Telling Truths

Deborah Krasnoff is an Academy Award-winning documentarian and a lesbian. But she's also the mother of two school-aged children, and that's what originally prompted her to make It's Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School, airing in Denver Wednesday night on KBDI-TV/Channel 12.

"I wanted to make a film that takes on the idea that adults shouldn't talk to their kids about gay people, that somehow children should be sheltered from this," Krasnoff says. A few years ago, as she prepared to send her son into the school system, her concerns mounted: "I wondered what was he going to start to learn, explicitly or implicitly, from a curriculum that would have no mention of gay people at all. I worried that he'd be exposed to anti-gay name-calling on the playground and the anti-gay images in popular culture."

As It's Elementary began to take shape, so did Krasnoff's own questions. "The more we started working on it, the more we saw how deeply entrenched those images are," she says. From its original conception as a film to be shown in the classroom, it evolved into something more universal, directly addressing the need for school programs surrounding issues of personal differences and diversity. "After all, if I walked into a classroom and said the word 'lesbian,' I'd have parents beating on my door the next day. I wanted to show parents why it's important to do this and show some ways to address the topic in the schools." The result is startling--a film that bowls viewers over with snappy visual juxtapositions between unmoving, railing comments made by right-wing opponents of the "gay lifestyle" and the open-minded words captured spontaneously on film, straight from the mouths of babes.

Whether in the third grade or the eighth, the children displayed remarkable sensitivity and understanding of the issues presented, shooting out comments so cogent that they even surprised the filmmaker. "I was like every other adult," Krasnoff says. "I'd never been in a classroom where the third-grade teacher said the word 'lesbian.' And I was stunned. Kids are a lot more sophisticated than we think they are. They have a lot on their minds. We even noticed that the younger the kids were, the easier it was for them to talk about it."

From that point of view, material for the finished film fell together effortlessly. Finding existing school programs to film was the hardest part of the project, Krasnoff notes. Through networking at educational conferences and on the Internet, she found individuals teaching tolerance of gays and lesbians across the country. "But many couldn't work with us," she allows. "As soon as we went to the principal about bringing in a film crew, they'd say, 'No way.' There were lots of delicate behind-the-scenes negotiations."

Even the programs they finally settled on--located in such liberal areas as Cambridge, San Francisco and New York City--were still besieged by parental opposition. "If I was making the film today, there'd be a wider selection of programs--but not that much," Krasnoff says. "It's still a contentious issue. There's still a need for dialogue, for thoughtful consideration of the issues beyond the knee-jerk reaction--'You're not going to talk to my kid about that.' Adults immediately think the film is saying you should teach kids how two men make love. But there's not a minute of sexual discussion in this whole film."

Although a new hour-long, for-television version premieres on eighty-some stations across the country in June, PBS declined it, stepping around the kind of controversy the program might arouse among station donors. Instead, the sponsoring station, KQED in San Francisco, went station to station, offering the program through American Public Television (which is how Channel 12 picked it up). Such efforts haven't come without ominous repercussions. "Three religious organizations have mounted a campaign to keep it off public television," Krasnoff says, and opposing rhetoric and mass write-in protests have abounded.

It's Elementary has had a positive effect on other factions, however: More than 500 education schools now use it in their curricula, and more than 200 school districts own the film. Krasnoff says the film's greatest triumph has been in the Chicago Public Schools, where every single school in the district owns its own copy.

The response from that sector has been great. "I don't think the film reaches anyone who believes all gay people go to hell," Krasnoff says. "We made it for our desired audience--the vast majority of parents who feel strongly that everyone should be treated fairly and who include gay people under that umbrella of people who are treated fairly." So far, that's working. "A number of parents come out of the screenings saying, 'Now I'm going to have that talk I've been meaning to have with my kid.'" And the instigation of family dialogue, Krasnoff says, is the film's real point.

"There's lots of misinformation," she adds. "People assume that if teachers talk about it at all, they're going to talk about sex. And some really believe that if you talk to their child about it, there's some chance that child will become gay. We have a lot of work left to do in order to debunk that kind of thing."

That work, she says, has to begin early in childhood. But if training begins at the right time, "it may make kids think twice about calling someone gay when they take the basketball away from them. Or maybe they'll be friendly to the one kid in their class who is gay. Or they won't be reluctant to go play at the house of a classmate who has two lesbian moms." And almost every gay person she knows who's seen the film is adamant about its possibilities: "Any gay adult today would say, 'It would have changed my life if one of my teachers had ever said anything about gay people. I would've gotten the sense that there was a place for me in life.'"


It's Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School, a film by Deborah Krasnoff, 8 p.m. June 2, KBDI-TV/Channel 12.