In brief: Changing Perspectives on LGBT Representation in ELT Textbooks

Author: Ben Goldstein

Date: 2021

Goldstein begins with a quote from Scott Thornbury, who draws attention to LGBT invisibility in published language resources:

Where are the coursebook gays and lesbians? They are nowhere to be found. They are still firmly in the coursebook closet. Coursebooks are never gay… there are no same-sex couples… there are not even same-sex flatmates: coursebook people live with their families, on their own or their opposite-sex partners. (Thornbury 1999: 15–16)

Goldstein says that despite numerous positive changes in the field of ELT materials development, very little has been done to break the ‘heteronormative pattern’ in resources (Goldstein, 2021: 340). This can result in learning environments becoming monosexual spaces.

The author points out that the lack of LGBT visibility in coursebooks runs contrary to changing attitudes towards LGBT communities in wider society (note: in many contexts). While there has been some progress in more local markets, global publishers continue to sanitise coursebook content and silence identities. ‘Bearing in mind the publishers’ inaction,’ states Goldstein, ‘we need to explore and adopt strategies of our own to introduce such content in class.’

Thornbury’s strategies

Naturally, Goldstein stresses the importance of context in dealing with LGBT content. Tolerance is not a given in every local context, and any set of strategies for including LGBT content needs to work within such constraints. He refers to Thornbury’s seven strategies for introducing LGBT content, which I summarise as follows:

Discretion: Exclusion of content in the classroom – which may be necessary in contexts where homosexuality is illegal and addressing this may be controversial for the learners and problematic for teachers.

Goldstein stresses that it is possible to include LGBT content within a ‘discretion model’ by taking a ‘discreet approach’. Examples given include having a same-sex pair booking a hotel room BUT not insinuating they are in a relationship, or a same-sex couple picking a kid up from school but no mention of them being ‘two dads / mums’. The suggestion is that many readers will simply apply a heteronormative reading to such situations, but that might not be the case for all.

Normalisation: LGBT content is visible and embedded without ambiguity, but without specific attention drawn to it. This subverts the heteronormative pattern and (as a quote from Tyson Seburn puts it) means that content depicts simply ‘another variety of humankind’.

Resistance: Resisting LGBT invisibility, seeking opportunities to ‘queer the textbook’ and to address, through discussion and inquiry, the underlying ‘norms of heterosexuality’ (Goldstein 2021: 347). The example given explained how a typical family tree could include LGBT representations, and a series of exploratory questions used to deconstruct heteronormative assumptions.

Awareness-raising: Giving LGBT content a presence and opening discussion which (I’m implying this from the example) serves to educate and promote tolerance. A few pitfalls are mentioned regarding this approach:

  • Exploring such topics in a separate module or unit of a book could serve to ‘other’, and perpetuate an ‘us vs them’ type attitude.
  • Discussions framed as debates, which force ‘agreement or disagreement’ on topics related to basic human rights.
  • The approach of ‘warning’ the participants (you know, like ‘teacher discretion is advised’ etc) which could further marginalize.

Activism: Requesting LGBT content to be included in published resources; petitioning publishers; etc

Research: from both teachers and academic researchers. Exploring how LGBT content is being approached in different contexts, sharing positive stories, gaining more insight from LGBT teachers.

Self-disclosure: ‘LGBT content in published materials might provide LGBT teachers with an opportunity to be open about their sexuality in class’ (Goldstein 2021:351).

A case study

Goldstein, a published ELT author, explains his approach to embedding gay content into the coursebook model. Firstly, he mentions that the conditions were favourable for him to do this: the book was for an up-and-coming publisher that welcomed different approaches; the book was for adults; the target markets (Brazil was mentioned) were generally LGBT-friendly.

The approach was to embed and normalize gay content within typical General English coursebook themes (‘sport’, ‘relationships’, etc). Same-sex couples featured in texts and images but there was no overt mention of their sexuality. Here is a screenshot from the book ‘Framework’ provided by Goldstein (2021:353):

In later levels, Goldstein persuaded the publishers to include more subversive content in a unit titled ‘Taboo’. LGBT content appeared alongside topics such as use of drugs and alcohol, topless bathing, and so on. The author points out that the ‘separate unit’ approach was typical at the time and is not an approach they would use now.

Goldstein mentions that the content was generally well-received across the Latin America region (with a few exceptions). However, the publisher then decided to sell the resource within other markets (saving the costs of multiple local versions), repackaging it as ‘New Framework’. This resulted in some erasure of LGBT content (notably the gay couple in the ‘relationships’ unit being replaced with a straight one), and censorship of PARSNIPy content from the original resource.

Goldstein suggests that the LGBT content which did remain in the resource was subtle and open to interpretation, with accompanying images also open to interpretation (e.g. there were 8 images of people, and a ‘match and guess their relationship’ task – learners could suggest same-sex relationships, and the text wouldn’t necessarily refute that). He stresses that this is contrary to a typical approach in coursebooks, where a text might allow for ambiguity regarding relationship types (a same-sex relationship could be inferred), yet accompanying images affirm heteronormativity.


