A fictional Ellen looks at teaching gay rights in Japan by Kathy Riley
Background: ELLEN, a popular TV comedy program in the USA, made headlines in 1997 when its lead character, Ellen DeGeneres, came out as a lesbian - in real life and in her TV persona - a likeable, girl-next-door bookstore manager. In the coming out episode, which was watched by millions of American viewers in April, Ellen explored her feelings and choices in a conversation with a counselor, played by TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
What would happen if Ellen left the bookshop and came to Japan to teach English at a Japanese university? Perhaps a conversation with her counselor (also transported to Japan) would go something like the conversation below.
Oprah: We've been talking lately about your wanting to connect your commitment to human rights with your teaching. How has that been going lately?
Ellen: Oh fine, fine. We did a unit on the environment last week. I was kinda surprised...
Oprah: At how well the students did?
Ellen: Sort of. It was their spirit actually. Whey they gave me that freestanding sculpture made out of used chopsticks... I mean, you never know what's gonna happen with students, especially when the class includes those art department kids with the buzz cuts.
Oprah: How about the other important issues in your life - like human rights and sexuality?
Ellen: What? You mean, like, uh...
Oprah: Gay. The word you found the courage to say on TV.
Ellen: Oh, that... Gay. Yeah, sure, that's important to me. And lots of people. I mean, we all saw those ads that appeared during the show - the ones for the gay and lesbian human rights campaign. But that was America. This is Japan, you know.
Oprah: Yes, I've noticed.
Ellen: Oh, you know what I mean. Coming out on TV in America is one thing. Coming out in Japan is another. I mean, I wouldn't have a job tomorrow.
Oprah: And that wouldn't be a problem in America?
Ellen: No, it wouldn't. I mean, yes, it would be - in some places. All the more reason to forget this whole idea. Next subject, please.
Oprah: Actually, my question wasn't about coming out. It was about teaching human rights. Do you have to come out in order to teach about gay and lesbian human rights? Even more to the point: Do you have to be gay to teach about gay and lesbian human rights?
Ellen: Well, no and no. But people make assumptions, you know. If you teach about recylcing, people kind of assume that you recycle stuff...
Oprah: So you think people will automatically assume you're gay if you teach about gay human rights?
Ellen: Yes, well no, not exactly. There's this teacher I know here. She's straight - and she and her students use the Internet to do research on gay rights. And then there's another one...
Oprah: People don't assume they're gay?
Ellen: Right. But they're married and have kids and so people assume...
Oprah: That they're straight. Hmm. Assumptions can keep us from looking into something more deeply, can't they? But, I see... You're worried about teachers who are single; you think people might wonder...
Ellen: That's exactly it! But, well... Lately I've met some teachers who invite gay speakers to their classes,you know, people who are willing to talk about their lives. The students have a lot of questions, it seems.
Oprah: Hmm. Just like the children in that movie you were telling me about.
Ellen: That movie? Oh yeah. It's Elementary* a great documentary. The one they showed at the Tokyo Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
Oprah: Yes. I believe you said the directors went around to elementary schools all over America and they talked to teachers who were helping their students understand gay and lesbian family life. And they visited schools that had celebrations about different kinds of families...
Ellen: Yeah, that's the one. Come to think of it, several of the teachers in the movie said they weren't gay, but they though it was really important to deal with the issue - and to support their gay colleagues who might feel, well, too vulnerable. Elementary school - now some people think that's a little too soon to start educating kids about this. But, you know, and the movie says this, there are many messages - usually pretty bad ones - about gay life in movies and on TV. Kids see those and they wonder. They need a place where they can talk openly, like school.
Oprah: We had the same problem at the beginning of the civil rights movement. There seems to be the same thing here in Japan: lots of distorted media, and not many chances to talk, listen and learn.
Ellen: Tell me about it! At the university level, too... Okay, you've got a point there. Somebody's got to start speaking up. But what about creating a relaxed English class? That's what we're supposed to be doing, isn't it? I mean, talk about gay rights? Some of my students still clam up if I ask them how their tennis game went yesterday.
Oprah: Bad day on the tennis court, maybe. No, seriously, that's a tough one. Perhaps we need to look more carefully at what motivates anyone to speak. What motivates you to speak with me? Or me to you? Maybe it's because we both really want to understand something.
Ellen: Okay, you've got another point. I don't know, though. The other thing is - I don't want people to think I'm pushing an "agenda". maybe I should stick to things that are more, well, universal.
Oprah: Teaching about diversity and acceptance is not universal?
Ellen: Okay, point three. But there's one more thing. Is it worth it? I mean, some days I think most of my students would be perfectly happy spending our class time talking about what they had for lunch or what they saw at Disneyland.
Oprah: That's the challenge of teaching about human rights, isn't it? Taking the discourse to a deeper level. It's not always so easy. but, as you say,students surprise you sometimes. You never know what they'll come up with when given a chance.
Ellen: Okay. I'm gonna think some more about this. The WELL conference is coming up soon. Maybe my colleagues will have some ideas.
And the Rainbow Educators' Network has ideas, too, Ellen!
RAINBOW EDUCATORS' NETWORK http://www2.gol.com/users/aidsed/rainbow/reading/ellen.html