Students argue gay-marriage issue

In "It's Elementary," New York City classmates, above, discuss whether gay people should be allowed to marry. Below, a child follows a give-and-take about homosexuality. In the hallways, kids routinely call people "faggots," prompting teachers to intervene.

Campaign seeks to stifle a film on the touchiest of gay subjects

Originally published in Current, April 5, 1999

By Karen Everhart Bedford

Conservative religious groups have stepped up their grassroots campaign to censor "It's Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School," a documentary now being offered for broadcast on public television.

Even before they've scheduled the show, program directors are receiving calls, letters and e-mails urging them not to broadcast "It's Elementary." [Later story: as of early May, about a third of the stations plan to carry the show, another third have rejected it and others are undecided.]

"I've had lots and lots of calls from people in Wyoming," said Ruby Calvert, program director of KCWC in Lander, Wyo. The trial of one man accused of killing Matthew Shepard, the openly gay college student who was beaten to death in Wyoming last fall, is now getting underway in Laramie, raising "real touchy" issues among residents of the sparsely populated, conservative state. "I'm really struggling with it," she said of her scheduling decision.

KQED in San Francisco is presenting a 60-minute version of "It's Elementary" and American Public Television (formerly American Program Service) is distributing it for broadcast in June. Coproduced by Debra Chasnoff and Helen S. Cohen and directed by Chasnoff, the film was completed in 1996, and has been distributed among educators through an outreach campaign backed by the Ford Foundation. Neither CPB nor PBS supported the film. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has underwritten its national broadcast.

The film goes inside public and private school classrooms around the country, documenting what happens when teachers elicit their students' views on what it means to be gay or lesbian. Students talk openly about the negative messages they get from the media, their peers and their families. The documentary includes clips from TV talk shows and movies that depict a troubling and pervasive level of anti-gay sentiment in popular media.

A fundraising appeal from American Family Association President Donald Wildmon describes "It's Elementary" as a "powerful pro-homosexual propaganda film" intended to indoctrinate children with "false moral teachings."

"If we fail to take a stand to put a stop to this outrage, the sin of sexual perversion could be promoted to a potential audience of tens of millions of children [his emphasis] ... children from the tender age of five and younger," writes D. James Kennedy of Florida-based Coral Ridge Ministries. Kennedy calls on his contributors to petition CPB and the House Appropriations Committee.

Chasnoff, a San Franciscan who won an Academy award for her last documentary, "Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment," said adults are the primary audience for "It's Elementary," not children. Although, she adds, there's "absolutely nothing in this that's inappropriate for children."

Chasnoff acknowledged a "very personal interest" in her initial motivation to produce "It's Elementary": her son was about to enter public elementary school at a time when "publicly sanctioned vitriol against gay people," such as Pat Robertson's 1992 speech at the Republican National Convention, was on the rise. She struggled with what she could do as a filmmaker to "contribute to the public dialogue in preventing gay prejudice."

She started out to document anti-gay prejudice in schools, but later opted for a different story: what happens when teachers talk to their students in age-appropriate ways about gays and lesbians. "We decided to film what happens [during classroom discussions] and let people decide for themselves whether it's good or not."

Conservative religious groups began mobilizing against the film in 1997, "about a year before the distribution took off," said Chasnoff. By that fall, "we were the poster child for the religious right." Now Coral Ridge and AFA have produced their own video responses to "It's Elementary." AFA's fundraising letter seeks contributions to support distribution and marketing of "Suffer the Children" to churches, schools and libraries.

Even KQED, the public TV station that enjoys strong community support for programs that deal with gays and lesbians, has received a few calls objecting to "It's Elementary." "That could be reflective of where we are in the country, acknowledged David Shaw, spokesman. The staffers in KQED's audience services department have talked to the "handful" of callers and discerned that they haven't seen the documentary. "When we talk to them about what the program is really like, they listen."

Most station programmers are beginning to work on their June schedules, and a run-down of station carriage for "It's Elementary" won't be available until later this month, according to Shaw.

KQED last June presented "The Castro," its own documentary on San Francisco's most famous gay neighborhood, as a PBS special marking gay awareness month. The doc aired in markets that covered 70 percent of U.S. households, according to Regina Eisenberg, KQED's associate director of station relations. Carriage reports indicated that the program might not have aired in "a few" of the country's top 50 markets.

