RACHEL MARTIN, host:
So two weeks ago today, 15-year-old Lawrence King, an openly gay 8th grader at Oxnard, California, at the school there, he was shot twice in the head, allegedly by his 14-year-old classmate. King was declared brain dead on Valentine's Day. Prosecutors are calling it a hate crime. The shooter had a history of bullying King because of his sexual orientation.
Documentary filmmaker Debra Chasnoff says a tragedy like this might have been avoided if gay tolerance was taught to all middle school kids, breaking down anti-gay bias before it can take hold.
When it first aired nationally in 1998, her film "It's Elementary: Talking about Gay Issues in Schools," it sparked frank conversations about gays and lesbians in K through 8th classrooms.
Here's a clip from one student in the film.
(Soundbite of movie, "It's Elementary: Talking about Gay Issues in Schools")
Unidentified Man: Most of the time, I put gays and lesbians down. I know it's not right, but I do it anyway. I say things like gay man molest children, but that's not true. I say it all out of ignorance. I should find out what's true first before even say anything about gays and lesbians.
MARTIN: Now, 10 years after its original release, "It's Elementary" is out again, re-released on DVD along with a new lesson plan for middle school teachers on gay tolerance.
Yesterday, I spoke with Debra Chasnoff about how tough it was to make that first film.
Take us back to 1996, when you first did this film. What was the cultural context?
Ms. DEBRA CHASNOFF (Filmmaker): In the school environment, there was, we knew, a very high level of anti-gay harassment of students. And there was basically no awareness among educators about how homophobia affects children, and certainly zero motivation among 99 percent of educators in this country to do anything about it.
And what we wanted to do was to issue a wake-up call, and basically find ways to address prejudice, to prevent prejudice, at the earliest age possible. And so we set off to make a film that would illuminate the problem and really inspire teachers and parents to take action in their school communities to begin to try to prevent anti-gay prejudice.
MARTIN: You started out trying to highlight cases of homophobia or how this wasn't being addressed in schools, and you ended up deciding instead to highlight work that was already being done by some educators on this issue. What had these people figured out that others hadn't at the time?
Ms. CHASNOFF: Well, I think they realized that children of any age are really capable of understanding some complex issues that I think leave adults - most adults - tongue tied. And I think they also understood that there are age-appropriate ways at every grade, in the kindergarten through 12th grade system, that it is possible to end the complete and utter silence about lesbian and gay people, and that there are ways to integrate awareness of lesbian and gay issues and people and families into the everyday life of school.
MARTIN: You did receive some pushback.
Ms. CHASNOFF: Yeah. I mean, basically when they heard that we were making a film where we were going to film in their second or third or fourth-grade classroom, where we were going to see a teacher leading a lesson that helps the students understand to respect lesbian and gay people, the administrators think, I need this like I need a gun to my head.
MARTIN: How do you talk to elementary school-aged kids about homosexuality?
Ms. CHASNOFF: It can start by reading a book in a classroom about a family where there are two Moms, or where there are, you know, two uncles who live together. There's lots of wonderful children's literature that very matter-of-factly includes the fact that there are gay and lesbian people in families. Kids understand that. It's not a big deal to them. They get it. And, in fact, the younger they are, the easier it is for them to understand it because they haven't absorbed all of this society's negative projection.
MARTIN: Why did you find it necessary to revisit the film 10 years later?
Ms. CHASNOFF: For one thing, we were going to be releasing "It's Elementary" on DVD for the first time. And we thought, well, we could just do that and make it available on DVD. But then we thought, well, why don't we use this decade of experience to revisit the cultural climate that existed in the mid-90s when we originally released the film and see what changed, and also to re-inspire a new generation of educators and parents to take action on this issue? And one of the things we had the opportunity to do is to go back and find some of the original students that happened to be in the classrooms where we filmed and see if they remember the lessons that we filmed and ask them what the impact was.
MARTIN: And what did you find through that process? Is this something that stayed with them?
Ms. CHASNOFF: Every single one of them has grown-up to be a young adult who is an ally, speaking out around anti-gay prejudice. Some of them went on to form a gay-straight alliance in their high school. One of them is a young man who now works in a middle school after-school program and finds he's coming up against young kids, who, just like he did when we filmed, have very homophobic ideas. And he is now in a leadership role where he's helping them to understand that that's not the right way to go.
And equally as poignant, I think, is the one young man who has turned out to be gay. And he is able to vividly remember the impact on him of having a teacher spend, you know, one class period out of the whole year talking about different kinds of name-calling and bullying, getting the class to focus and realize that it was not okay to tease someone because if you're a boy you act like a girl. And he's able to pinpoint that having a teacher in elementary school do this kind of lesson helped create a safety net, safety base, for him to be able to feel okay about himself and good about himself when he eventually came out.
MARTIN: Overall, is it fair to say that 10 years later it's easier for gay students to come out to their families or friends at school? There are gay characters in pop culture, in television, that make it more acceptable and easier. Is that fair to say that it's easier?
Ms. CHASNOFF: I think our level of awareness as a society as a whole has increased dramatically. We're not as frightened by these issues, and we're more aware of the lesbian and gay people, and particularly the young people in our midst. You know, does it translate into a seventh-grade teacher's willingness to incorporate information about lesbians and gay men when they do their regular class about stereotypes? Not necessarily. So I think our challenge and what we're hoping with the re-issue of "It's Elementary" is that we can take our level of awareness and translate it into action that will really help a new generation of students.
MARTIN: What does it do to you, though, when you sit back and open the newspaper and read a story, like the one just a couple of weeks ago, the Lawrence King case in Oxnard, California? I imagine that's frustrating for you.
Ms. CHASNOFF: When I heard about Lawrence King being murdered, I kept thinking about the young man who shot him. And I kept wondering to myself, what would have happened if he had been in an elementary school, where starting in first, second or third grade, he had learned that there were lesbian and gay people in his community? And that it was important to respect them, just as he would respect someone who is racially or ethnically different from him or who spoke a different language. What would have happened if the cultural norm in his school community had been that lesbian and gay people are valued and welcome members of our community? I really doubt he would have pulled a gun. It's a huge wake-up call to educators and parents that it really doesn't matter what any of us think at a personal level about gay and lesbian people. We owe it to our children to take proactive steps to combat this kind of prejudice.
MARTIN: Debra Chasnoff is the director of "It's Elementary," talking about gay issues in school. Debra, thanks very much.
Ms. CHASNOFF: You're welcome.
MARTIN: For more information on "It's Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School," check out our blog at www.npr.com/blogsbryantpark.
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