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Debra Chasnoff—Straightlaced: How Gender's Got Us All Tied Up—1/2/09

/content/interviews/263/1.jpgOscar-winning filmmaker Debra Chasnoff—the first Oscar winner to come out, in her acceptance speech, as a lesbian—has been tracking gender pressures and homophobia for years, in her own life and as the subjects of many of her documentary films. Her latest, Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up, allows teenagers to explain in their own words why they feel compelled to conform to stereotypical gender roles for their public selves. Whether the topic is corporate corruption (1991’s Best Documentary Short Subject “Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment”) or gay life in America, Chasnoff’s films all have a personal resonance. To launch the campaign to get Straightlaced to the schools where it can make a difference, the film’s world premiere will be a benefit January 14 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. A screening with many of the high school interviewees in attendance will precede an afterparty, with the evening benefiting Chasnoff’s independent media organization GroundSpark and its Respect for All Project. (Photo © and courtesy of GroundSpark.)

Groucho: Tell me a little bit about the development since 1978 of Women’s Educational Media, which is now called GroundSpark. How did that come together, and how has it evolved?

Debra Chasnoff: Sure. Well, actually, the non-profit was originally founded by a woman named Liz Diamond in 1978, and she founded Women’s Education Media to make one of those multi-screened slide shows—remember those?

G: Yeah.

DC: And it was called “Straight Talk About Lesbians.” And it really was the first media presentation about lesbians and, pretty much, gay people at all. So she made this piece in 1980, and then she decided she didn’t want to do that anymore and she kind of handed it over to me at Women’s Educational Media. And I and my partner at the time, Kim Clausner—we made a documentary film, my first film, called “Choosing Children,” and that came out in 1984. It was a documentary that was exploring the then-impossible idea that lesbians and gay men could become parents. And nobody was really doing that until that point in time. And we made a documentary that showed six lesbian heads of families and how they had brought kids into their lives. And so I’ve been heading up Women’s Educational Media ever since then, and then it really evolved, you know. For awhile it was an organization that produced media for other people, and it was under those auspices that we made “Deadly Deception,” which was the film that won the Academy Award. And then in the early ’90s, I teamed up with Helen Cohen, and we started working on a whole body of work that we’ve been calling the Respect for All Project. We made It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School under that, and then when that film came out is when we decided to start self-distributing our own films pretty ambitious educational campaigns with the films. And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since. And we’ve made several films that fell under the Respect for All umbrella. After It’s Elementary, we did “That’s a Family,” “Let’s Get Real,” “It’s Still Elementary,” and [Straightlaced] is the latest one. And there’ve been a couple of other films on different topics we’ve made throughout the years as well.

G: Can you define the Respect for All Project? That’s an offshoot of GroundSpark, or Women’s Educational Media?

DC: Well, it’s the main program that we’ve been doing…I guess since ’96 when It’s Elementary was released. And the focus of that is to create documentary films that open up dialogue about prejudices affecting young people—and to inspire people to take action to address it.

/content/interviews/263/8.jpgG: Now you mentioned, of course, the 1991 documentary short “Deadly Deception,” for which you won the Oscar. Did you walk the whole Oscar gauntlet of events, and if so, how did you find it?

DC: I certainly did, yeah. I’m kind of infamous because I was the first lesbian to come out on the Oscars. So it was a big deal. Did I walk the gauntlet? I did. I was in the audience, and I went to all the events and I got up on stage and called for a boycott of G.E., and thanked my partner.

G: And it was entirely a positive experience, I imagine?

DC: Oh, it was an incredible experience. Yeah. I loved getting my Oscar from Spike Lee, and then we all went to the Governor’s Ball. And I walked in the door—and Jodie Foster had won that year for Best Actress, and she turned to me and said, “That was really cool what you did, meaning “come out.” So, it was very fun—a really great time.

G: And have you found that being an Oscar winner has opened doors for you and your future work?