In Memphis, WKNO has already decided not to schedule "It's Elementary," according to Debi Robertson, spokeswoman. In late March, the station had received about 24 calls weekly from those opposing the broadcast. "This is a very conservative market, and we try to keep an open and enlightened schedule," said Robertson. "Anything that PBS includes in its schedule in June is maintained, but we don't seek out extra programming." Last year, however, WKNO was unable to air the PBS-distributed Castro film, because its Friday-night feed conflicted with the station's regular scheduling of non-PBS fare, she said.

"I'm surprised that there's so much teeth in this issue now, because of changing popular awareness of the oppression of people who are gay and lesbian," commented B.J. Bullert, a documentarian and academic whose dissertation examined public TV programming controversies.

Scheduling of "It's Elementary" will be a "barometer of public TV's courage on this situation of homophobia," she added. "You don't have to be gay to understand the civil liberties aspect of this. Public TV's original mission is providing a forum for these voices."



'It's Elementary' slated for June premiere on 57 stations

Originally published in Current, May 10, 1999

Efforts by conservative religious groups to block public TV broadcasts of "It's Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School," haven't deterred 57 stations from scheduling the documentary to air in June, marking Gay Pride Month, according to a preliminary carriage report by KQED, the presenting station.

The American Family Association and Coral Ridge Ministries labelled the film as pro-homosexual propaganda in direct-mail appeals to their donors, many of whom called or wrote their local public TV stations urging them not to air "It's Elementary." AFA also wrote directly to program directors at public TV stations on April 19, expressing its view that "the use of taxpayer funds to advance only one point of view on such a controversial topic is unethical," and requesting feedback on their willingness to give "equal time to the other side of this debate."

Produced by San Francisco-based Women's Educational Media, "It's Elementary" has been distributed among educators since its completion in 1996, and American Public Television is offering it to public TV stations for broadcast this summer. The film documents students' and teachers' classroom discussions about what it means to be gay or lesbian. Schoolchildren at various grade levels talk openly about their perceptions of homosexuality, both positive and negative.

Twelve public TV licensees told KQED that they plan to air locally produced programs about issues raised by the film. Sixty stations reported that they will not air it.

KCTS in Seattle, one of some 65 stations still weighing scheduling decisions on "It's Elementary," is considering whether to present an "evening of viewpoints" in July, says Jane Sheridan, program director. She may pair the documentary with "Suffer the Children," an AFA-produced video that excerpts "It's Elementary" and responds directly to it, as well as a locally produced half-hour wrap. "I look at it as an interesting way to encourage dialogue on a controversial topic," she explains. "We are presenting various viewpoints and letting viewers watch the evening and make up their own minds."

Gay and lesbian issues are "one of the most controversial topics for television," Sheridan says. The teaching of tolerance specifically of gay lifestyles in schools also "could be determined to be controversial."

But because the AFA piece includes excerpts from "It's Elementary," KCTS must acquire rights to broadcast it from Women's Educational Media, says Sheridan. That may not be possible.

"We have not authorized 'It's Elementary' to be used for that purpose," responds Debra Chasnoff, director/coproducer. She characterizes "Suffer the Children" as a "hit piece" that grossly mischaracterizes the intent of "It's Elementary."

"Why air a show talking about another show?," asks Keith York, program director at KPBS, San Diego. He views stations' nervousness about "It's Elementary" as overwrought. "When I screened it, I was unhappily surprised at how innocuous it was. It's not a firebrand piece on changing the sociology of schools."

"Why are we on the air half the time if we're not making people think?," he adds.

Connecticut PTV will air "It's Elementary" without the AFA response. The film doesn't "beg for a response" because it's "not an advocacy piece, in my mind," says Andrea Hanson, director of programming for the network. CPTV has received more than 30 letters and e-mails on the documentary, the large majority of them supporting its broadcast.

"Given the political climate, we're pleased with the number of stations that have come on," says Chasnoff. "I think it's a really good sign that people gave it thoughtful consideration and realize it's important."



To Current's home page

Links to stories about other controversial gay/lesbian programs on public TV.

Outside link: Web page of producers Chasnoff and Cohen, Women's Educational Media.



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