LGBTQ-Themed Fiction in the EFL Classroom. The Young Adult Novel "Will Grayson Will Grayson" by John Green

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2018
16 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Dealing with Otherness and Queer Perspectives in the EFL Classroom
2.1. Queer Theory in Foreign Language Teaching
2.2. LGBTQ-Themed Young Adult Literature in the EFL Classroom

3. David Levithan's and John Green's Will Grayson Will Grayso n - Queer Potential?
3.1. The Characters
3.2. Teaching Implications

4. Applying Will Grayson Will Grayson to the EFL Classroom
4.1. Fremdverstehen through Creative Methods
4.2. Possible Tasks

5. Conclusion

6. List of Works Cited

1. Introduction

simon: wait a sec - you're gay? me: yup. I suppose that's the correct conclusion for you to drawsimon: that's disgusting!

This is not exactly the reaction I was expecting from simon. i was betting on something a little closer to indifference. (Levithan & Green 2010, 175)

This reaction of Simon, an average teenage boy of John Green's and David Levithan's young adult novel Will Grayson Will Grayson, towards will grayson's1 proclamation of his homosexual identity represents the widespread homophobic attitude which is standard in many societies.

Although the level of tolerance towards all types of Otherness has increased during the past years, there is still discrimination against anything other than heterosexuality (Curwood et al. 2009, 39). Especially in schools, sexual and gender differences are seldom addressed and if, they are presented as deviant sexual behaviour (Lommatzsch & Kadasch 2013, 68). Teachers often lack professional competences and they even resist to address LGBTQ2 issues (Athanases & Larrabee 2003, 237). As a consequence, homophobia and heterosexism are present in many classrooms which can affect both learning and teaching negatively (Gutenberg 2013, 115).

The problem of heterosexism is also related to the foreign language classroom. Both in coursebooks as well as in literature students are often confronted with heteronormative representations and characters. Placing emphasis on this problem, I will take the LGBTQ-themed young adult novel Will Grayson Will Grayson by David Levithan and John Green into consideration and aim to prove that this novel is a good way to challenge students believes and perspectives about sexual and gender differences and to counter and normalize homophobia in the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classroom.

To achieve this goal, I have organized my term paper into three main sections, each having two subsections. In the first place, I explain the role of queer topics in the EFL classroom. To do so, I firstly describe concepts dealing with Otherness, especially queer theory and its connections to foreign language teaching. Secondly, I discuss features of LGBTQ topics in young adult literature in order to then, analyse John

Green and David Levithan's young adult novel Will Grayson Will Grayson. Here, I especially examine the characters and their queer potential and describe how LGBTQ topics are handled in the novel. Moreover, I explain the concept of gaining Fremdverstehen through creative tasks in order to present some tasks that show how the novel can be applied to the EFL classroom. At the end of my term paper, I give a final evaluation of the topics discussed.

Especially in the past decade, there was a lot of research respecting this topic. The main work which I will draw on is the dissertation about Other Others and Different Differences by Thorsten Merse which he published in 2017. He mainly describes how to deal with ‘Otherness’ and queer perspectives in the EFL classroom. Furthermore, I will adduce some articles which consider LGBTQ-themed literature. For instance, they deal with the role and possibilities of teaching LGBTQ-themed literature and criteria for selection of this literature. Of course, I will also take the novel Will Grayson Will Grayson into consideration.

2. Dealing with Otherness and Queer Perspectives in the EFL Classroom

To analyse the young adult novel Will Grayson Will Grayson respective its potential to combating homophobia in the EFL classroom it is, firstly, necessary to explain the role of ‘other’ and queer perspectives in foreign language teaching. To do so, it is crucial to mention that relating to the engagement with Otherness and difference in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), thoughts about sexual and gender diversity have so far been left unconsidered, although they hold high educative value (Merse 2017, 164).3 Especially queer perspectives received little attention in TEFL discourse (Gutenberg 2013, 115-116).

Although TEFL is deeply concerned with affirming Otherness and greater diversity, there are other concepts which are more important, especially differences negotiated in discourses of cultural learning as well as literary learning (Merse 2017, 261). Cultural learning involves developing an open-minded and respectful attitude towards cultural differences. This openness is mainly embodied in concepts such as

Fremdverstehen 4 and intercultural communicative competence (ICC). Here, culture is primarily understood in terms of ‘national culture’ or ‘ethnic culture’ and does not take cultural categories such as gender or social class into consideration. Considering literature, the focus of the EFL classroom is to introduce the learners to new worlds and perspectives through the literary texts. The problem here is that often literature from the 'literary canon' or literature that is cautious towards diversity, is used (Merse 2017, 262-263). To overcome this problem, Merse (2017) claims that these concepts should function like a 'docking station' which can be used carve 'new' strands of Otherness, like sexual and gender diversities (163).

