Ellen Andersen

It's (Still) Elementary

Filed By Ellen Andersen | October 18, 2007 10:10 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Living, Media, The Movement
Tags: It's Elementary, It's Still Elementary, marriage, school, transgender

When It’s Elementary: Talking about Gay Issues in School was first broadcast on PBS 10 years, it broached the then-radical notion that we should be teaching about gay and lesbian lives in classrooms – in elementary school classrooms yet. Oh wait, I forgot. It’s still a radical notion.

Not that I’m surprised. The dissemination of knowledge about sex and sexuality has been controversial in America for over 100 years. (It probably would have been controversial 200 years ago had there been any attempt to educate Americans about sex and sexuality.) When the mechanism for spreading syphilis was discovered (s-e-x), many doctors argued that infected wives shouldn’t be told how they got the disease for fear that it would cause marital breakdowns. When the first organized sex ed programs began in public schools, they faced immediate opposition from people who argued that teaching children about sex would foster immorality. When doctors discovered that penicillin cured syphilis, many doctors and public health officials worried about publicizing the news, for fear that it would make men more likely to have “illicit” sex (not a word about the women, by the way). And let us not forget the never-ending battle over whether sex education should be comprehensive in scope or should emphasize abstinence to the exclusion of other information.

So suffice it to say that when It’s Elementary aired 10 years ago, a firestorm of controversy erupted around it as antigay activists mobilized to try and keep it off the air. I had the chance to see the documentary in advance of today’s official re-release and also to watch the accompanying documentary It’s STILL Elementary: The Movie and the Movement. And I understand now why this film scared the willies out of antigay activists. It sends the powerful message that not only can educators (and parents!) talk to young children about lesbian and gay lives in a way that’s sensitive and age appropriate, they have a moral obligation to do so. [More after the jump.]

It’s Elementary makes the case that all children—even first graders—are affected by anti-gay prejudice and that all children—even first graders—are completely capable of having honest and open discussions about lesbians and gay lives. And it makes these points in a powerful, sweet, painful, funny way: through the words and facial expressions of elementary and middle school children. Ten years on, the film continues to feel surprisingly fresh. In fact, there are only three things that really date the film:

  1. A clip from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (and let me say, in contrast to It’s Elementary, Ace Ventura does not age well).
  2. A passing statement by one of the teachers in the film explaining that same-sex couples can’t get legally married in the United States. (Which is, you know, still mostly true.)
  3. The omission of any discussion of transgendered people.
Accompanying It’s Elementary is a new documentary called, cutely enough, It’s STILL Elementary. This second documentary explores the making of the film, the political controversy surrounding its release and its subsequent impact. It’s all fascinating stuff, but the highlight is the “where are they now?” interviews with six of the children who participated in the original film. (Five of them are straight, by the way, while the sixth is gay.)

It’s Elementary garnered a boatload of awards and rave critical reviews when it was released. More importantly, it became a standard part of the curriculum in many schools of education and helped to launch the safe schools movement in this country. Here’s hoping that its re-release gets similar attention. So go buy this DVD set as fast as you can. In fact, buy several copies and distribute them to the elementary schools in your neighborhoods.

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I've actually never seen It's Elementary, but I've always wanted to. I'll be sure to go buy a copy!

'It's Elementary' is a powerful, powerful film. Shortly after the film's release, I sat down with a school board member in the community where I grew up (in rural Virginia) and watched the film with her. Her reaction was immediate, positive and overwhelming: The movie completely changed the way she saw gay issues, and moved her to make a pledge that she would keep the school system's gay students (however few they may be) in mind when considering issues that came before the school board.

If the film can have that impact on one school board member in a small Virginia town, it can (and already has) effect change everywhere.