  • The author suggests that the dominance of global approaches to published materials makes opportunities like they had to include LGBT content less likely now.
  • They mention how authors might try to embed LGBT content into other components of the coursebook package.
  • There is a suggestion that the strategies employed by the author in their own resource (subtle inclusion of content that allow for (re-)interpretation) are one way forward.
  • There is a mention of how the issue of LGBT invisibility is now being highlighted more at conferences and in research.
  • There’s praise for certain projects (Raise Up, Kath Bilsborough’s work for BC) which have challenged the status quo.
  • There is a suggestion that teachers are finding constructive ways to include LGBT content, and many learners are in favour of discussing LGBT-related topics. However, teachers and learners can’t do this alone – ‘writers, illustrators, editors and publishers’ need to work for change.


I found this an informative and thought-provoking chapter. I wasn’t aware of Thornbury’s strategies for including LGBT content – it’s interesting to consider these from the perspective of both author and teacher.  

Relating the strategies to my own practice:

  • Discretion tends to be a default for me in published resources – typically due to market constraints rather than choice. Within that, I do often seek to include content that is open to interpretation. However, as Goldstein mentions, this tends to be disambiguated across modes (e.g. heteronormative images stifling subtle references to same-sex relationships in texts).
  • At times, I find my attempts to create space for certain identities are simply too subtle and easy to explain away. This article does make me feel that I should begin the content creation process with a more overt approach to LGBT visibility rather than start with discretion in mind. That’s easy to say, but the target market and guidance from publishers dictates a lot.
  • Personally, I prefer the term ‘usualisation’ to ‘normalisation’.
  • The strategies aren’t (I guess) meant to be mutually exclusive. There have been times when I’ve included LGBT content in published resources in a normalized way. Then, when teaching lessons around that content myself, I’ve chosen to draw attention to otherwise normalised content for the purposes of discussion and awareness-raising. Is that somewhat contradictory? Is it, or could it lead to, unintentional othering? Perhaps.
  • The above example highlights one danger – the extent to which we as teachers interpret certain content for our learners.  
  • It’s interesting to relate these strategies to various projects I’ve worked on. I sometimes notice the lack of alignment in approaches between different parties. Example: Sometimes, publisher guidance puts ‘LGBT content’ into the bracket of ‘cultural sensitivity’ rather than ‘equality or inclusivity’. They hint that authors should take a discreet approach to include such content, yet provide few practical examples for how to do this. Sometimes DEI consultants who review content highlight underrepresentation of LGBT+ identities. However, they may not feel it is in their remit to mentor or guide authors in finding ways to address this – specifically in regard to the approach expected by the publisher. The message for authors within this becomes unclear, and they are tasked with producing more inclusive content yet without clear, tangible guidance to anchor them. At least if we were able to clearly say ‘this resource will take a XYZ approach to inclusion of LGBT content. Here are some practical examples for how you can do this: [insert long list here]’ then everybody is aligned and can clearly recognize the contextual constraints. And there would be familiarity with this approach moving forward into further projects (were it to be adopted again).
  • I think I’m basically saying there’s not enough training, too many assumptions, lack of communication, and/or ineffective channels of communication within teams sometimes.
  • It’s worth noting given the above that I’ve found guidance much clearer when it comes to addressing other DEI-related content. DEI guidance docs on gender equality and race/ethnicity from some publishers are really useful and practical.
  • One under-researched area for me here is mediation between publisher and teacher – the teacher’s guide/book/notes! While LGBT visibility in student-facing resources is (IMO) imperative, the teachers notes are a way to impart the authors’/publisher’s intentions, approach etc to teachers. It’s also a chance to explain how teachers might make subtle visibility more overt should their context allow. The fact that, in many projects, the student book author is not involved in authoring teacher notes, highlights the need for a consistent message and approach to be shared across a team. I’m rambling on now sorry.


Regarding the case study from Goldstein – I really appreciated the author’s honesty. They shared examples of their own content in which, with LGBT visibility appearing in a separate unit and under the title of ‘taboo’, inadvertently created a sense of othering. They conceded that, in hindsight, this was not a positive approach. They also recognized that this was a typical way at that time to provide at least some LGBT visibility. This type of reflection from authors is most welcome – it certainly encourages others (me) to acknowledge some of their (my) misguided approaches in trying to make LGBT content more visible.

Anyhow, I highly recommend reading this chapter, here are the full details:

Goldstein, B. Changing Perspectives on LGBT Representation in ELT Textbooks. In Pakuła, L (2021) Linguistic Perspectives on Sexuality in Education: Representations, Constructions and Negotiations, 339-368.

Note – I’ve used the same terms as the author in this summary (LGBT, gay content, etc)

Categories: General, reflections

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