2.1. Queer Theory in Foreign Language Teaching

As a means to integrate sexual and gender diversity into the EFL classroom, queer theory and its adjacent strands offer an important concept. To begin with, the term 'queer' constitutes an umbrella term which includes all marginalized, nonheterosexual and gender diversities (Merse 2017, 203) These identities are often marked by the acronym LGBT(Q) (Merse 2017, 266). Besides, the word 'queering' means to read cultural practices that are regarded as 'normal' against the grain with the intention to overthrow the normative (Berensmeyer 2009, 121). Queer theory mainly reflects critically on the role of gender and sexuality in culture and society and the different ways in which sexual identities are expressed and also repressed. Thereby, it interrogates why heterosexuality is regarded as 'normal' and homosexuality as deviant and even abnormal. Additionally, queer theory asks for the effects that assumptions about straight, gay, or lesbian practices have on the reception of literature (Berensmeyer 2009, 120).

Transferred to the EFL classroom, Merse (2017) argues that queer functions as a 'zone of possibilities'. Firstly, it aims to accommodate non-heteronormative identities and make them visible. It wants to deconstruct heteronormativity and its impact on cultural patterns. Moreover, the production of sexual identities through discourse is examined and interrogated and sexual and gender identity 'markers' are discussed critically (209). Students need to identify and understand heteronormativity as a powerful mentality in order to then, challenge this norm, question their own assumptions that everybody is heterosexual and open up towards alternative sexual and gender identities (Merse 2017, 267).

2.2. LGBTQ-Themed Young Adult Literature in the EFL Classroom

In the EFL classroom, literary texts offer a high potential for dealing critically with Otherness and difference by introducing learners to new and unknown perspectives (Merse 2017, 263). Respecting LGBTQ-themed young adult literature, it provides a great potential for reflecting on one's own identity, de-centring from old assumptions and establishing a queer perspective (Merse 2017, 226). Through this kind of literature sexual and gender diversity is brought into the classroom through which learners get the possibility to engage critically with the representations and negotiations of sexual and gender identities as well as heteronormativity in the texts (Merse 269). Especially during the last decades, more LGBTQ-themed literature was published in which queer perspectives are presented in varied ways (Cart & Jenkins 2006, xvi).

Due to the wide range of LGBTQ-themed literature, there are also various representations of LGBTQ characters in those texts. With their three-part heuristic model Cart and Jenkins (2006) proposed a way to consider three types of LGBTQ characters. The first category is named 'homosexual visibility' (HV). In those stories, there is usually a single character who is assumed to be straight and then comes out (in)voluntarily to be gay or lesbian. In 'gay assimilation' (GA) stories gay/lesbian characters are presented with no difference from straight characters, besides their sexuality. The sexual identity is portrayed as a typical characteristic like wearing glasses. 'queer consciousness/ community' (QC) makes up the last category in which many LGBTQ characters are presented in the context of a supportive community. Here, the diversity of LGBTQ people is shown (xix-xx). According to Clark and Blackburn (2009) students are most attracted to the novels that present queer characters in their queer communities (29).

After having mentioned different types of LGBTQ literature and its characters there remains the questions which literature should be best chosen for the EFL classroom. On the one hand, LGBTQ-themed literature can serve as mirrors. For LGBTQ students the texts can provide an opportunity to see and to reflect on themselves which helps them to get a better understanding of their identity (Renzi et al. 2012, 119). Merse (2017) considers this function problematic since one cannot assume that every LGBTQ student is fully aware of his/her identity and that he/her can identify with the LGBTQ character in the text (223). On the other hand, LGBTQ-themed literature can serve as windows, in so far as students can get new insights into experiences of LGBTQ people which should provoke empathy and understanding (Clark and Blackburn 2009, 28; Logan et al. 2014, 33).

