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Marriage Equality in New York? It’s Elementary!

By | It's Elementary, It's STILL Elementary

Sixteen years ago, producer Helen Cohen and I were at PS 87 in New York City filming a fifth grade class during a civics lesson. “Today the law says that if you’re the same sex —two men or two women— you can’t get married, it is against the law,” their teacher explained. And then he set up a class assignment for students to debate whether or not the law should change.

When the news broke last Friday that New York had changed its discriminatory marriage laws, I immediately thought of this incredible scene in It’s Elementary—Talking About Gay Issues in School, the film Helen and I ended up making with the footage we shot that day.

These children had the opportunity, in elementary school, to think critically—with their teacher’s support—about whether or not it was fair for same sex couples to be denied equal legal rights. Today these same students are 25 and 26 years old! And they are part of the electorate that voted in the current representatives in the New York state legislature.

We couldn’t possibly have imagined when we completed It’s Elementary that it would continue to be so relevant and utilized 16 years later. But every week new copies of the film go out to school districts across the country.

Sometimes it’s because states have enacted new anti-bullying legislation and school districts need ways to help their teachers and staff members understand why it’s so important to be pro-active in addressing bias. Sometimes it’s because there has been some horrible hate crime or suicide and the district wants to do everything it can to prevent another tragedy.

And sometimes, it’s just because the cultural tide is turning and staff need support on how to grapple with their students’ questions about why the government treats LGBT people differently than everyone else.

Educators watch the film, or our companion documentary, It’s STILL Elementary. They use the highly regarded curriculum guide for these films that offers support on how and why to address LGBT issues in school settings. Inevitably these screenings and trainings build teachers’ understanding and confidence, preparing them to lead age-appropriate lessons for their students that are inclusive and welcoming to LGBT people and families.

Even more importantly, they support educational pedagogy which prioritizes critical thinking skills, respect, and compassion.

I hope we don’t have to wait for all of today’s elementary school children to grow up and become voters before we truly have full legal equality throughout the United States.

But for today, we’re celebrating the fact that if we were to film that same scene again right now in New York, the lesson would be different: today, in New York, two people of the same sex do have the right to marry!

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  • This email comes on the end of the Pride celebration weekend in Toronto, On, where i proudly participated in the Family Pride events. I want to say that i use the It’s elementary Video weekly when working with students, parents, ECE’s and staff in FAmily Support Programs… we work from an inclusion perspective and this video nails it…..social justice values are incredibly important, especially when working with young children and families… if kids and their caregivers can see another perspective, even for a minute or two, we have impacted their whole lives…i am so grateful that this video is entirely applicable today.. and could not do my community work in family support so effectively without it…..thank you so much…

    Comment by Trish — July 4, 2011 @ 7:00 am

  • Debra, I am a teacher and have used both of your films for years. In fact I was a quiet “in the closet” ally until a friend asked me to attend a showing on campus of the first edition. After the film showing I of course spoke up as an ardent ally and have been doing so with gusto and volume ever since! I started teaching early childhood literacy and a colleague and I gave many talks on working with same sex parents (the first at some of the conferences we were at) and we focused on early childhood classrooms.

    After seeing the film I started collecting the “gay friendly” picture books for young children and continue to give many talks on them. Unfortunately we have to have them on reserve as they have been mis-shelved and lost in library limbo land. Recently I gave the library two books that I had several copies of to try to put with the regular collection.

    In the last two years I have been surprised by the reluctance of many of the teacher candidates to want to use these books with children. I do a survey of them to find out what books of this type they know and I usually get none or “Heather Has Two Mommies”! In the past most have been more eager to use these books. I find that even many of my gay, lesbian, and transgender friends don’t know about them! When I give talks on them at True Colors and other GLBT-related conferences, people are so surprised that there are “so many” – just over 100 now!

    We were in Maine without the telly when all this happened in New York. Luckily we had internet and my family was rejoicing with me when the vote finally came and it was positive. I’m sure your film helped to make a positive impact either on this vote or the way in which it was received.

    So thank you so much for working on It’s Elementary and the update. Your film made a big impact on my life and my work after seeing the first version. If more teachers and parents would use these books and discussions perhaps we could stop the bullying before the children are six or seven or eight!

    Comment by Elizabeth — July 11, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

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