A lesson in culture on PBS

TV: In documentary, elementary schoolchildren talk about gays and lesbians -- but not about sex.

June 07, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"It's Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School" teaches a simple truth: It is better for children to be informed than ignorant.

There is a world of information in this public television documentary that looks at six classrooms across the country in which teachers and elementary-school-age pupils are discussing gay and lesbian issues. And it is presented in an engaging, intelligent and straightforward manner appropriate for family viewing.

"It's Elementary" is public television at its best, offering thoughtful, provocative programming about issues of great cultural import. With all of that, you might wonder why it has become such a complicated matter for the film to receive full support from public TV.

PBS declined to distribute the film to its affiliates across the country. And, so, it was essentially sold station by station through an independent program distributor. As of this week, 89 public TV stations had agreed to carry the film, including Maryland Public Television (MPT), which airs it tonight. Another 80, though, have decided not to air it. Beyond that, 53 stations are still undecided, says Debra Chasnoff, the Academy Award-winning director of the film.

As reported last week in The Sun, a major reason for the lack of support from PBS and many of its affiliates is a fierce campaign against the film by some on the religious right like Donald E. Wildmon and his American Family Association, which calls the film "a pro-homosexuality bombshell that has been fired into our children's schools."

There is nothing bombshell-like about the film. Chasnoff says the goal of "It's Elementary" is to show what happens when gay and lesbian issues are discussed by teachers with pupils in age-appropriate ways in first-through-eighth-grade classrooms. In keeping with that, her camera lets us eavesdrop on what are essentially focus groups of kids sharing their thoughts about what it means to be gay or lesbian.

In one classroom in Madison, Wis., you can see the amazement on one girl's face as she learns Elton John and Melissa Etheridge are gay. The teacher asks the pupils if knowing the artists are gay affects their feelings about the music Etheridge and John make. Some of the kids have to think hard about it for a while before they decide they still like the music. You can see the lesson being learned.

In a classroom in Cambridge, Mass., we hear an educator who is willing to take on parents over the issue of whether or not discussing such matters is purely the province of parents. He explains how anti-gay words are routinely used as insults on the playground of his school. He shares his conviction that, if teachers say nothing, they are endorsing the harassment and hate of those words and acts.

And where are the children learning to use words like "faggot"? As shown in the film, from the commercial media and sometimes in their homes. Chasnoff's reel of hateful anti-gay clips from such films as "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" is especially compelling. Another selection of clips reminds viewers that TV has no problem offering wall-to-wall hate and misinformation about gays on daytime talk shows like "Ricki Lake" and "Jerry Springer."

In the end, what happens in the film is that stereotypes are replaced with facts, while hate gives way to more tolerant attitudes. You see a transformation take place as students become more comfortable with something that had many of them confused and scared.

You also see that such discussions can take place with virtually no mention of sex. "It's Elementary" looks at gay and lesbian issues in a cultural, not a sexual, context, despite charges from Wildmon's group that the film is the work of those "espousing hedonism."

In terms of culture, this is one of the more important films you will see on MPT this year. It challenges the false, romantic notion many us would like to hold of childhood innocence -- the notion perpetuated by such programs as "Kids Say the Darndest Things." By the time they are in first grade -- if not before -- many kids are already way past darn, and we need to deal with that.

Ultimately, "It's Elementary" is about how one generation passes on its values to the next. Nothing a culture does is more important; without a successful handoff, the culture cannot survive.

This is the stuff of which culture wars are fought. And here's to public television stations like MPT with the integrity and sense of public service to join that fight.

On PBS

What: "It's Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School"

When: 9 to 10 tonight

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)

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