Teaching Gay Acceptance to Kids: It’s Elementary

by Ambrose Aban

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday December 6, 2007

A gay "edumentary" is remaking astonishing inroads in America's education system. A San Francisco-based company, GroundSpark, produced It's Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues In Schools for elementary and high schools educators and students a decade ago. Bypassing the political and media worlds, GroundSpark's work has provoked the question asked by parents across the country: Will they allow their third-graders and teenage kids to study civility, tolerance and acceptance for gays and lesbians in schools?

To mark the 10-year anniversary of the film, there's now a companion film launched last week in New York City. It's Still Elementary: The Movie & The Movement is a sequel--and also dramatizes the special relationship between homosexual and heterosexual children and teachers in elementary and high schools. The subject matter, however, remains the same as the first one--tolerance. But GroundSpark (formerly Women's Education Media) is targeting adults and lawmakers with the new effort. There is a plan afoot to put the two versions into a DVD next month for the general public.

The new film--shot in a raw, on-the-spot way that captures all the opinions of children and adults alongside the cold hard facts of life--is certainly one of the most realistic community service films of its kind, yet presses all the right buttons in a viewer.

Tolerance not only includes gritting one's teeth and putting up with other people and their opinions, but also demands acceptance of the other person (if not of the opinion itself). For elementary school kids, it is about learning how to accept that gay people exist and that the only way to study, live, and work with them is to accept them for who they are.

Debra Chasnoff, a feature documentary Oscar-winner in the mid-'90s, set a seemingly straightforward task for her staff at GroundSpark to relaunch her theme line of videos, Talking About Gay People In Schools, into the new 48-minute version, the aptly titled It's Still Elementary. In doing so, she plunged into one of the most controversial aspects of the gay-rights movement, namely, how young people should be before they learn about homosexuality.

The issue of whether society should tolerate, accept, or even celebrate homosexuality has become one of the most volatile cultural issues of the 90s. But nothing seems to generate more passion on both sides of the ideological divide than the question of whether schools, even as early as kindergarten, should be teaching children that gay is OK.

Chasnoff believes that change happens in response to acceptance. "It's not a 'culture of niceness,'" said a lower Manhattan's fourth-grade math teacher of two gay brothers in New York City who was interviewed for this article. "This is a 'heart thing.' We can be nice to people, but getting our hearts lined up with it: That's the challenge."

Rethinking tolerance--& acceptance

It's Still Elementary is meant to reinvigorate a movement to make schools safe for all children to discuss lesbian and gay people in age-appropriate ways. What sets this new video apart from the one produced by the American Family Association, Suffer The Children Answering the Homosexual Agenda in Public Schools to counterattack It's Elementary is the unapologetic way in which Chasnoff and producer Helen Cohen delve into the crumbling mind of straight people and those who run the straight community and organizations.

The idea came about after Chasnoff won her Oscar. What next? she asked herself. It struck her that homophobia hurts all children: one only has to consider the consistently homophobic content of bullying.

Tackling Bullying, Suicide & STDs

In the '90s, when most schools were focusing on preventing the spread of HIV or suicide, typically limiting discussions of homosexuality to health class lessons, Chasnoff put together a small set of crew and filmed several classrooms around the country where teachers brought up the subject of gays and lesbians with fourth graders and students in high schools.

One of her "talking heads," third-grader Emily Rosen-King, submitted her article for a school essay-writing contest and the teachers realized that her essay really stood out because she was clearly talking about acceptance, tolerance and love. In the film, her teacher invites her to the front of the classroom and asks her to read her essay, praising her grandma and proclaiming the virtues of having two loving mommies. Emily of course knew all along about being a gay couple's daughter. Now in her late teen, she realized what she was writing and reading in her classroom then was really a very important deal.

Bob Chase, who was President of the National Education Association from 1996 to 2002 says there was enormous reluctant to address gay issues back then. And Kevin Jennings who is the founder of GLSEN, a gay and lesbian education network, remembers there was nothing going on and there were no teachers addressing the issue of tolerance, "let alone talking about gay people," he said. "And there was none to protect kids from harmful harassment."

