You almost end up feeling sorry for Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.), who stars in the opening of the documentary "It's Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School." Filmmakers Debra Chasnoff and Helen Cohen show him no mercy.
Smith is shown going from a relatively mild rant to a full-blown, paper-waving fulmination over withholding federal funds from schools that, in his view, promote homosexuality. The filmmakers, unfortunately for him, do not let him swing on his own tirade. They go from shots of him to shots of sweet little children whose souls have not yet been tarnished by hatred, children who are far more reasonable and enlightened than Smith. He comes off as the Dr. Strangelove of the homophobe movement.
Children are brighter and better informed than most adults give them credit for being. They are born clean slates: They are not born hating blacks, Jews, Asians, whites, girls, boys, lesbians or gay men. Prejudice is an acquired trait, but one that can be acquired quickly and early. By age 2, children are identifying themselves and others by sex. By 4, they are learning gender-appropriate behavior, and by age 5, those lines are firmly drawn and children cross over at their own peril. By 5, they already have learned that the other sex is "different."
Bias and stereotypes are introduced into children by their environment, the adults that are around them, other children and the media. Some years ago when I interviewed Sandra Gellert of the Children's Foundation for a book on gender, she made this point: "Children are very open, and I think adults who make a conscious effort find that children are very willing and ready to be fair and accept everyone for who they are."
This is amply and often poignantly illustrated in "It's Elementary," which takes us into a variety of classrooms where teachers use different techniques to teach children what it means to be a gay man or lesbian. They do not discuss sex. The lesson these educators teach transcends homosexuality: They are teaching tolerance and respect.
Early in the documentary, we see Cora Sangree, a fourth-grade teacher in New York City, talking with students about what it means to be a gay man or lesbian. She draws them out, stereotypes and all, and gets them talking about where they get their images -- from TV news, talk shows, relatives, movies. She doesn't think talking about homosexual sex is appropriate. What she is doing is quite different: She is talking about different communities of people, different kinds of relationships.
Schools that are tackling this issue are using a variety of approaches. Peabody Elementary School in Cambridge, Mass., hosted a photography show called "Love Makes a Family." One fifth-grade teacher said he thought it would have been better to display it at city hall to avoid controversy. He changed his mind after his class viewed the exhibit. "I think it is a very good experience for kids," the teacher said. "It did make me feel they were ready for a lot more than I'd given them credit for." He'd been teaching at Peabody for 22 years.
An eighth-grade social studies class started its discussion by examining the word "stereotype." The students went from discussing "All teenagers are drug dealers" to "All that Latinos eat is beans and rice." Their teacher, Robert Roth, said the derisive word of choice in the hallways and on the playground is " `faggot.' I react the same way when I hear a girl called a bitch." He said the way to stop this is to educate children about what they are saying and the harm it causes. He invited a lesbian and a gay man into his class, and the youngsters asked the questions you would expect: How did your parents feel? Did any of your friends just drop you? If you had a choice, what lifestyle would you pick? Roth, a straight man, is forthright about why he is teaching this material: If the education system doesn't teach it, then you have gay-bashing in the streets. Furthermore, he said of the lessons, "they should have it in elementary school."
And in some schools they do. A teacher of third- and fourth-graders introduces the subject to his students by talking about famous gays ranging from Michelangelo to Elton John. He shows his class a picture of his district supervisor: "She's a lesbian who decided she wants to be in politics."
Parents praise the discussions for very good reason: Children come home and talk about what they did in these classes, and it opens up a dialogue. Teachers have to examine their own attitudes, and so do the children. Words such as "faggot" and "gay" are among the last insults that can get hurled on school grounds without provoking an immediate assembly to do what Chairman Mao called "reeducation." The documentary cites estimates that 20 percent of gay children drop out of high school, twice the average, and 30 percent of all suicides in teenagers are related to homosexuality. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that one in 13 high school students has been attacked or harassed because he or she has been perceived as gay.
The CDC is funding a project with the American Psychological Association to help schools provide health programs for homosexual students in an attempt to reduce sexually transmitted disease and to create safer school climates.
The documentary, along with efforts in some states to ban discrimination against homosexual students, has drawn the predictable dragon fire from the right wing, enough that some stations are not showing the film.
WETA is scheduled to air it on June 11. It's a terrific opportunity for parents and children to watch something together, to shape and share a discussion about a topic that is overdue for attention. Parents, particularly those who don't get into classrooms, will have a chance to watch some awfully bright and thoughtful children and some superb teachers and principals. That alone is worth our time.