David Lowbridge-Ellis, leader of school improvement for Matrix Academy Trust, looks at how diversity and inclusion can form a key part of our English Literature lessons using the existing classroom resources.
In all the years I’ve been teaching English to secondary school students, I’ve repeatedly encouraged them to try seeing texts through different sets of lenses. We can look at novels, plays and poems in lots of different ways, and that includes trying to see them through the eyes of people who may have different characteristics to us. I sometimes find myself mixing metaphors by invoking the character of Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”
Whether you prefer my ‘lens’ analogy or Atticus’s ‘skin’ idea, I’m sure we can all agree that literature lends itself well to promoting mutual understanding between people who are different from each other.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about making more effort to diversify our curricula. We all want to pass on “the best that has been thought and said” to the next generation, but if anyone thinks this means the thoughts and words of merely straight, white, able-bodied, cisgender men, then they’re not looking hard enough.
Let’s look at LGBTQ+ as an example. In my experience, English teachers are very enthusiastic about the idea of promoting diversity but don’t always feel they can do so, for two main reasons:
1. They’re not sure if they’re allowed to talk about certain things, particularly knowledge around LGBTQ+
2. They feel they don’t have the knowledge themselves.
The first of these is more easily dealt with: yes you are allowed to talk about people who are LGBTQ+. In fact, it’s the law!
The second is hardly insurmountable, although it can take a bit of effort. I’m not talking about doing your degree all over again or anything. A few internet searches will usually do it. Try typing ‘NAME OF TEXT YOU’RE TEACHING’ alongside ‘LGBTQ’ into Google and you’ll get loads of results.
Try it out with the text you’re teaching right now and see what I mean. It’s ok, I’ll wait. I’ll be right here…
(Waits for approximately 30 seconds)
See what I mean!
Try typing ‘NAME OF TEXT YOU’RE TEACHING’ alongside ‘LGBTQ’ into Google and you’ll get loads of results.
Many of the most popular text choices at GCSE lend themselves very well to reappraisal through LGBTQ+ lenses, especially Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Frankenstein, The Woman In Black, Boys Don’t Cry, Jane Eyre, Journey’s End and Lord of the Flies. And it just so happens that, while all of Shakespeare’s plays are wide-open for LGBTQ+ analysis, the six selected for GCSE are especially so (Macbeth, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice).
If you’re scratching your head thinking, ‘I’ve never thought there was anything LGBTQ+ about this text!’ then that’s ok. But a quick Google search will confirm that each of those texts could be placed into at least one of following three categories:
● Texts written by LGBTQ+ authors
● Texts written about LGBTQ+ characters
● Texts not explicitly featuring LGBTQ+ characters but open to ‘queer readings’.
Depending on how progressive your degree course was, you may or may not have heard the term ‘queer reading’ before. It’s been around in some universities for four decades. Incidentally, the term ‘queer’ is only now starting to be used in the academic sense in schools because it has been used by bullies for so long, although the term is being reclaimed by members of the LGBTQ+ community and some schools have educated their pupils accordingly.
An early pioneer of queer readings of texts intended for mass consumption, Alexander Doty, argued that any text could be seen as queer. A queer piece of literature (or film, video game, whatever) is anything that challenges heteronormativity - the ideas, pervasive in many cultures that:
● The only ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ relationships are those between one man and one woman for the purposes of procreation
● That gender is a binary (male/female)
Importantly for the students we teach, queer texts present alternative possibilities to traditional narratives - you can’t be what you can’t see - helping people live more authentic, happy lives. Providing children with the visible LGBTQ+ role models earlier generations did not have is the main aim of the organisation LGBTEd, for who I’ve done a lot of work since their inception in 2018. And that’s not just LGBTQ+ role models for LGBTQ+ students. Even students who aren’t LGBTQ+ will be going into a world where they need to respect, tolerate (and hopefully even celebrate) people who are different to themselves. In some schools, these role models are right there, in the form of living and breathing ‘out’ teachers. But even where this is happily the case, we also need to bring role models to life from the pages of our chosen GCSE texts, especially those from the past. It’s incredibly empowering for young people - whatever their characteristics - to realise that people like them have always existed, especially if there’s a part of themselves they feel self-conscious, or even shameful, about.