"It was a scary time for the kids," says Frieda Takamura, who is the co-founder of The Safe Schools Coalition, adding kids were subjected to all kinds of negative innuendos about gays and lesbians and the info they were getting from so many people were all the anti-gay and slurs.

Driven and challenged, Chasnoff used her documentary-making skills and filmed It's Elementary in a raw unedited honest way, capturing the much-needed human emotion into the film.

Real Kids Reel Life

The film is not your average everyday documentary. No picture-perfect children. No perfectly groomed moms with understanding husbands. No toothy teens and baby golden retriever leaping around the screen. Instead, it shows something you seldom see on film outside of the news. Real life.

As the first video resurfaces after a decade and the newly released one generates a new brand of energy and passion like never before, many schools across the land are ready to accept and screen the new film. But some of the same controversies are arising similar to the first one in 1996.

But It's Still Elementary targets parents, teachers, and community and world leaders by sharing, telling and measuring the positive impacts the first film had made in 10 years. The kids featured in the videos, now in their late teens and early 20s, watched the video again as adults and have spoken freely and respectfully about gay people. They have become allies.

Indeed, it seems that It's Elementary has helped countless educators and parents think about their role in helping to prevent young people from harmful bias and prejudice toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Rather than focusing on political differences on this issue among adults, the film takes the point of view of children and features them discussing the information and the misinformation that they have absorbed about what it means to be gay or lesbian.

One of the kids, Brandon Rice, now 23, told EDGE in phone call from Wisconsin that the film touched him in many different ways. "Today, I am thinking about kids across the country facing discrimination at school," he said. "So to me personally, it's very important to keep LGBT issues in schools as early as elementary, because it's helps kids develop tolerance early on for their adult lives." Rice added that many kids struggle with their identity, and if we give them tools and educate their peers, in return they will recognize bad behavior towards each other, and can easily correct it.

'We really wanted to share the story of why It's Elementary was made in the first place'

If you remember, there is a phenomenal episode of South Park in which the main characters are forced to visit a "Museum of Tolerance" where they are bombarded by PC propaganda on various social and racial issues. When the brainwashing does not work, the kids are sent to a Nazi-style "Tolerance Camp" for indoctrination that is more intensive.

The moral of the story, according to a professor at an institute of Asian studies in New York, is the difference between acceptance and tolerance. To tolerate something, as one of the young heroes precociously explains, is simply to put up with it. It does not mean you have to like it or approve of it. Therefore, not all that coercive inculcation had been to impart the children with tolerance, after all, but rather to mandate approval, to force acceptance.

"The distinction is lost on many people," says Pauline Griffiths, who has written on the subject of tolerance. "We should seriously want social toleration, in the narrow sense, meaning the willingness of people to coexist with those of different opinions, lifestyles, religions, ethnicities, and so on, and to refrain from using force to make others conform to their own will."

Many people have trouble with this concept because they tend to believe that their own idea of what is good and bad should be enforced by the state.

"School students should be encouraged to be civil and responsible in order for tolerance and acceptance to take place in elementary schools and even in universities," said LaMore Longines, a straight financial writer who was bullied as a fourth-grader because his then-11th-grade elder brother appeared to be gay and behaved flamboyantly.

A Movie Ignites a Movement

"Many people think that elementary is too early to start, and elementary schools are seen as the wrong place to start planting the seeds of civility and tolerance and acceptance," Rice said. "But if your child is old enough to understand a heterosexual relationship, why deny them the opportunity to learn about the other side?"

Once they start to talk about homosexuals, they can branch off into other issues: same-sex marriages, gender identity, lifestyles etc," he added. It's Elementary has certainly ignited the national "safe schools" movement, contributing to the growth in the number of gay-straight alliance groups in schools and the increase in the number of K-12 schools with inclusive non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.

In 1990, the number of gay-straight alliances in US high schools was only two compare with 3,700 in 2007. The percentage of school districts that train staff about sexual orientation issues was less than 1% in 1990 compared to 29% in 2007. Also the number of states with law supporting the issues was only one state compared to 10 states in 2007. That is testimony enough to spread the videos to schools. The number of times anti-gay slurs rolled out of students' tongues in 1990 was 26 times every four minutes.

