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School's "out" for summer.

It's Elementary, Debra Chasnoff's little documentary about tolerance, beats back a giant right-wing assault

More than three years after it was shot, the groundbreaking documentary It's Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in, School will air on at least 60 PBS stations in June and later this summer. "It's looking very promising," says Debra Chasnoff, the Oscar winner who directed the educational film and coproduced it with Helen Cohen. "It's a victory for us because there's been a tremendous campaign against the film."

The right-wing barrage of mass mailings, petitions, and videos has attempted to steer parents and teachers away from even seeing It's Elementary, a 58-minute program about how several different elementary schools have approached discussing gay and lesbian issues with children. (The film was trimmed for broadcast from its original 78-minute length.) Most notably, attacks have come from the American Family Association's Donald Wildmon--who counters with his own "bibilically [sic] sound" video--and D. James Kennedy at Coral Ridge Ministries, who warns that It's Elementary will "lure children into ACCEPTANCE of homosexuality" and introduce kids as young as 5 to "deviant sexual behavior."

"The film is made with an adult audience in mind," counters Chasnoff, who won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject in 1991 for Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment. "The goal is to encourage parents [and teachers] to have a dialogue with children."

There is no mention in the film of what gay and lesbian people do sexually, only that they are sometimes treated with hatred, prejudice, and discrimination. Judging by the children's on-camera comments, opinions, and language, they already have had exposure to the subject of homosexuality. "The question," Chasnoff says, "is what have they been exposed to?"

The producers have mounted their own small-scale countercampaign, using direct mail and the media to encourage supporters of It's Elementary to contact their local public TV stations to request the film, which is being offered by San Francisco station KQED through American Public Television. Mailings and press kits from Women's Educational Media, Chasnoff and Cohen's production company, point to praise from a host of journalists and educators, including the Los Angeles Times's Howard Rosenberg, members of the New York and San Francisco city school boards, and Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association (who called the film "a great resource for parents, teachers, and community leaders").

Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries has responded with a video of its own that takes snippets of It's Elementary out of context to boost the organization's claim that the film is an attempt to "recruit" children into a "homosexual lifestyle." One child in Chasnoffs documentary, for instance, uses the analogy that if a new vegetable was invented and he decided to try it, he would be considered open-minded. "They're teaching the children to be open-minded. Therefore, you should try things; therefore, you should try to be a homosexual," says one parent in the Coral Ridge video.

Among the PBS stations that have declined to air the film are affiliates in Cleveland, New Jersey, Iowa, New Hampshire, Indianapolis, and Orlando, Fla. "There's no proof that the programmers succumbed to [right-wing] pressure," Chasnoff says. "They won't tell you that. We can only imagine that [the negative campaign] plays a role."

Some of the negativity, Chasnoff believes, has actually backfired. The level of hatred and deception demonstrates just how badly a film like It's Elementary is needed to counter misinformation about gay lives. "Sadly," Chasnoff adds, "part of the reason I think the film is being picked up is because of the time. [Our campaign falls within] the same window of time that the Matthew Shepard murder and trial are going on, the murder of Billy Jack Gaither, and now Colorado"--where antigay epithets like those recited by the kids seen in It's Elementary were part of the harassment of the apparently straight students who committed the Columbine High School massacre.

A mother herself, Chasnoff was inspired to make the film when her oldest son was about to begin elementary school. "I was really concerned about the information they'd be getting at school," says the director, who now has another son about to begin school. Her next project is called My Family Is Special, a documentary for children about different types of families, exploring every combination of parents, grandparents, and stepparents imaginable, including gay parents.

Schenden writes on arts and entertainment for the Los Angeles Times.
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Title Annotation:documentary on homosexual tolerance raises ire of Christian right
Author:Schenden, Laurie
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 8, 1999
Words:736
Previous Article:We are Stealth.
Next Article:Politically incorrect queer folk.
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