Outside the Lines: The Education of Debra Chasnoff


Last month in a school playground in Milton, Mass., a 9-year-old girl was attacked by a group of her classmates after revealing that her mother was a lesbian. According to news reports, the pack cornered the third-grader at recess and shoved, smacked and taunted her. This incident, in one of America's bluest states, no less, illustrates why Debra Chasnoff's work remains so vital and so necessary.

The out, Oscar-winning filmmaker has spent her career making movies that matter. From her first documentary, Choosing Children (1985), an intimate look at lesbians having and raising children, to last week's re-release of It's Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School, her films have changed the course of history and helped make schools and communities safe and welcoming for LGBT kids and children of LGBT families. Her work has touched millions of young people, teachers and parents. I'm one of them.

Two years ago when my daughter was in fourth grade, a boy in her class heard that her mothers were lesbians and called our family "sick and disgusting." That evening, after she tearfully reported the incident to me, I emailed her teacher and asked her to address the situation immediately.

In our crunchy, lefty school, action was swift: The boy and his mother were called to the principal's office. He emerged later with a letter of apology for my daughter. To clear the air, the teacher initiated a discussion about acceptance of all kinds of families. As a tool to jump-start that discussion, she showed Chasnoff's 2000 documentary that takes a kid-friendly look at family diversity, That's a Family!

With its upbeat music and bright and shiny families of all stripes — including single-parented, adoptive, mixed-race and lesbian and gay — the film was the perfect warm-and-fuzzy antidote to the kid's poisonous hate speak. Afterward, my daughter was the first one to raise her hand and talk — proudly — about her family.

"I love stories like that," Chasnoff said last week at the New York premiere of It's Still Elementary, a "making of" documentary and companion piece to the 1996 original, It's Elementary.

While That's a Family! speaks to children, It's Elementary is aimed at parents and educators. It offers examples of schools throughout the country that have found ways to talk to kids about LGBT people. Real-life principals, parents, teachers and children are the touching and often hilarious stars of her film.

Throughout the evening of the premiere, Chasnoff, 50, heard many other stories like mine, and each time she listened with the attentiveness and enthusiasm of an engaged friend, a person who truly believes in her life's work. Her warm, lived-in smile stayed real.

In the film, Chasnoff (whom friends call "Chaz"), the mother of two teenage sons, explains why she made It's Elementary in the early '90s. "I was a young mother, and my son was about 4 years old. I had just won an Academy Award, and I was trying to figure out 'what do I do next,'" she says, referring to her 1991 documentary short Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment.

Her acceptance speech made history that night: With her Oscar hoisted over her head, she thanked her then life partner, Kim, to the shock and delight of millions of other lesbians and gay men watching the telecast.

"I got this idea that I wanted to try and use my documentary filmmaking skills to make the world a better place for [my son] and all of his friends," Chasnoff adds. "Our idea was to make a film that made the case that if we are serious about preventing anti-gay prejudice, we really have to challenge this prevailing cultural belief that you can't talk to children about gay people."

It's Still Elementary looks at the impact of the original, which has been viewed by millions of people as well as shown on public television. "We wanted to share the story of why It's Elementary was made in the first place," Chasnoff explains. She now lives in San Francisco with her youngest son and her partner of seven years. "It also allows for a moment of reflection and a time to recommit ourselves to do more."

The new film also shows the noisy and often violent backlash that ensued. It includes scary clips of the Pats — Buchanan and Robertson — and shows Christian extremists brandishing Bibles and screeching, "God hates fags."

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