DC: Well, it has to some extent. But you know, what I’ve found is that for each film that I’ve made, it’s really almost starting from scratch. I mean, basically, at this point, I have a good track record behind me, but each film is its own journey, and there’s so many wonderfully talented filmmakers out making films. You kind of have to make your own way over and over and over again. So I can’t say that it’s hurt, but it’s certainly not been as if everything—

G: They don’t roll out the red carpet.

DC: No.

G: So what was the initial spark that started you making your new film Straightlaced?

/content/interviews/263/2.jpgDC: Hmm. Well, after It’s Elementary, we committed ourselves to making three films that would open up, in an age-appropriate way, discussion of homophobia and other kinds of prejudices with young people. And we have made “That’s a Family” for elementary-school-age kids, and that’s talking about different kinds of family structures. And then we made “Let’s Get Real” for middle-school age, which is talking about name-calling and bullying. And then we were thinking, “What’s the best way in to talk about these issues with high school students?” And we had had so much success with the format of those two other films where we just let young people talk for themselves. You know, what we had found was that that was so compelling—not only to our target audience but to adults as well—to be able to hear young people, uncensored, talking to each other, more or less, about the truths about their lives. I feel like a lot of the discussion that’s been had around high school students and GLBT issues has been focused exclusively on LGBT youth and the challenges they face. And what we’ve been trying to do with all of our work in the series is to make the case that everybody is affected by anti-gay prejudice. It’s not just the kids who turn out to be LGBT. So that’s what we set out to do in this film was to create a platform for high school students to really reflect on how they are affected by the pressures to act or be a certain way because they’re male or female. And you don’t have to go too far in that dialogue—you know, you scratch the surface and you really get into a lot of very, very powerful messaging that everybody receives about, actually, an incredibly narrow space that you’re allowed to inhabit. And unfortunately, it’s homophobia that defines that space for most people.

G: The film examines the intersection of societally determined gender roles and homophobia. And I want to talk about both of those things and then how they’re intertwined.

DC: Okay.

Q: First, gender identity. This is a little technical, but would you say you’re a strict constuctionist, which is to say gender is a social construct, or do you make room for the essentialist view that there’s a biological imperative that’s also involved?

/content/interviews/263/6.jpgDC: (Laughs.) Ahhh. I guess I’m kind of blurry on that front. We’re trying in this film—and I guess it reflects my own personal views—to not be dogmatic.I feel like “Who knows?” And also I think, especially when you’re looking at people in the high school years, it changes. I mean it would be really interesting to go back five years from now and find all these kids and ask them how they identify then. So I think for some people it’s really, really true that they just are who they are. And “that’s the way they were born” kind of thing. And for other people, I think they’re so affected by society’s messaging that who knows? In a different context, they may identify differently.

G: The film allows teens, as you said, to discuss in their own words the narrow personal image that’s acceptable for each gender and the limits on their body types, their interests, fashion, career paths. What did you find most instructive about their responses?

/content/interviews/263/5.jpgDC: Well, it’s interesting. I think that—it’s hard working on this film to not think back to one’s own high school experience. And if we had made this film when I was in high school, there would have been no openly gay or lesbian or transgender students there to be included in this film. They just wouldn’t have existed. So it’s kind of incredible to have that opportunity to talk about how much has changed in that sense, in that there is the possibility for people to figure out who they are or experiment with who they are, you know, at an earlier age and hopefully lead to less years of torture as [they]’re waiting to find out. So on the one hand that was the good news. On the other hand, it was very sobering for me to hear people—particularly young women, the straight women, I felt as if nothing had changed, and that they were still boxed in. And the same is true for a lot of the guys. In some ways, having more visibility and awareness about gay and lesbian people makes the pressure to avoid being perceived as gay even more intense than it may have been before.

G: I know you made your interview subjects feel safe discussing these topics with you, but I wonder how you went about doing that. I think of the Eagle Scout during the end credits, saying “Actually if anyone were to see this, I could have my Eagle Scout status revoked and be kicked out of the Boy Scouts,” and all that kind of thing. How did that play out?

