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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Diversity Documentary: How to Cover LGBT Issues in the Classroom

A film and its sequel help teachers and students talk about gay people.
By Bernice Yeung

Robbie Tate-Brickel, a pint-sized fourth grader with a shock of curly hair, didn't hesitate when his teacher asked him, as part of a class assignment, to talk about what came to mind when he heard the words gay and lesbian.

"When I think of gay, I think of a boy walking funny, like a girl," said Tate-Brickel, a student at New York City's PS 87. Later, as the class sat cross-legged in the middle of the room to talk about their answers, Tate-Brickel added, "I heard it on the news once that a gay person, a man, walked into a bar, and there were people that were really strict on gays there, and he got beat up."

"Do you think that was an OK thing to do?" asked his teacher, Cora Sangree.

"No, because that's how their life is," he responded. "They're gay. So what? I don't think people should be strict about them, because if they were gay, they wouldn't want to be beat up."

Sangree's class was among the more than half-dozen featured in It's Elementary, a 1996 documentary about how to have classroom discussions concerning lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people that was recently rereleased on DVD. It is accompanied by a follow-up film, It's Still Elementary, which chronicles the making of the original and looks at its impacts on students and schools. (The films also come with sample lesson plans and tips for addressing concerns about discussing gay issues in the classroom.)

It's About Society, Not Sex

More than ten years ago, when It's Elementary was first released, it had its share of controversy. The filmmakers received threatening hate letters and became the subject of antigay media campaigns.

"There's a fear that when you're talking about gays and lesbians, you're talking about sex," Sangree states in the original documentary. "I don't think that's true. I think you're talking about a community, and you're talking about people relating to each other, and not specifically about sex. I don't think talking about gay and lesbian sex is appropriate for elementary school -- but talking about different communities and about bias and discrimination and how it affects people's lives is appropriate."

In the intervening years, gay rights organizations have heralded the documentary for its groundbreaking efforts, and teacher-training programs have incorporated the documentary into their curriculums because it provides sensible and age-appropriate examples for broaching what people often view as a taboo topic for young students.

"A lot of teachers don't know how to integrate LGBT issues into their curriculum or how to discuss them," says Stephen Jimenez, a specialist with the Educational Equity Compliance Office of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which routinely uses the film in its legal and diversity-compliance training for teachers. "The great thing about it is that teachers get to see how to discuss LGBT issues with young students, and proficient teachers demonstrate it."

A Long-Term Legacy

One can also see this efficacy in the follow-up film, which reinterviews a number of students who appeared in the original documentary. Tate-Brickel, the fourth grader, is now a student at the State University of New York's College at Old Westbury, and he tells the filmmakers that participating in the documentary "definitely helped me to not be ignorant about gays and lesbians. It helped me realize that I should just accept people for who they are, rather than base my views on their personal life."

Debra Chasnoff, the films' director, says Tate-Brickel's response was typical of the students they interviewed again, many of whom told her that watching the documentary in grade school helped "ally them around fighting prejudice and homophobia." She adds, "There's the student who goes to a college in Missouri and who has to deal with antigay sentiments on her soccer team, and she's the one who speaks out. And there's the young man in San Francisco who works with eighth graders and who intervenes in name-calling."

"And," she continues, "the one student who did turn out to be gay was very clear that having a fifth-grade teacher who was willing to talk matter-of-factly about gay students had a huge impact on how he felt about himself."

Safety First

For Chasnoff, preventing antigay bullying and violence in schools -- and ultimately promoting the safety of all students -- was a major goal of both films. "We are all in this together, and it should not be about a conservative or liberal divide," she explains. "It's just about the well-being of kids. Whether you like it or not, kids are dealing with these issues. The question for the adults in charge is, 'Are we going to help them, or are we going to leave them on their own? '"

Certainly, even ten years later, raising gay issues among elementary school students remains controversial. At New York City's Columbia Teachers College, they've integrated It's Elementary into a class on teaching toward diversity. And Margaret Crocco, a professor of social studies there, acknowledges that some teachers-in-training meet the film with skepticism. But Crocco also notes that the value of the documentary is not that it necessarily changes everyone's mind on the topic, but that it inspires discussion.

"I think we should use It's Elementary everywhere," Crocco asserts. "Will we realistically use it in every school or teacher-prep program across the country? No. But I think that things are changing, and between the two extreme poles, there are lots of positions. The film has been really wonderful in opening up a conversation about what is possible in schools at all grade levels when dealing with this topic."

Bernice Yeung is a contributing writer and editor for Edutopia.

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