Gay and Lesbian Issues in Schools: A Documentary

With parents poised to attack teachers who try to educate their students about diversity, it could be dangerous talking about gay and lesbian issues in elementary and junior high schools. But it could be even more dangerous not to.Gay and lesbian youth are up to six times more likely to attempt suicide than other youth and account for as many as one-third of completed youth suicides, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report. Many children are also the victims of abuse by classmates and teachers because they have gay or lesbian parents.Debra Chasnoff, an Academy Award-winning film producer, was concerned about the quality of the information on gays and lesbians her child would get from educators when he entered kindergarten. With her concern for her son as inspiration, she took her cameras into schools and looked on as educators discussed the gay and lesbian community with children ages five to 13."When I think of gay, I think of a boy walking funny -- like a girl," one fourth-grader tells his teacher while the cameras roll. Other students report "faggot" is the derogatory term of choice in their schools.Not all students have a negative impression of lesbians and gays, though."Who really cares if you're gay?" a girl asks. "What's the big whoop?""If kids are too young to be taught about homosexuality, then they're too young to be taught about heterosexuality," an eighth-grade student says.Teachers who present a balanced view of gay and lesbian issues are not teaching students about gay people as much as they are clarifying the myths the children have already learned, Chasnoff says."What we found is that by the third grade, almost all children have been exposed to information about gay people," she says. "Unfortunately, most of it is misinformation."The result of Chasnoff's concern for her child is a documentary that may become an important tool for people trying to convince teachers and schools to educate students about gay and lesbian people. It's Elementary: Talking About Gay and Lesbian Issues in Schools is debuting at events across the United States.Chasnoff's film dropped her into the middle of the controversy over whether children should be taught about gays and lesbians. She is well-acquainted with controversy, though. Her last film, Deadly Deception, exposed the negative impact of General Electric's nuclear weapons manufacturing on the environment. She is now tackling the story of Karen Thompson and Sharon Kowalski, the highly-publicized battle of a severely-injured woman's partner to take custody of the disabled woman from her parents.To make It's Elementary, Chasnoff had to overcome objections by parents in some communities before she could film the classroom discussions. In one town, the PTA president and other parents kept their child out of school the day the filming occurred."Most adults probably don't see why schools should teach young children about gay people," Chasnoff says. "And they can't imagine how teachers could possibly present this subject in an age-appropriate way."Parents often don't approve of talking about lesbian and gay issues in school because they think sex is not an appropriate topic for children. Cora Sangree, a fourth-grade teacher in New York, says she would not talk about sex in her classroom, but she does talk about gay and lesbian issues."You're talking about a community. You're talking about people relating to each other and not specifically about sex." Sangree says. "I don't think talking about gay and lesbian sex is appropriate with elementary school kids. And I don't think they'd really have any interest in hearing about it from their teacher.""If schools are serious about preparing students for the future, we have to help them handle the diversity that exists in our communities," American School Counselors Association president Carolyn Sheldon says. "By addressing gay issues, we prevent violence and foster equality."For children and teens, growing up is often difficult enough. Experts say educational institutions can either help in the process or make it more difficult. George Sloan, principal of Luther Burbank Middle School in San Francisco says education on gay and lesbian issues and dealing with differences without violence should be mandatory. He says it is a way of teaching students respect for each other."Academics are definitely important, but we also want [students] to develop, to reach an understanding that they can resolve a crisis without becoming explosive," Sloan says. "They need to understand it, so they can move on to learning."That understanding is a part of developing values, and it is important for schools to be involved in teaching values to students, according to Principal Thomas Price of Cambridge Friends School, a private Quaker School in Massachusetts. He disagrees with parents who think only they should instill values in their children."I don't think it's appropriate that values be taught only at home. There are social values as well. There are community values," he says. "[To] allow a child on a playground to hurl an insult at another child or to say "you mom is a queer" or to say those sorts of things without addressing the issues is, I think, unconscionable."

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