Elementary, My Dear Children

Debra Chasnoff's new documentary looks at how a loaded subject is handled in school

When filmmaker Debra Chasnoff takes a phone call on a recent morning, she sounds harried. "There's a glitch in the master," she explains, referring to her new film, It's Elementary. "We're trying to do the tape-to-film transfer, and the engineer is in hysterics." But Chasnoff is used to navigating her way through storms. While she was shooting Deadly Deception, an expose about contamination generated by General Electric's nuclear-power plants, she was chased around Schenectady, N.Y., by GE security. When the film won the 1991 Academy Award for best documentary, Chasnoff's speech -- she prominently thanked her "life partner," Kim Klausner, and called for a boycott of GE before an audience of hundreds of millions -- got her denounced on the floor of Congress.

But the wrath of a corporate giant is nothing compared to the problems Chasnoff and co-producer Helen Cohen have faced in making It's Elementary. The documentary examines how teachers present lessons on homosexuality in six grade-school and middle-school classrooms. The intent was to film kids thinking and talking about some of the social aspects of homosexuality: kids with gay parents and relatives, the stereotyping and discrimination surrounding gays. It wasn't easy.

"The first challenge was finding educators who were doing something, and then we had to get permission to film them," Chasnoff says. "Many of them would say, 'There's no way my principal would let me,' and then the principal would say, 'I don't want to deal with parental reaction, I don't want to deal with the press.' Many of the teachers had to bow out." And if she managed to rally teachers and principals, Chasnoff still had to win the approval of superintendents, and ultimately deal with anyone in the community who claimed to have a stake in children's education. That turned out to be nearly everyone.

Chasnoff, a parent herself, knew what kind of protective impulse she might face when she asked permission to film kids coming to terms with a sensitive topic. "I think if you ask most parents if they want to have their children learn about gays in school, they'll automatically say no, because they think it means you're going to explain sodomy to first-graders," she says. "Adults feel uncomfortable about talking about gay people to each other, much less to their kids."

The filmmakers are the first to acknowledge that It's Elementary isn't a representative sample of American views on gay and lesbian issues in the classroom: In four years of filming, Chasnoff and Cohen could only find six schools willing to participate. At the same time, the people opposed to the idea were rarely willing to go on camera. Footage of protests and school board fights is as a result drawn primarily from news broadcasts.

"In Madison we didn't know if we were going to be able to film until two days before we got there," Chasnoff recalls, "and when we did film, the PTA president kept his daughter home that day. Helen and I were constantly amazed by how hard this is for educators. They just don't want to take this on." Of the teachers who did, most were straight, but many suddenly found themselves being questioned about their sexual orientation. Yet the filmmakers found pockets of support as well. "Many parents were very upset that their school was going to be filmed, but many were extremely supportive; they wanted their children to learn about the world they live in," Chasnoff says. Thomas W. Price, principal of the Cambridge Friends School, where one segment was shot, defended his school's participation: "I don't think that it's appropriate that only values be taught at home. There are social values as well. There are community values. And when you allow a child on a playground to hurl an insult at another child, or to say, 'Your mom is queer,' or to say these sort of things without addressing the issues is, I think, unconscionable."

The film offers engaging and surprising sociological insight into the forces that shape the adults of tomorrow. The younger the kids, the more matter-of-factly they discuss information that older kids greeted uneasily. "By the time you get to high school, it's a battle," Chasnoff says. "The older they get, the more negative information they have. We were blown away by the young children. We forget that little kids have this very fundamental sense of fairness, and are willing to extend this to gay people. I was taken off guard by these adorable kids going, 'What's the big whoop?' "

It's Elementary should bury the argument that kids aren't ready to deal with this kind of information. Most of the students involved in discussion groups had seen gay issues hashed out in graphic, uneducated detail on daytime talk shows. The ensuing discussions range from gentle, teacher-guided Q&A sessions to candid, kid-to-kid debates, but most center on respecting the rights of others.

After It's Elementary's local debut, Chasnoff and Cohen will, somewhat warily, show their film across the country. "We get stuff from people every day about teachers being fired for telling their students that they're gay," Chasnoff says. "This is the most contentious issue that the religious right is organized around." The film has generated such a buzz that the filmmakers have already gotten hundreds of requests for it. They plan to distribute it at educators' conferences and trainings, and they'd like to see it air on the PBS series POV, but they haven't been made any promises yet. "I can understand why PBS would be hesitant," Chasnoff says. "They've already come under so much attack. It's too soon to say, but we're optimistic."

It's Elementary screens Wednesday, June 5, at 7 (sold out) and 9 p.m. in the Herbst Theater, 401 Van Ness, S.F.; call 392-4400.

 
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