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Filmmaker Debra Chasnoff's 1996 Look at Gay Inclusive Education

Filmmaker Debra Chasnoff's 1996 Look at Gay Inclusive Education

Debra Chasnoff
L.W. Schermerhorn

How the Oscar-winner took her camera into America's classrooms through It's Elementary

This article originally appeared in the September 1996 issue of OUT.

"It was the day after I won the Academy Award" remembers Debra Chasnoff, who won the Best Documentary Short Oscar in 1992 for Deadly Deception, a film that propelled General Electric to stop manufacturing nuclear weapons. "I thought maybe I should consider being a filmmaker full-time." Until then Chasnoff had been an activist cate, newspaper publisher, and Out/Look editor. But the profound effects of her 1984 film Choosing Children, which "really opened the door to the idea that lesbian could be parents," and then Deadly Deception made her realize "this is where I can make my contribution."

After the Oscar, she set out to make It's Elementary, a look at gay-inclusive education in elementary and junior high schools. The idea came from a combination of the personal and the political: As her son Noah, born in 1988 to her and her partner Kim Klausner, approached school age, furor was erupting over the gay-inclusive Children of the Rainbow curriculum in New York, and homophobia boiled over at the 1992 Republican conventions. "I was really blown away," she remembers. The Christian Right soon produced a flood of anti gay videos like The Gay Agenda and Gay Rights, Special Rights, to which the gay community is only now responding.

Embarking on a project to create three gay-positive educational videos for elementary and junior high classrooms, Chasnoff found that the nexus of children an dhomosexuality makes everyone nervous, especially lesbians and gay men. "Just as with Choosing Children, there is a segment of the gay community wishing we weren't making this film," says Chasnoff. "They can't understand how you can talk to children about gay people without explaining sodomy." To both gay people and educators, Chasnoff realized, "we had to make the case that homophobia affects children."

It's Elementary shows exactly how. Seeing a fourth-grader opine that "when I think of gay, I think of a boy walking funny, like a girl," you realize that kids pick up on almost everything. By the time the film reaches an eighth-grade class, the kids are full of loathing: "I say things like, 'Gay men molest children,' but I should find out what's true first,f" says one student. As one reluctant teacher in the film admits, "The kids are ready for a lot more than I gave them credit for,"

Klausner, who co-directed Choosing Children, and Chasnoff know what kids are ready for, especially since they became parents a second time in 1994. "Before, we used to hear, "You can't be parents because it'll decimate the political activism of the lesbian community," laughs Chasnoff, "but I say, 'Just wait until we hit the PTA!"

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