singing about a male love object.

Several years ago I used the reading "What is a Family?" in Blanton and Lee's The Multicultural Workshop Book 1. "What is a Family" talks about non-traditional families, including single parent families and homosexual couples as parents. Students reported liking this chapter and this book as a whole; many said the book overall helped "broaden their worlds." One female student from that course asked me to help her find information about lesbians in the library, and of course I assisted her.

At another school, a student in a conversation course "came out" in a group discussion as a bisexual. The week just prior to the discussion, in class students were looking at magazines that I had brought. One had an article about gay marriage. The student who later "came out" asked me as I neared his group: "Do you support gay marriage?" "Of course!" I answered dismissively, as it someone had asked me if the earth was in fact round. I thought I noticed a satisfied smile on his face....

In another course at that school a group discussed "gay marriage." One student was against, and was pretty much verbally bombarded by a gang of other students telling him how wrong he was. At that school I gained a reputation for being a lesbian (note 1) due to my being vocal about gay rights, not only in class but in my papers in the school magazine and by doing such things as raising the topic of "gay marriage" as a panelist discussing during a speech open to the general public at our school festival.

At that school I believed I "earned" a reputation as a lesbian. On the one hand in didn't bother me because I see nothing wrong with being a lesbian. On the other hand, it's incorrect or at least not entirely correct (note 2). However, I thought that a few female students in one of my courses started to treat me as if I had "cooties," and I suspected my "lesbianism" was the reason why. By this I mean I felt I noticed a change in the way they looked at me, the physical distance they placed between us when talking, and the like. Was I imagining it?

Despite this reputation, I was, it could be said, generally quite popular among students. Students frequently chatted with me, and evaluated my courses highly in formal anonymous evaluations. There was also a particular group of boys who I suspected were gay, who followed me around campus and frequently showed up in my office for no obvious reason. I think they were expressing their "admiration" for me silently because talking about gayness was/is still quite taboo in Japan. I think I was a kind of role model because I was one of very few teachers (if not the only one) who would openly discuss homosexuality, bisexuality and/or and gay rights in class. And knowing that such discussion so rarely happens, I felt, and feel, I must do it. Why? I feel someone needs to affirm the identities of my other than heterosexual students.....

As far as my reputation among teachers on campus, I believe it was as a hard-working one. One American ex-pat teacher, however, warned me about being so vocal about gay issues.

This year I was happy to discover that one of my English composition students, who wrote a (possibly autobiographical) fictional piece about a young man who "comes out" (excerpted above) didn't mind my distributing his well-written story to the class for critique and discussion. One student responded in class with a little too much visible shock about the gayness of the main character, without apparently considering that perhaps the writer of the story is himself gay and was sitting in the room, and/or that one could safely assume the presence of gay students in any group of students such as our forty member class.

Yet I cannot forget a student who whispered to me, during class, as if revealing a "dirty secret": "Did you know that (the American actor) Keanu Reeves is gay?" "Oh, wonderful!" I replied, in a cheerful and somewhat booming voice, hoping I had answered in a positive way. Two girls in the same class said to me, with their arms loosely around each other, "we are lesbians!" I said: "Oh, that's great!" But I think they were just "joking."

Many students do continue to make remarks and generally act as if gays don't exist in our midst, which I find very strange indeed.

I know of no gay campus support groups in Japan. I asked my (Japanese) husband if he had ever heard of such groups. His response was that such a thing would be too dangerous for the students, opening them up to ridicule or violence.

I broach the topic of non-heterosexuality sometimes as a "class lesson" (as with the Impact Issues chapter described above), and other times as merely a well-placed seemingly offhand comment in the midst of doing something else during class (e.g., I say to everyone: "this reading assumes everyone is strange....I wonder why?"; this approach doesn't force students to respond verbally with their own views--and usually no one does in fact answer my "rhetorical question."). Sometimes I "sneak in" the topic of gay rights under the umbrella of human rights topics, going at it a little bit sideways v. a head-on approach--like giving sugar to help the medicine go down?

About eight or nine years ago now, I apparently made some male students very uncomfortable by showing the movie "Torch Song Trilogy" in class. Some of the boys (but not the girls) seemed uncomfortable by the few, and very tame by Hollywood standards, scenes of "intimacy" between the male lovers who are the main characters. Recently I am feeling more bold. I may be showing the movie again this year. But I still wonder: what will the reaction be? Perhaps I should show the tamer "Four Weddings and a Funeral" with the relationship of the gay couple in that film being just one of the many possible topics to be explored in relation to the movie?

--Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, Tsukuba University, Tsukuba, Japan

note 1: As it happens, I am involved in a monogamous relationship with a man, but in Japan marriage does not necessarily "exempt" one from the suspicion of homosexuality, as many gays marry. It seems to me avoiding marriage regardless of your sexual orientation is not or has not been an easy thing to do here, even moreso than in, say, the U.S. (For the interested reader, a book called "Queer Japan" presents in English personal stories of gay persons and may be one of few books, or the only book, of its type.)

Note 2: Based on the definition of bisexuality I found on the Rainbow Educators Network website:

Bisexuality - sexual, emotional and/or romantic attraction to all genders. It is normal, has no known cause and is not an illness.

I conclude that perhaps I am a bisexual who has had no actual sexual lesbian experiences. In any event, I see no essential relationship between one's biological gender and their appropriateness as a love object.

-------------- References


Linda L. Blanton and Linda Lee. 1994. The Multicultural Workshop: Book 1. Heinle and Heinle.
Richard R. Day and Junko Yamanaka. 1998. Impact Issues. Longman.
Harriet Lerner. 1996. Life Preservers. Harper Collins.
Barbara Summerhawk et al. (ed.) 1998. Queer Japan. New Victoria.


Torch Song Trilogy. 1988. Starring Harvey Fierstein, Anne Bancroft, and Matthew Broderick.BR> Four Weddings and a Funeral. 1994. Starring Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell.


He's Gone. Suede. 1999. From the CD "Head Music." (In the U.S. only, the band is known as "The London Suede.")


Rainbow Educators Network

Author's note: Jane Joritz-Nakagawa is Visiting Associate Professor at the University of Library and Information Science, Tsukuba, Japan. She can be reached at:


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