"What does 'gay' mean?"
A six-year-old reportedly asked her mom that question after seeing an ad at Mt. Pleasant's Palmetto Grande Theater. It was a question her mother apparently didn't want to answer. The remarkably plain ad, which also runs on a billboard on Interstate 26, states in white print over a black background that some of the best employees, friends, neighbors, parents, and children are gay.
Following the mother's complaint, the ad was pulled from the screens. Theater managers told the ad's creators, the Alliance for Full Acceptance (AFFA), that the content wasn't appropriate for kids' films, but selecting particular movies with which to screen the ad wasn't an option.
As for the girl who allegedly asked what "gay" means, if her mother doesn't want to answer her, who will?
"I bet she's already hearing that word from other kids at school," says Debra Chasnoff, director of the 1997 documentary It's Elementary, which showed teachers using age-appropriate ways to talk to children about gays and lesbians in elementary and middle schools in an effort to combat prejudice. "In today's society, most kids are hearing 'gay' at a very young age."
And if it's not in the classroom, it's from TV, movies, comic books, or the nightly news. Would any kid pass a newsstand with a headline that reads, "Dumbledore is gay," and not ask mom or pop what that means? Older teenagers may have an understanding of "gay" that's evolved beyond the birds and the bees, but young children often have no idea what gay means, other than it's a bad word — what "retarded" was when most of us were throwing taunts around the playground.
"All the kids know is that it's bad to be called that," Chasnoff says.
Charleston dad Tom Myers has a gay son who often visits the family with his partner, but Tom never felt like he had to sit down and explain their relationship to his nine-year-old daughter Zoe until she came home a few years ago and used "gay" in a derogatory way. He says that explaining gays to his daughter was pretty easy.
"We said that many people are attracted to people of the opposite sex," he says. "But there are some people who have the same feelings for people of the same sex."
The conversation was likely made easier for Zoe because she has someone to think of when she hears the word "gay." This wasn't just a nebulous "some men love one another." It was her brother.
"It maybe made it more real," her father says.
Ironically, that's the message that AFFA tries to send in its annual advertising: Gays and lesbians are the people next door.
And, just as kids don't need to know where babies come from, they certainly don't need to know the ins and outs of gay sex.
In It's Elementary, it's only the older kids who ask how the deed is done, to which the gay speakers skirt the details for a general response that it's about more than the act of sex. The younger kids simply state what comes to mind when they hear the word gay. In one classroom, a boy shouts out, "When I think of 'gay,' I think of a boy walking funny." A little girl says, "I think of a man dressing up as a woman."
Kids get these images from movies or friends or even parents. But what happens when they aren't addressed? Chasnoff notes many students who commit violence were taunted with anti-gay slurs even if they were straight. Other students who turn out to be gay and are plagued with taunts or internal homophobia look to suicide at alarming rates (four times that of heterosexual teens, according to a 2006 Massachusetts study).
"It's actually irresponsible of adults not to do something proactive to talk to kids about gays and lesbians in a responsible way," Chasnoff says.
While educators are getting the message, she notes gay advocates still have a long way to go with parents.
"Nobody ever talked to us about gays and lesbians when we were kids," she says. "We think it's a big deal because it is in our generation."
But kids are wired with compassion, making it pretty easy to explain that we respect people, even when we don't agree with them.
"Kids come into the world open-hearted and open-minded," Chasnoff says.
It's Elementary is being re-released in January, with a follow-up titled It's Still Elementary, where the director talks with some of the students who were in those classrooms 10 years later.
"Education is never wrong," one former student tells Chasnoff. "If you present the facts and you allow someone to think about it for themselves, I don't think there are very many downsides to that."
Screenvision, the ad company responsible for theater advertising, refused to comment for this story. AFFA says their money is being refunded and will likely be used for TV time or further billboard advertising, possibly giving that mother another shot at the question.