Comment: It’s STILL Elementary

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Academy award-winning director Debra Chasnoff on teaching American schoolchildren about LGBT people.

When we released our film, It’s Elementary – Talking About Gay Issues in Schools, a decade ago, the teachers featured in the documentary were breaking new ground by finding ways to talk to their elementary and middle school students about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The educators we found were rarities.

Most teachers had never considered having such conversations, and those that did lacked the necessary support and skills.

Today, educators across the country are increasingly aware that such omissions are professionally irresponsible. That’s progress.

But for this progress to continue, it will take the support and advocacy of not only LGBT parents who have children who are directly affected by what happens in the classroom, but the entire LGBT community and all of our allies.

During the 1990’s, schools typically limited discussions of homosexuality to health class lessons and focused on preventing the spread of HIV or suicide.

Today, as more and more elementary schoolteachers include LGBT people within their curricula, the context of such discussions is changing from disease and depression to culture and history.

Youth are now receiving information about LGBT people through discussions about families, media personalities and historical leaders, rather than only through frightening statistics about disease and death.

This evolution is directly related to a positive shift in attitudes toward LGBT people, the rapid growth of families headed by same-sex parents, and the expansion of a stronger and vibrant high school age LGBT population and their friends.

In many US states, legislative and school board policies now mandate teaching about diversity and addressing bullying, with a specific focus on preventing anti-LGBT harassment.

Curriculum guides now exist to help teachers of all grade levels have conversations about LGBT people and issues in age-appropriate ways.

Nevertheless, motivated educators need the encouragement and backing of local citizens supportive of LGBT-inclusive education in order to be able act on their commitment.

Despite the steady growth of the safe schools movement, small but highly vocal minorities of homophobic activists continue to pressure educators in numerous areas across the country to backtrack on their progress and to abandon their LGBT-inclusive curricula.

In April, for example, a journalism teacher in Indiana was fired after allowing one of her students to write an article asking her peers to stop anti-LGBT harassment.

In August, members of a conservative church in New Jersey hijacked school-board meetings and successfully pressured a local school district into removing its LGBT-inclusive family diversity lessons.

That same month the Philadelphia School District was forced to omit ‘gay and lesbian history month’ from this year’s school calendar, following outrage from conservative parents.

In all of these situations, the vocal minority of the religious Right flooded school offices with letters and phone calls. As importantly, their relentless attacks went largely unanswered by local LGBT community members and allies.

Lacking necessary visible support from constituents in their own school districts, school administrators’ good intentions were dwarfed by the pressure to cave into homophobic activists. These incidents reflect more than coincidence.

They are part of a concerted effort on the part of the religious right to turn back the crucial progress we have made. Today, as we re-issue It’s Elementary for a new generation of educators, we call upon the LGBT community to help us realise our vision of schools as caring communities for all youth and families, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

In the face of increased right-wing resistance, LGBT people, parents, and allies must be vocal about their support for LGBT-inclusive curricula.

LGBT parents can write to their school boards, attend PTA meetings, and influence their school district by advocating for their own children’s best interests.

The wider LGBT community and its leaders must also recognise the efforts of LGBT-headed families in the school system, and be vigilant in providing support for the resistance they face.

Whether or not you have children, you can lobby for inclusive curricula and support school districts that proactively address anti-LGBT bias.

Because reaching youth with anti-bias education that includes our communities is not optional for cultural change. It’s elementary.

Debra Chasnoff is the director of It’s Elementary-Talking about Gay Issues in School, which will be re-released on DVD in December along with the companion documentary, It’s STILL Elementary.

She is the executive director of GroundSpark.