It's Still Elementary
A new doc reexamines the impact of discussing LGBT issues in schools.
One afternoon at home, Debra Chasnoff, 51, was promoting her groundbreaking educational film It's Elementary, which dared to urge educators to talk about gay and lesbian issues in school. "I was doing one of these national radio shows," says the San Francisco–based mother of two sons. "The kids were asleep, and I had on one of my Radio Shack headsets. Somebody is screaming at me on the other end: ‘How dare you come anywhere near children? And get your filthy paws off of my kids!'?" Adds the winner of the 1992 Oscar for best short documentary (Deadly Deception), "Being told you're a monster, it takes a little fortitude to get through."
The incredible journey since It's Elementary's 1996 release forms the basis for its sequel, It's Still Elementary, screening Tuesday 28 at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum as part of its Sex+++ film series.
Essential viewing for both gay and straight audiences, It's Elementary aimed its camera at six public elementary and middle schools around the country and their teachers, who, in classroom discussions about families, stereotypes and diversity, include gays and lesbians. Its point, Chasnoff says, "is to show that all young people are affected by antigay prejudice, and all adults have a responsibility and ability to do something about it."
For Chasnoff and producer Helen Cohen, their controversial film's trials and tribulations warranted a sequel. "What we realized as we were getting ready to release It's Elementary on DVD is that this film has been so pivotal in launching a whole movement for social change," Chasnoff says. "We thought it would be important to preserve that history, to acknowledge the role that a powerful documentary coupled with an ambitious educational outreach plan had had in changing our culture."
In It's Still Elementary (2007), we see how the original film ignites a panic among the right while being warmly received by many schools; we meet some of the children ten years later and learn how discussions of gay and lesbians had a positive impact on their lives; and we witness the firestorm ignited when the doc lands on public television as well as the struggles faced by administrators and educators as they fought to introduce it to their school districts.
In one striking instance, Chicago is at the center of the storm. In 1998, Mary Morten, Mayor Daley's then-liaison to the LGBT community, took on the challenge of introducing It's Elementary to Chicago's predominantly African-American and Latino public-school system, where she says homosexuality was still considered a "white issue." Daley backed the initiative, and tennis legend Billie Jean King agreed to underwrite the cost of distribution, but some state legislators and many people in the community resisted—until autumn of that year. Several days after the murder of Matthew Shepard in October 1998, Morten received a two-and-a-half-page letter from the then–chief of schools, Paul Vallas, telling her that CPS would distribute It's Elementary. "The film was and still is a way for people to do incredible community organizing," Chasnoff says. "Chicago was one of the more dramatic stories, where a whole school district ended up getting copies of the film." CPS still uses the doc.
While it's hard to quantify It's Elementary's impact, in the past decade it's been distributed to thousands of educators in all 50 states. In 1990, just two American high schools had gay-straight alliances; today, there are nearly 4,000. And in that same year, less than 1 percent of public schools trained staff about sexual-orientation issues; by 2007, that figure reached 29 percent.
Chasnoff says there's more work to be done. "There's still surveys out where people insist there are no gay and lesbian youth in their schools," she says. "There's still a learning curve that needs to happen." Until it does, Chasnoff's fire will keep burning. "It is unconscionable to me that every school in this country is not addressing homophobia at the earliest possible age," she says. "Do we need a suicide in every school before adults stop this nonsense that kids are too young?"