In Debra Chasnoff’s feature-length documentary It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School, one teacher starts a discussion about homosexuality by introducing the students to some famous gays and lesbians. After going through historical figures like Michelangelo, he plays a song and asks the children if they recognize it. “That’s from The Lion King!” several excited young voices call out. “And do you know who’s singing?” the teacher asks. “Elton John!” the kids answer eagerly. “Did you know that Elton John was a gay man?” The kids are astonished. Several shout their surprise. One girl just stares in drop-jawed disbelief.
Chasnoff, a San Francisco-based filmmaker who won the best-short-documentary Oscar in 1992 for Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment, filmed classrooms in six schools around the country to examine how educators are handling gay issues with their students. It’s a subject that hits home for Chasnoff–a lesbian, she and her partner have two sons ages eight and two.
Chasnoff found that even at schools she filmed in liberal communities like Madison and San Francisco, teachers and administrators were intimidated by the idea that “they would have to put themselves in the position of advocating, that they stood behind a curriculum that includes gay issues.” In the film children often come across as more accepting than some of the adults. “Who really cares if you’re gay?” one girl says. “What’s the big whoop?” Another girl declares, “If kids are too young to be taught about homosexuality, then they’re too young to be taught about heterosexuality.”
“Most adults have this idea that ‘gay’ isn’t a subject that’s relevant to kids’ lives or that they need to think about it,” Chasnoff says. “But the reality is they’re already exposed to it and dealing with it. It’s irresponsible not to give them an appropriate forum.”
It’s Elementary is being shown Sunday at 1 PM at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport, as part of Reeling ’96, the 16th Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival. Call 773-384-0048.