DC: Well I’ve always found this to be true—I found this to be true on my last film about this topic, “Let’s Get Real,” and this one. I think young people are given so little space to talk about these issues at all. It’s really hard to talk about with their friends. Oftentimes they can’t talk about it with their parents. There’s no space or environment to talk about these issues. You know, they are the things that are like burning issues in their minds all the time as they move through the day. And my experience was that when we would meet these people and say, “Would you be willing to be interviewed and tell the truth about what you feel?,” it was such a relief to them. It was, I think, a very cathartic thing to do. And the motivation for all of them that would do this was because they wanted it to be easier for other kids or young people. So it was very, very moving to do these interviews and to have them say the things they did. And we realized that for many, this was probably the first time they said these things out loud. And certainly in any kind of public way.

/content/interviews/263/3.jpgG: The film certainly touches on the media onslaught that does so much of the shaping of gender identity. And in your own way, you’ve been battling against this media current for years. Do you feel like a lone voice in the wilderness?

DC: Mm-hm. Well again, things are, you know, there’s so much more imagery now out there—for example, of lesbian and gay people—that didn’t use to exist. And that was sort of why we started the films for children back in the ’80s when it was impossible to see any accurate or positive portrayals of gay people in the media. And, you know, I think there’s more of it now. So I don’t necessarily feel like a lone voice, but I feel like there is so much more to be done to encourage people—especially young people—to have to have critical thinking about the media barrage around us. I mean, you know, it’s like wallpaper. You can’t go anywhere without being—you turn on the TV—anywhere you go, you’re just inundated with these messages and imagery. And I think the percentage of time that you’re getting an alternative view or a reminder to think critically about it is very, very small.

G: And that wallpaper’s made out of dollar bills, right?

DC: Yeah, it’s dollar bills, but it’s also, you know, this feeling that—I’m particularly aware of it in terms of the messaging that goes out to young women about how they have to look to be considered beautiful and to be considered worthy. And it’s incredible. And just talking to young women who are in this film—I think they just don’t know how to make sense of it. It’s just overwhelming.

G: Yeah, the culture described in Reviving Ophelia back in ’91 really hasn’t changed at all.

/content/interviews/263/4.jpgDC: Right. It hasn’t, and in some ways it’s gotten worse. I mean, what’s strange about it is that the imagery just keeps coming and coming, and at the same time, there’s this whole other parallel discourse coming out of—you know, you’ll see the strong woman athlete or something on the Olympics, or you’ll see stories about women who are doing something different, but it’s alongside this whole other majority barrage of other things.

G: On the flip side, there’s also the boy in the film who says “Girls can be themselves more than a guy can, at least.” Do you sort of agree with that point, or is that an oversimplification?

DC: I really agree that girls—I think at that point in the film, he’s referring to expression of emotion, and I do think that’s really, really true that it’s expected that girls will talk about what they’re feeling, and that their whole peer group—that’s all they talk about… “How’re you feeling? What’s going on?” And [girls] are allowed to talk about that, whereas for guys that’s really forbidden.

G: The film also talks about teens living in the closet versus coming out, harassment and hate crimes and suicide, the equation of the word “gay” and bad, and those who identify outside the box of gender. So can you talk a little bit about how these issues are tied up with gender culture among teens and their gender identities, even if they’re straight?

/content/interviews/263/7.jpgDC: Well, I think that feeling of that if you step outside a gender box then you’re inviting the question—if you’re not fitting the box that’s male or female, then instead of questioning your gender, your sexuality is in question. Of course, they’re so conflated. It’s not like “Well, maybe you’re a different kind of woman or a different kind of man”—you’re more of an expressive man, but it’s immediately connected with being gay. And for guys it’s that anything that is feminine is associated—I mean the kids in the film say it: “Feminine is weak,” and that’s the connection to being gay. Therefore, gay is weak. And for girls, it’s like if you’re too strong, or too “masculine,” then you’re assumed to be a lesbian. So it’s a subtle thing to articulate, and it’s kind of one of these things that I feel…is part of the motivation for the film, I guess. What you’re getting at is [that] the discussion of homophobia has been—it’s all been around gay rights for the most part. You know, this whole gay and lesbian civil rights movement has been like “Let’s have equal rights for people who are gay.” And what there’s been less discussion of is how homophobia—how a negative perception of gay and lesbian people—is part of our whole cultural values system and really affects everybody into feeling like there are only a limited set of acceptable ways that men can be and that women can be. And that’s the deeper problem beyond a rights issue. I guess it’s really the motivation for this whole film is that if we could open up people’s eyes to see and to talk about how anti-gay prejudice is actually limiting to all of us regardless of what our sexual orientation is, then I think there would be a greater understanding of why it’s absolutely crucial that we eliminate anything that perpetuates anti-gay prejudice.

