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From ABCs to LGBT

From ABCs to LGBT


The 1996 documentary It's Elementary showed teachers talking about gay people with their students. A decade later, its impact can be seen in classrooms, state laws, and the kids -- now grown -- who appeared in it.

Brandon Rice remembers the day 11 years ago when filmmakers came to his Madison, Wis., school and taped his fourth-grade teacher talking to his class about gay people. Among the topics: whether students were ever picked on for seeming gay.

"People say that I act like a girl," Rice said at the time.

"Because you're artistic and you dance a lot?" his teacher asked gently.

Today, Rice, 23, still dances a lot. The Madison Area Technical College photography and performing arts major began coming out in junior high, but he recalls that day in fourth grade as a turning point: "There wasn't a single person talking when she asked my question and the camera was on me," he recalls. "And everyone was like, 'Oh, wow, he's gay -- I see it now.' Afterward people came up to me and apologized. It was a big weight off my shoulders."

That transformative moment was captured in It's Elementary, a 1996 documentary by lesbian filmmakers Debra Chasnoff and Helen Cohen that showcased a then-small group of elementary and middle schools -- in Madison, San Francisco, New York City, and Cambridge, Mass. -- teaching students about LGBT people and the discrimination they face. The first look inside schools that dared such a curriculum, It's Elementary was wildly controversial at the time -- Brent Bozell in the New York Post called it an affront to "common sense and decency" and "vomitous stuff" -- but the film has since had a tremendous impact in American education. Ten-year anniversary screenings of the video, along with the brand-new follow-up, It's STILL Elementary, were held in New York City and San Francisco this October.

Despite the initial hoopla, It's Elementary was eventually distributed in thousands of schools nationwide and was "a tremendous catalyst for the discussion of LGBT issues in elementary-age education," says Eliza Byard, interim executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. There are now some 3,600 gay-straight alliances in high schools nationwide, for example, up from 300 or so before the video's release.

It's Elementary wasn't entirely responsible for that increase, says Byard -- the real spike occurred after the murder of Matthew Shepard -- but the video provided a conversational starting point for many GSAs. It also was a "very important precursor," says Byard, to the passage in 10 states and the District of Columbia of safe-schools laws that deal directly with bullying based on sexual orientation (five of those states' laws cover gender identity and expression as well). The video is also shown in hundreds of teachers colleges, according to Virginia Casper, a faculty member at New York City's Bank Street College of Education and coauthor of Gay Parents, Straight Schools.

A decade ago, though, it was hard enough to find schools that did some form of LGBT education, let alone ones that would allow the filmmakers access. "There was enormous fear about the public knowing we were doing this," says Chasnoff. She adds that even "people in the gay community said, 'Don't make this film -- it's the kiss of death for the gay rights movement.' "

Some of that resistance is captured in It's Elementary, such as when junior high student Elvira Castillo says she's torn between her private school's gay-is-OK message and her family's belief that homosexuality "is disgusting, a sin, nasty."

Castillo, who went on to Yale Law School, declined to comment for this story. Likewise, neither Bozell nor former U.S. senator Robert Smith, a New Hampshire Republican seen at the beginning of the video deriding in-school LGBT education as "trash," returned calls or e-mails. But Ed Vitagliano, research director for the antigay group American Family Association, says he feels that the battle to keep basic LGBT education out of schools has more or less been lost and that groups like his are now more focused on stopping same-sex marriage: "My hat is off to Debra Chasnoff," Vitagliano says of the documentary. "They've had tremendous success with it."

Not that there aren't still battles to fight. Earlier this year in Evesham Township, N.J., some parents demanded that schools stop screening another documentary by Chasnoff and Cohen -- That's a Family! -- because it includes same-sex parents. The school district agreed, despite a unanimous recommendation in support of the film from a panel of parents, teachers, and administrators.

Nevertheless, for many students It's Elementary remains a valuable affirmation of gay people. "It's so weird," says Rice about watching himself in the video now. "I want to reach in and give him a hug and say, 'It's OK--life gets better.' And it really has for me."

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