EDITORIAL: Debra Chasnoff: "I glance at myself in the mirror..."
by Debra Chasnoff
Once word got out that our film, "It's Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School" was going to be broadcast on public television stations this past summer, the phone calls, letters, and e-mails started pouring in. For the first three years that our small nonprofit company had been distributing the film, the correspondence had been overwhelmingly positive. Hundreds of teachers and parents had contacted us, brimming with emotion, full of thanks for creating a resource they could use to get people to talk about how to prevent anti-gay discrimination and to make sure schools were safe for all children.
But now groups like the American Family Association, Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council, Coral Ridge Ministries, radio talk show host Laura Schlessinger -- even Oliver North -- had decided "It's Elementary" was evil incarnate. Distorting one boy's comments in the film to make it look like we were trying to get children to hate Christians, they fanned the flames for a massive campaign to stop the broadcasts, the likes of which PBS affiliates across the country had never seen.
The e-mail chime on my computer goes off:
Your film is child abuse. Your group is nothing more than nicely dressed thugs. The makers of this film are more dangerous to our children than the tobacco and alcohol industries combined!
I wonder what they would think if they came into our office. Saw the four of us opening our Tupperware containers to eat leftover casseroles for lunch. Saw the row of pictures of her daughter that Helen, my co-producer, keeps over desk, or the one I look at all day of my two sons dressed in their Superman costumes.
Christy, our office manager, opens the mail.
This video is slick propaganda to convert children to homosexuality. Once a lezzy homo was trying to get close to my daughter. It's disgusting and makes me sick. May all homos burn in hell!
Christy gets ready to leave for her regular Thursday night commitment, reading books out loud to an elderly blind woman.
Line three on the phone lights up:
Instead of promoting this crap you should spend your time searching for a cure! Keep your immoral behavior in the closet or under the rug where it deserves to be.
My girlfriend calls to rearrange our plans for the weekend. Can we work in the garden on Sunday afternoon instead of earlier? She wants to go to church in the morning.
Eat shit you bunch of faggots. You are permitting the disintegration of the family and therefore the country!
I leave and go food shopping. I try to guess whether the kids will go for spaghetti or chicken tonight.
Leave our kids alone. "It's Elementary" is a stealth campaign to cultivate a new generation of sex partners.
I pick up my youngest son from preschool. He is beaming with pride over the picture he drew of his brother and his two moms. I get to my oldest son's soccer practice and pile him and three other mud-covered 10-year-olds into the van.
The child [in the film] who has two lesbian mothers shouldn't have two lesbian mothers in the first place. I was completely disgusted to watch children of elementary school-age discussing how it is okay for gay or lesbian couples to have a family with children.
I help my son finish his homework. Then, since I'm the room parent for the fifth-graders this year, I make phone calls to find other parents who can go on next week's field trip.
[italics] Stay out of our schools you damn dykes. It's bullshit that you are teaching our kids that lesbians and gays are all right. [end italics]
Everybody's tucked in to bed. I cuddle with my youngest son. "Mommy I love you," he whispers in my ear before he hunkers down with Tuffy, his favorite Beanie Baby.
Little girls can't hold hands any longer because women like you are snickering in the shadows. The world wishes you had better parents.
After the kids are asleep, the phone rings. I have an interview scheduled on a national talk radio show -- one of hundreds I've been asked to do since the broadcasts started. I put on my Radio Shack wireless headset, pull out the laundry basket, and start folding little pairs of socks as the show's host takes callers.
Stop preying on our children. We don't approve of this film. We are a family of good values.
"And what are we?" I wonder to myself, grateful that the boys can't hear this. I glance at myself in the mirror, surprised, once again, that my face is the one they think poses such a threat to so many children.
"Mom? can I have a drink of water?" I push the mute button and scramble to fill the glass and bring it into the kids' room before the next caller comes on.
[italics] If PBS continues to show "It" then let us hope they air it in the middle of the night when the queers are more than welcome to watch it while me and my NORMAL family are sleeping. [end]
This goes on for weeks as "It's Elementary" gathers steam and picks up air dates in North Dakota, Hawaii, Nevada and Louisiana. In Idaho, the Christian Coalition puts up billboards across the state screaming: "Do you want public television promoting homosexuality to your child? Stop the broadcast of 'Its Elementary.'
Die! I will kill you!
I try to remember why we made the film in the first place. I think of another mom, Judy Shepard, getting the phone call informing her that her son was murdered by two young men who thought torturing a gay guy would be a fun way to spend a Saturday night.
I go on CNN live for an hour and I am reassured by all the children in the studio audience who are not swayed by the other guest, a representative of one of the conservative groups that has opposed the broadcasts. Every student who gets a turn at the mike says something to the effect of: "That lady [me] is right. You should hear what goes on at our school. Everyone is really horrible to the kids who are gay and everyone says 'faggot' all the time. It would help a lot if our teachers talked to us about this in school."
I don't hate homosexuals. I love them. I love everyone. But it is a sin and school is not the place to teach children about sin.
I remember Katherine, a third-grader in the film who explains what happens on the playground: "It's amazing how teachers don't notice all the stuff that's going on. Kids say 'oh, what are you? gay or something?' It makes you feel weird in your stomach."
What is the real sin?
I just have to trust that giving millions of people a chance to see the young children in "It's Elementary" air their concerns about anti-gay name-calling, to see talented teachers find age-appropriate ways to end the invisibility of gay people in school curricula, and to see schools warmly embrace all kinds of families is worth the abuse. That there really is no excuse for another generation growing up believing that gay people are some lower subcategory of the human race.
We'll stop at nothing to keep this show off the air. Parents everywhere should be on alert! We'll fight to the end.
Fortunately, in more than 100 cities and in almost all of the top media markets, they lost the fight. Hundreds of parents, teachers, and religious leaders refused to let these voices speak for ALL parents, teachers, and religious leaders. Gay and lesbian adults recalled their own painful experiences in school and demanded that the children in "It's Elementary" be heard. Other viewers, sickened by the rise of anti-gay hate crimes, asked for the opportunity to see how some adults are trying to prevent hatred before it starts. And scores of programmers at public television stations stood their ground amidst a deluge of opposition and threats to their financial support.
I think America inched forward a little bit this summer. No one used to talk about gay issues in schools at all. Now, at least, the dialogue has begun.
But hey -- I gotta go; there's a PTA meeting tonight.
[Debra Chasnoff is an Academy Award-winning filmmaker whose work includes "It's Elementary," broadcast on PBS this summer; "Deadly Deception" and "Choosing Children." This essay is taken from the book "Hostile Climate 1999: A Report on Anti-Gay Activity," published in November by People For the American Way Foundation. For more information on Debra Chasnoff, see the Women's Educational Media website at http://www.womedia.org. For information on "Hostile Climate," visit http://www.HostileClimate.org.]