Teaching tolerance

By Julian Wise - November 9, 2006

When it comes do discussing homosexuality, many schools have adopted a "don´t ask, don´t tell" policy. "It's Elementary," the documentary film directed by academy award-winning filmmaker Deborah Chasnoff and Bay area artist Helen Cohen, takes cameras into American classrooms to examine whether gay and lesbian issues should be discussed in American schools and, if so, how. On Nov. 13 at the Martha´s Vineyard Charter School, parents, teachers, and school administrators from across the Island will gather for a special screening of the film followed by an open discussion on how these issues impact the local educational community. The event is cosponsored by M.V. PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), the Charter School, M.V. Community Services' Family Network, and the M.V. Hebrew Center. All are welcome.

Event facilitator Ursula Ferro explains that the purpose of the evening is to open a dialogue on how Martha's Vineyard can be a welcoming and safe environment for gay and lesbian children or children with gay and lesbian parents. Ms. Ferro is a teacher, school administrator, and early child development expert who has authored two children's books featuring a two-mother household.

"In the years since I started teaching in the late 1950s, there were no two-mother or two-father families," Ms. Ferro says. "Now, almost everyone you talk to in every community, there are people who feel safe to say, 'This is my partner, this is my family.' I think there is a big shift from the late 1950s to 2006, but there is still some very painful stuff going on."

The purpose of the evening is not to impose a sexual-orientation curriculum on the Island school system, according to Ms. Ferro, but rather to foster a discussion about acceptance and diversity. "A lot of parents feel they don't want these topics discussed in school, because we hear kids talking about these issues, calling each other names and teasing each other in ways that can be hurtful," she says. "It's important to raise awareness and consciousness and make this community safe for all families."

Rather than focus on contentious, religion-laden arguments among adults, "It's Elementary" speaks directly to school-age children to explore their perspectives on gay and lesbian issues. Consequently, viewers see third graders surprised to find that some of their favorite celebrities are gay, fourth graders who describe uneasiness at hearing classmates use the term "faggot" on the playground, 8th graders who conduct a Q & A-session with a gay speaker during their social studies class, and other illuminating vignettes. The film has garnered top prizes at gay and lesbian film festivals from Chicago to Milan, Italy, and earned the prestigious C.I.N.E. Golden Eagle award. Booklist has called it "a sterling production" while Andrew Garrod, chair of the education department at Dartmouth College, has called the film, "A challenging, wonderfully provocative piece which offers a highly engaging forum for discussion of many issues concerning schools - like what's 'appropriate' subject matter and how to combat the most basic kinds of intolerance."

"It's Elementary," Monday, Nov. 13, 6:30 to 8:30 pm, Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School, State Road, West Tisbury. Free. Discussion follows.