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
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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.

Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think its great for our society to help educate kids about all aspects of life. We are consistently trying to educate them with information they will need later in life. That's why this is a great film for all ages. Keep up the great work.

Billie Bruchhaus's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In the 8th grade, I was taught sex education in my church. I remember my mom being outraged that they were teaching this. I remember being embarressed to hear about sex, and that was hearing about the natural way. Let's face it, when the labels gay and lesbian are used, it reflects sexual connotation. I would not want my fourth grader learning about sex, unless it came from me or his father. I completely understand teaching students not discriminate, but that goes for anyone or anything that is different. If someone is overweight, kids need to learn not to tease that child. I believe that being taught not to tease other students is one thing, but when children have to be taught about an individuals choices, that needs to be left to parents or guardians. The school system doesn't allow teachers to teach about religion, why do we feel it is necessary to let them teach about something so personal. The reason why we are not allowed to teach religion is because there will be some teacher that will take it to the extreme.

kim's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have seen the film It's Elementary. I would urge Billie to see it. She might be surprised to find that it is simply a tool to help teachers cultivate respect for the diverse world we live in - a world that includes gay and lesbian people. It's really quite inspiring! The most profound moments in the film come from the students who understand that all people should be treated fairly. The teachers don't embarrass the children at all!

Madeline Mckenzie Quintana's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a 15 year old and a lesbian and I think children should have to learn about this. Here in my high school, people are very homophobic even though we live in New York. Had they played It's Elementary it is possible they wouldn't be so.

I have discussed homophobia and my personal sexuality with my 5 cousins ages 6, 6, 5,5,3 and now the older two stop people from using homophobic terms like dyke or faggot, and when I visit my brother this summer, I'll likely start his education on gay issues as well, likely starting with Heather has Two Mommies.



Julie Mushing's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

From Ireland:
The most common age for a lesbian, gay or transgender young person to become aware of their sexual identity is 12, while they are most vulnerable to self-harm at the age of 16, a new guide issued to schools today shows.

The Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Students in Post-Primary Schools - Guidance for Principals and School Leaders paper was published by the Minister for Lifelong Learning Sean Haughey. It was compiled by the Department of Education and GLEN (the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network).


GLEN website:

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