As a TV station manager in Idaho who's featured in the film says, "This is the issue we really need to deal with". On the other side, people like Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson have condemned the film. The American Family Association, AFA, The Coral Ministries, the Family Research Council, and a few others had also openly condemned the first film, saying the video failed to cover the "Christian" part and lied about the biblical view of homosexuality.

With inspiring footage shot in schools across the country, It's Elementary makes a compelling case that children need to be taught respect for all - and that this kind of educations needs to start in elementary school. But parents however continue to be divided and one of them, Kevin Brown, a straight father of a fourth-grader in New York says he does not believe such topics are appropriate for his son and for elementary school students.

"Teaching young kids about tolerance are a commendable thing," he said. "But teaching them about gay and lesbian lifestyles on the pretext of promoting tolerance and acceptance is not elementary education."

In It's Still Elementary, Chasnoff and her team once again hit on a novel way to touch people in the street by injecting the element of reality into the documentary. The result is touching - there is life, movement and characters in the films.

A Look Back--& Forward

The message is clear: a dramatic relationship between children and teachers. In terms of execution, it was also very unusual. Chasnoff and her team must have asked a lot of flexibility, which the schools and parents gave them. Their trust was well appreciated and it paid off.

It's Still Elementary looks at the impact of the original, which has been viewed by millions of people as well as shown on public television as it features follow-up interviews with some of the original students, as well as with educators, activists and the film's production team who discuss the political and cultural reaction to and impact of the original release of the film.

"We really wanted to share the story of why It's Elementary was made in the first place," Chasnoff explains, adding, "it allows for a moment of reflection and a time to recommit ourselves to do more."

Many schools and parents decided not to run away from the issue and the religious ones are starting to feel they need to look at the anti-gay prejudice. Because of seismic cultural shifts, gay and lesbian teens are acknowledging same-sex attraction at ever-younger ages and questioning the concept of both "coming out" and "the closet." Increasingly, their challenges look less like the public health crisis of the 1980s and more like the ones their straight peers have always faced: How do you know when a boy likes you (versus just liking you)? How do you ask a girl out? And what do you do when your mom hears about your new boyfriend from one of her friends at the supermarket?

To understand the experiences some teens have today, we must go back at least as far as 1989, when a startling report on suicide rates was released. Long-invisible populations in high schools, gay and lesbian teens were suddenly thrust into the spotlight. Many adults were horrified by students' stories of hostile school climates, isolation, and even parental rejection.

GLSEN's Jennings (and a onetime teacher at Concord Academy), cautions that while life may be better for some teens in some schools, verbal and physical harassment remains a serious problem, especially in the 40 states without laws explicitly prohibiting harassment based on sexual orientation. A 2005 national survey by his group found that nearly one in three LGBT youths skipped school during the previous month because they were too afraid to attend - and that the majority hears anti-gay language on a regular basis.

But he believes activism and "the incredible leadership of straight allies like Bill Weld" have changed the landscape for many of the estimated 15,000 gay and lesbian students in Massachusetts public high schools. "I think the reason you're seeing that shift in Massachusetts and across the country is because there's been a concerted effort to make life better for these young people," Jennings said. "What happens in Massachusetts seems to be what happens in the rest of the country 10 or 15 years later. Hopefully, what you're seeing is the next wave."

That means at least some of the gay teens who come out at a young age will not stay out. Alternatively, to borrow a more apt metaphor from one Gay-Straight Alliance faculty adviser, today's teens are more casual about "trying on the gay hat to see if it fits." Some of them will decide the hat does not fit them after all.

Caught between the moon and New York City which he calls home since 2000, Ambrose Aban wrote for Malaysia, Singapore and Bangkok Tatler, reviewed restaurants and wrote special ad supplement, "Christopher Street", for HX Magazine New York, contributed to leading English dailies in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore. Ambrose loves giving up the secrets of everything from where to find the most delicious Orange Glazed Peking Duck to how to prepare extravagant chic soirees in the city.