G: And this leads back to It’s Elementary. I mean, it seems like by high school all of this is so entrenched that you know, when you pull one person out and talk to them individually, any one person—even somebody who’s kind of ruled by what’s proper—they all seem so keenly aware of the double standards they’re buying into and the box that they’re being put into. And yet, when they’re back in the herd, it’s so difficult for them to rise above that. And if you go back to grade school, maybe that entrenching might never happen if it were normalized?

/content/interviews/263/9.jpgDC: That’s right. I mean, it’s interesting releasing [Straightlaced] on the wake of the whole Prop 8 debate because part of what the right used to win was to scare people about the whole idea of talking about gay people in school. And I really hope this film helps play a role in that whole discussion, as well. It’s been really interesting doing test screenings of this in high schools, and students are absolutely riveted to the film, but what’s been more interesting to me is that the teachers—at least the ones we’ve shown it to—have been so excited about the idea that something could help talk about what’s going on. And it’s so pervasive in the school culture that they don’t know how to deal with it. I mean, there’s no acknowledgement that these issues are totally interfering with kids academic experience and the whole social climate in schools. And there is such a set of mistaken ideas about what talking about these issues in schools really means. And it’s just like this knee-jerk thing that if you talk about these issues you’re gonna make your kid gay. Or that you’re going to talk about gay sex, you know? And that’s what the right stirs up all the time, trying to make parents terrified about it. And I hope when parents see this film they’ll realize that it’s their own children who are really affected deeply by anti-gay prejudice, probably in ways they never ever stop to consider.

G: I also noticed in the end credits that [gender researchers] Stacey Horn and Michael Kimmel are noted as advisors.

DC: Yeah.

G: What input were they able to give you?

DC: Well, we drew a lot from their research and the incredibly important work each of them had done on these issues of gender, and I think they are two of the leading experts in the country on the issues that are in the film. So they were on our advisory board and gave us input as we went through the filmmaking project.

G: And lastly I just want you to tell me about the premiere event on January 14th and what people can expect from that.

/content/interviews/263/11.jpgDC: We are so excited about this screening. Well, it’s always exciting to be at the first public screening of a new film. And so that’s that. But this is the launching pad for us getting this film out as widely as possible and, you know, we will be going the familiar circuit of trying to get the film into lots of film festivals and that kind of thing. But more importantly, we will be partnering with lots and lots of LGBT organizations all over the country to organize screenings in every state and then to mount the campaign to get this film used in different ways in schools, both by teachers bringing it into schools and by working with organizations like Gay Straight Alliance Network to get youth to bring it into schools. So it’s sort of the launching pad for that, and I’m really excited about this event because about half of the students who are in the film are gonna be able to join us for the premiere, and I just know the emotions will be very high to have them all there and have them be acknowledged for their incredible courage appearing in the film. And it’s a fundraiser for GroundSpark. And we are really a very independent media organization. We don’t have corporate—hardly any corporate money. Although we are really happy that PG&E is our presenting sponsor for this event. That’s a first for us. We rely on donations from individuals to make the films that we make and do the work that we do. So it’s a big fundraiser for us to and a community celebration.

G: All right. Well, best of luck with that.

DC: Thank you.

G: Thanks for chatting with me.

DC: Thanks so much.

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