Gender queries: "Straightlaced," Bay Area filmmaker Debra Chasnoff's new doc on high schoolers, world premieres at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Jan. 14.

Debra Chasnoff's 'Straightlaced'

Judy Stone January 5, 2009

In eighth grade, Debra Chasnoff was already a tall, attractive brunette with beautiful blue eyes, who yearned to be noticed by a boy named Sammy but he didn’t have eyes for her. Although she had a crush on him, what he saw and wrote in the class yearbook was "To the girl who gets As in French class. I don’t know how or why."

Now a 51-year old prize-winning filmmaker and the mother of two boys, 14 and 20, Chasnoff laughed as she recalled being "devastated" by Sammy’s comment. "The thing he had noticed about me was that I was really smart and not that I was someone appealing to him. I felt a lot of pressure because I was smarter than you were supposed to be if you were a girl."

Wondering about the kind of pressures today’s high schoolers feel if they’re male or female, gay, lesbian, straight or transgendered, she asked hundreds of California students and 50 of them got to talk about their problems in her new documentary Straightlaced—How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up. Its world premiere and fund-raiser is at 6 p.m. Wednesday, January 14 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, but the basic audience will be in high schools all over the country.

"Pressure to act in a certain way based on your gender is at the heart of a lot of pain for a lot of people," Chasnoff recently remarked as she began to promote her film. "If it’s unchecked at the most extreme level it can lead to really horrible violence." As an example, she cited the beating death on October 6, 1998, of Matthew Shepard, a 21 year old gay student in Laramie, Wyoming, where the film will be shown in the near future.

Before she became attuned to the variety of gender problems, she called herself "a social justice type of person." Growing up in a secular Jewish family in a Maryland, suburb of Washington, D.C., she early on figured out "that money is what makes everything work in the world and I wanted to change that so I thought that I’d better understand economics." She majored in economics at Wellesley College where she also became aware of her own sexual identity. At Wellesley, she had felt very left out of discussions about balancing family and career. "I was like everyone else in our culture. I thought being gay meant that you couldn’t have kids—and that haunted me."

She began thinking seriously about the subject in 1982 and by 1984, she made her first documentary Choosing Children with her partner, Kim Klausner. Unheard of in the media at that time, it dealt with lesbians who decide to have children after they came out. "Kim wanted to have kids and I had thought I never would so it was a very compelling topic to us personally. We had two biological children together and we each gave birth to one kid and we each adopted the other child."

Chasnoff publicly thanked her partner and her son in 1992 when she won an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary for Deadly Deception, an expose of General Electric’s commercial image with the harmful results of nuclear production at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State and GE’s New York facilities. She also encouraged a boycott of GE. "I knew," Chasnoff said at the time, "that those would both be political acts: endorsing the boycott and coming out, quite a lot for 45 seconds," the time allowed to winners by the Academy.

Controversy really broke out 10 years ago when her documentary It’s Elementary — Talking About Gay Issues in School, filmed in kindergarten through 8th-grade classes, was shown on public television. In many cities, right wing organizations such as Concerned Women for America, the American Family Association and the Traditional Values Coalition tried to keep it off the air. In Idaho, it was front page news for two months with a lot of editorial page commentary and letters to the editor until the issue went to the governor’s office and he made the final decision to let it be aired but at a time later in the evening. One woman, Chasnoff recalled, wrote in a letter to the editor, that she had tried watching at first with a blanket over her eyes, "but then was stunned that the film was so innocent and beautiful that I was ashamed that I was one of those who thought it shouldn’t be aired."

It’s still all too easy to scare people on the subject of gay rights, Chasnoff said, noting the recent passage of California Proposition 8, which restricts the constitutional definition of marriage to union between a man and a woman. With proponents trying to frighten parents with the prospect that gay marriage would be taught in schools, Chasnoff hopes that Straightlaced, with students speaking frankly about their sexual feelings, will open a wider public discussion on these issues.

Before doing the interviews, Chasnoff and her assistant met high school teachers all over the state who were sympathetic to the documentary they wanted to make. "I would go into classes and ask if anyone wants to talk about the pressures they feel and I was amazed at the hands that went up at the first try." Then she distributed a questionnaire with general questions like "Have you ever felt you had to act a certain way because you were male or female. If so, in what way?" At the bottom, they would be asked if they would be interested in talking to the filmmakers. Two thirds would check "yes." Then they’d go into a back room for about 20 minutes of conversation.

"There’d be a very elaborate process in deciding who we would interview," Chasnoff said. "We’d have a wall chart in the big conference room with all the different topics we could think about, like girls feel they shouldn’t eat too much or boys feel they have to have sex to prove their manhood. Then they’d have different-colored index cards for boys, another for girls. Other cards indicated race so there would be racial and gender diversity, as well as symbols indicating how each person would identify themselves or indicate "not sure." So everybody would be coded in different ways and they’d get a big star if they were articulate in a way that would resonate with other teen-agers. About 50 were articulate out of about 350 students.

Test screenings helped helped Chasnoff understand what places in the film were resonating, confusing or irrelevant. "I’d ask is there anyone in the film you don’t like and anybody you think we should cut out? They didn’t like some pieces that are not in the film anymore. I’d ask ‘Who did you personally identify with?’ It was kind of exciting because I would see that in a class of about 30 students they would almost all write something different about who they would identify with so that helped me know which scene I must not cut. I must say that people have been absolutely riveted by the film. The response we got is that we can’t wait to use this film."

It was very disturbing for some teachers to learn about situations that had required their attention, but they clearly had not done anything to help a kid who talked about being terrified to use the bathroom because he was afraid of being beaten up. Chasnoff said, "I think it affected a lot of teachers. At the same time seeing students who are thriving in their environment gives people a sense of what’s possible."

She believes that race and culture are an interesting overlay to the whole issue and the film touches on that in a few places One Latino boy thinks he has to dress in a certain way. "If I don’t I’m criticized for not being ‘ghetto’ enough," he says. Some African Americans said they have to talk in a certain way in order to be accepted by their peers.

Asked about President elect Obama’s decision to invite Rick Warren to give the benediction at his inauguration, Chasnoff minced no words. "I think it’s a huge error. You don’t invite someone to give the benediction who basically won’t allow gay people into his church. If you’re supposed to be bringing people together. I don’t think it’s the right tone. It’s sad because the uproar over it is really distracting the whole country from other things Obama will be doing which one hopes will be positive. I’m much more interested in what he’ll be doing about environmental policies. I don’t like that we’ll be focusing on this choice which is so alienating."

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