Ideally, texts are presented in which LGBTQ characters are accepted and integrated into the society and have high self-awareness. Logan et al. (2014) additionally maintain that non-stereotypical literature should be selected which negates false representations of queer people, since it enables students to examine their own beliefs about homosexuality (33). Although there is the demand of authentic representations of queer people, Merse (2017) claims that what is more important is the methodology which is used by the teacher, so that the students are integrated in constituting the text's meaning and reflect critically on it. Furthermore, he argues that there is no accordance in how an accurate portrayal of a queer person should look like, so a text should cover a wide range of perspectives and experiences (227).

In addition to that LGBTQ-themed literature should have literary merit, so that it offers learners multiple ways to compare, contrast, hypothesize, evaluate critically and engage in conversations about topics like power and marginalization (Logan et al. 2014, 32-33). Clark and Blackburn (2009) also argue that teachers need to privilege the student's pleasure of dealing with the text over didactic purposes and that it is necessary to deal with a wide range of LGBTQ-themed literature throughout the school year so that students recognize queer topics as normative (27-29). Logan et al. (2014) further assert that this literature should be curricular relevant to what is taught in the classroom (32).

3. David Levithan's and John Green's Will Grayson Will Grayso n - Queer Potential?

3.1. The Characters

After having outlined the main theoretical framework of queer perspectives in the EFL classroom, I will now take David Levithan's and John Green's young adult novel Will Grayson Will Grayson into consideration and analyse how LGBTQ topics and characters are presented and dealt with in this novel. To begin with, I present the main characters, with special consideration of their attitudes towards sexuality, in order to then, analyse in how far they are appropriate to be used in the EFL classroom.

The first protagonist is Will Grayson. He is a calm and inconspicuous teenager who goes to a high school in Chicago. He dotes on a girl named Jane and he is the only straight member of the Gay-Straight Alliance5 at his high school (Levithan & Green 2010, 42-43) Will Grayson's best friend is named Tiny Cooper who is overtly homosexual. Although Will Grayson is completely heterosexual he accepts and loves Tiny and doesn't care that he is gay. He calls him his best friend, hangs around with him, helps him through all of his troubles and does not treat him like an 'Other' (Levithan & Green 3-4). will grayson is a teenager from Naperville, who seems alone and depressed (Levithan & Green 2010, 22). He is homosexual and in love with a boy named Isaac whom he only knows from the internet (Levithan & Green 2010, 37). During the story, it turns out that Isaac was made up by will grayson's friend Maura (Levithan & Green 2010, 119-120). Throughout the novel it seems that will grayson is struggling with the fact that he is homosexual: i know if i told her about liking guys, she'd probably stop wanting to date me, which would be a huge plus. but i also know i'd immediately become her gay pet, and that's the last kind of leash i want. and it's not like i'm really that gay. i fucking hate madonna (Levithan & Green 2010, 56).

The only person he tells about his homosexuality is Isaac. It seems like he does not know how to deal with his sexuality and that he adopted a homophobic attitude: “me: you just sound so gay. tiny: um...there's a reason for that? me: yeah, but. I dunno. I don't like gay people. tiny: but surely you must like yourself?” (Levithan & Green 2010, 147)

As mentioned before, Tiny is the best friend of Will Grayson and falls in love with will grayson during the story (Levithan & Green 2010, 181). In the beginning of the novel Will Grayson characterizes Tiny with a meaningful statement: “Tiny Cooper is not the world's gayest person, and he is not the world's largest person, but I believe he may be the world's largest person who is really, really gay, and also the world's gayest person who is really, really large.” (Levithan & Green 2010, 3).


1 Since the novel comprises two characters that are called Will Grayson, I differentiate them as the novel does, referring to one of them as ‘Will Grayson’ and the other one as ‘will grayson’.

2 LGBTQ is an acronym that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.

3 For example, there is no mentioning of anything related to sexuality or gender in the educational standards.

4 I will consider this concept in again in chapter 4.1. when I examine how the novel Will Grayson Will Grayson can be applied to the EFL classroom.

5 The Gay-Straight Alliance is an organisation at American high schools which is led by students and intends to provide a respectful and supportive environment for the LGBTQ youth and their straight allies.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


LGBTQ-Themed Fiction in the EFL Classroom. The Young Adult Novel "Will Grayson Will Grayson" by John Green
University of Münster
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
LGBTQ, fiction, literature, classroom
Quote paper
Inga Schräder (Author), 2018, LGBTQ-Themed Fiction in the EFL Classroom. The Young Adult Novel "Will Grayson Will Grayson" by John Green, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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