Sunday, November 28, 2010

Same-Sex Marriage Debate in Class

For the past 2 years, I have taught English at a Canadian university. Over this time, I have taught hundreds of students, most of whom are Chinese. Among them, though, there have also been a few dozen from other countries, mostly from Saudi Arabia, but also a few from Latin America, Korea, Japan, and a few from Iraq (via Jordan). Now, I figure, simply because of the law of averages, I have had a few students who are gay.

One activity I do most every term in my class (after a few weeks, so that we have had time to develop a good rapport with each other) is a same-sex marriage "debate." I do this for a few reasons:
1) Same-sex marriage is legal in Canada, and people from other countries who are living here should know our stand on it
2) Some of the students I've had are undoubtedly gay, but are generally from countries that either a) don't acknowledge homosexuality as even existing, or b) don't acknowledge homosexuality as even existing, but if it does, it is a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment or death (mainly the "Koran Corset" countries, as opposed to the Bible Belt - although homosexuality is certainly most alive and kicking in Saudi Arabia).
3) It's good for students to cultivate empathy for others' points of view that they don't necessarily share, and finally,
4) it allows students to practice expressions for stating opinions and disagreeing.

So how do I do this activity? First, I tell the students a story about my best and oldest friend, whose wedding I attended a few years ago. The kicker at the end of the story is that instead of a bride and a groom, the wedding featured a bride and a bride. I let the news sink in for a moment, and observe the reactions, which range from "Wow, cool!," to general ambivalence, to disgust. Then I ask them for their opinions - for or against. Almost without fail, it seems, the students schooled in either Christianity (Korean, Latin American) and Islam are wholeheartedly opposed to the idea. The Chinese, (and Japanese, to a lesser extent) generally range from enthusiastic support to overall ambivalence. (In my class of 14 Chinese students this term, for instance, I had only one student opposed to the idea, and he is nearly 10 years older than the rest of the class - I don't know if age has anything to do with it at all, but I think a little while ago, there was a celebrity drag queen in China that drew some attention to the issue). Then, based on their opinions, I divide them into 2 equal groups (this works better is there is about a 50/50 split of opinion, but usually, because of the Chinese influence, it ends up being about 80% in favour of the idea). The students who are opposed are in one group, with the pro-same-sex group in another. I give them some vocabulary (homosexual, straight, bisexual, gay, lesbian) and then I then tell them they are going to have a debate... but they have to argue in favour of the opinion they don't actually have. So, in groups, they brainstorm reasons to support their arguments. Overhearing the brainstorming session the other day was particularly charming - this from a student struggling to find reasons to oppose it:

Student (making a triangular motion with hands): It's wrong for people who go to that place...ahhh...ummm.... (struggling for the word)... CHURCH! In that book... (lengthy pause)...

Student B: Oh, yes, I know... ummm... book, ahhh.... b,b... BEEBLE!!

Student A: Yes, BEEBLE!!

(By the way, what made this encounter even more charming was that there was no trace of irony).

So, after their brainstorming session, they pair up with someone of the opposing team, and argue their viewpoints - the person in favour generally comes out the winner.

After the debate, we talk a bit more, and I tell them my reasons for doing the activity; mainly, to understand that being gay doesn't make you an abomination, and that one of our rights as Canadians (and something to be proud of on the world stage, to be sure) is the right to marry the person we love, regardless of gender. The students are generally very interested and motivated, and will ask many questions.

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