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Let’s Just Start With Gay

Lucian Kahn

I don’t have the luxury of teaching my ESL students about “queer.” They’re from twenty different countries and barely speak English, plus their teacher-ratings directly determine my pay. I’m a don’t-ask-don’t-tell transsexual faggot who works just under the limit of hours that would require the school to give me health insurance, and I can’t afford to lose my job. Let’s just start with “gay.”

Our vocabulary unit on charity and community service provided me with an excuse to assign this New York Times article from 2009 about the Episcopal church donating money to the Ali Forney Center for GLBT homeless youth.

I’m a don’t-ask-don’t-tell transsexual faggot who works just under the limit of hours that would require the school to give me health insurance

I’m always trying to find ways of exposing my students to these topics without alienating them, offending them on a cultural level, overwhelming them, preaching to them, or bombarding them with impossibly sophisticated words. In the past, when I’ve asked students their opinions of homosexuality, I’ve received answers as varied as, “It’s normal” (often from Europeans), “It’s illegal” (a male police officer from Dubai), and “My country has a lot of ladyboys” (a woman from Thailand). The article about Ali Forney was a good fit because I was able to frame it as, “Are you surprised that the church donated money to a charity that helps gay people? What is your opinion of this?” They all read it over the weekend, and I chatted with each of them privately about it for five minutes as their weekly speaking skills assessment.

My students’ responses to the article fascinated me so much, I was slightly concerned about accidentally transforming into one of those obnoxious makeshift anthropologists who talks to three Croatians, say, and decides he’s an authority on the whole country’s worldview. Fortunately, I am not a dipshit and was able, instead, to simply gather a variety of reactions that I would be unlikely to encounter from native English speakers here in the States, and keep them fresh in my mind as an antidote against America-centric approaches to queer education.

A Korean guy in his mid-twenties said, “I don’t like gay people.”

“No?” I asked.

“I mean. No, I don’t mean I don’t like gay people. I mean, I don’t care about that, because there are no gay people in Korea.”

This guy is Korean, from Korea. He’s not Korean-American. This month is his first time outside of Korea.

“I see, so you just don’t think about them.”

He nodded. He looked confused. He leaned forward and asked me, “Is this real?”

“Is what real?”

“Can a man really love another man?” he asked, “Is it possible?”

“Yeah, it’s possible,” I said.

“I saw two men in Chelsea, and I thought it was a joke. I thought they were actors,” he said. “Two men kissing. I was very surprised!”

“Yes, that’s real,” I said.

“Are there a lot of gay people in New York? Is it common?”

“Yeah, it’s pretty common.”

“I never saw that in Korea,” he said. “There are no gay people in Korea.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yeah, I never saw that.”

“Maybe there are gay people in Korea,” I said, “but they are afraid to kiss in public places. There are gay people everywhere, I think.”

He thought about that. “Maybe…” He paused. “But…I think no. Do you think it is strange?”

“Gay people are pretty common here in America,” I said.

He thought for a moment. “I don’t understand how a man can love another man. Maybe it’s just because I’m not.”

I nodded.

“Anyway,” he said, “I think it’s good, the church helping them.”

After this conversation, a Brazilian man in his early sixties, whose wife was also my student, gave me a spontaneous, impassioned speech about how important he thought the article was. As a Catholic, he said he deeply believed that the church in his country needed to start treating gay people with respect, dignity and compassion. He was such a sweet old man, he almost made me start to cry a little. The Italian woman right after him expressed similar sentiments, adding that the prospect of the Catholic church in Italy donating money to a gay charity was completely unthinkable. She was amazed that anything like this had happened anywhere.

The next person I talked to was a Japanese doctor in his mid-thirties, who said, “I don’t understand why this article is important.”

“Why not?” I asked. I thought he might have a similar attitude to the guy who had said there were no gay people in Korea.

“This article is about the church,” he said, “so I don’t understand why it is in the New York Times.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean,” he said, “this article is important for Christians. My family is Buddhist, for example. Only some readers of the New York Times are Christian. So why do they care about the church donating money to a gay charity?”

“Christianity has a lot of power in American culture,” I said, “even for people who aren’t Christian.”

“Oh, really?” he asked. “I didn’t know that.”

The rest of that conversation wasn’t about the queers.


  1. I love this. I want to read more though!

  2. Morgan M. Page

    This article is awesome. And I agree with Claire, I want to read more about your ESL classes!


  3. Dee Em Gree

    Aw, I clicked in to this article from my newsreader hoping there would be more pages. I’m definitely interested in hearing more about this.

    • Lucian from Schmekel

      Thanks, Claire, Morgan & Dee! I’ll write a follow-up!

  4. Marc-Anthony Macon

    From what I’ve been able to gather, homosexuality (and a lot of queer/queerish issues/people) are a complete non-issue in Japan. My Japanese teacher, who is going on 90, just yesterday expressed deep sadness that my boyfriend won’t be coming with us to Japan. Friends from Japan have reiterated over and over that same sentiment; “no one cares about that, it’s up to the individual. Why would it be a problem?” So, yeah, not so surprised that your student was confused as to why this is an important article because he probably couldn’t imagine why it would be odd for a church to do this. From his perspective, it may be like us reading an article like “Little Kids Request Ponies, Video Games, Sneakers for Birthdays.”

    • I’ve gotten conflicting impressions about this from Japanese people. Some of my Japanese students seem to think gay people are very uncommon, and others don’t. A lot don’t seem to mind gay people, a few think they’re not so great. My guess is that attitudes toward queerness in Japan aren’t monolithic. Anyway, I’m not an anthropologist.

      The student I wrote about in this article was very surprised that there was such a big problem of homelessness among gay youth here. According to him, there’s nothing like this in Japan. Of course, there could be something like this in Japan and he just doesn’t know about it. Most Americans don’t know the percentages of homeless people who are queer either. And he’s also not an anthropologist.

  5. Hehe “ladyboys”. I wish I could self-identify as this but it’s probably appropriative.

    I had the most awkward convo with my mom the other day where she was like “Why do so many people go to Thailand for plastic surgery?”

    And my GF and I just giggled.

  6. Charlie

    I always worried over this problem when I taught ESL (I taught at the university level). I know some of my queer colleagues would discuss it with their students one-on-one, if they thought the student was amenable. We even hosted a discussion day for the higher level students, but it barely got past the definitions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender because that’s a lot of difficult vocab for one hour! But as to getting into words I would actually use to describe myself, I was never sure I would be able to describe it well enough to really bring some clarity and understanding to the situation. In the end I just presented the way I wished to and referred to my partner as “they”, which is actually their preferred pronoun, and no one seemed to mind too much.

    • Thanks for this response, Charlie! I figured I couldn’t possibly be the only person who had gone through pronoun adventures as an ESL teacher, but I haven’t actually talked to any others!

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