In addition to the novels and plays we teach for GCSE, the Edexcel GCSE poetry anthology is a treasure trove of diverse perspectives. Whichever of the four collections you decide to teach, you will find ample opportunities to teach many aspects of diversity, from race and ethnicity to gender inequality and disability. Queerness is very well-represented. Here’s a starting point for further research…
Before we begin: Although queer identities - such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans - are relatively recent ways of codifying human experience, queer people have always existed. It’s frustratingly commonplace for queer history to be erased and sometimes it’s best-intentioned academics who do it. As educators, we do need to be careful about ‘outing’ people who never self-identified as queer - either because the terms didn’t exist or their lives or reputations would have been at risk if they did use them - but we also owe it to our pupils to at least open up the range of possibilities. We do this by resisting shutting down any of these possibilities. So for instance, when the evidence points to two people of the same sex being more than friends we shouldn’t close off the possibility that they were in a romantic or sexual relationship. The best response, if a pupil asks us ‘was this poet gay/lesbian/bisexual/trans?’, is ‘maybe’.
The Relationships collection kicks things off in fine style with Carol Ann Duffy’s classic Valentine (‘I give you an onion…’). Although universal in its appeal, it can really be brought to life by asking pupils whether knowing Duffy is a lesbian makes us read the poem differently? Is this her speaking in the poem or a persona? Do we think the lucky recipient of the onion is a woman, a man or a non-binary person? Does it matter? Whether it does or not, we should teach pupils not to assume that love poems written by women are always intended for men, and vice versa.
Works by the widely-held-to-be-bisexual (or even pansexual) Lord Byron appear in both Relationships and Conflict. It’s worth exploring with pupils the extent to which the meaning of She Walks In Beauty shifts if we just swap the female pronouns (she/her) with the male (he/his) or non-binary (they/their) equivalents. Byron’s The Destruction of Sennacharib lends itself less obviously to a queer analysis although it’s very useful to compare the poem’s rhythm with that of another poem in the same collection: The Charge of the Light Brigade, written by Lord Tennyson. It comes as a surprise to many to learn that Tennyson was probably queer, and there is plenty of evidence in his ouevre, including a 90-page homoerotic eulogy for Arthur Henry Hallam, his ‘best friend’ (probably more than just friends).
Studying almost any war poem provides an opportunity to tease apart what we mean by ‘masculinity’ and its stereotypes, regardless of the poet’s gender or sexual orientation. But it’s surely no accident that most of the best poems written about World War I were written by queer soldiers. Perhaps feeling outside society meant they were better able to stand back and cut through the jingoism. Exposure is Wilfred Owen at his best; a brutal evocation of a hell made bearable by a common bond between him and his men. While the poem can be read nihilistically, it’s also tenderly humane. The tragedy, of course, is that Owen himself was killed before Armistice was declared, while bravely leading an assault on a German-held stronghold. The lesson here? The terms ‘Gay’ and ‘war hero’ are not incompatible.
Rossetti’s Cousin Kate gains additional resonances when you consider Rossetti is now widely hailed as a queer poet. When her brother was editing together her poems after her death, he destroyed the more explicit ones addressed to women. Nevertheless, many of her most famous poems are very homoerotic and there are elements of this in Cousin Kate if you read between the lines (something we English teachers always encourage our pupils to do!).
Asking a bunch of teenagers to let their imaginations run wild, reading between the lines of Emily Dickinson’s I started Early – Took my Dog is a sure-fire way to enliven a Friday afternoon! Dickinson’s poem features mermaids (a common queer symbol up to the present day) and some delectably hard-to-pin-down sexualised imagery ‘my shoes would overflow with Pearl’ (the mind boggles!). Other poems by queer writers in the Time and Place collection include First Flight by the lesbian U.A. Fanthorpe and Nothing’s Changed by Tatamkhulu Afrika, whose final novel autobiographically explored forbidden love between soldiers. Although Nothing’s Changed itself does not deal explicitly with queer themes, it’s a fascinating depiction of division from someone whose queerness gave him an insight into discrimination.
The Belonging collection, which was added in 2019, is well worth a look, especially if you are making efforts to diversify your curriculum and really get stuck into exploring issues related to identity. Among the really interesting poems in this collection is the beautiful, Peckham Rye Lane, by the bisexual-identifying A K Blakemore.
This is just the beginning of course. Once you start looking at texts through LGBTQ+ lenses, it’s hard to stop!
In addition to writing and speaking extensively on the ins and outs of designing and implementing more diverse curricula, David recently contributed chapters to the books Big Gay Adventures in Education (LGBTEd) and The Everyday Lives of Gay Men. He can be found on twitter @davidtlowbridge where you will also find links to his articles and podcasts.