Filmmaker Debra Chasnoff on making ’Straightlaced’
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Debra Chasnoff has made a career of controversial documentaries exploring gay issues and homophobia. For her most recent effort, Straightlaced - How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up, Chasnoff and producer Sue Chen interviewed 50 remarkably forthcoming teenagers on-camera (hundreds more didn’t make it into the film), gay, straight, lesbian and transgender, about their coming to terms with sexual identity, gender stereotypes, harassment, conformity, concerns for their own safety and body image. Chasnoff, a San Francisco-based lesbian mother who has watched her two sons, now 20 and 15, wrestle with their masculinity, has a strong personal interest in gender and its connection to homophobia, as well as the chilling effect Proposition 8 has had on adolescents trying to figure out who they are and whom they can trust. She recently talked about these and other topics during an extended phone interview.
Bay Area Reporter: There’s so much going on in the greater society right now, with Proposition 8 and a recent hate crime/gang rape of a lesbian in Richmond. Were larger societal issues what led you to make the film?
Debra Chasnoff: It was the backdrop. The initial impetus for my body of work was to challenge the prevailing cultural assumptions about engaging young people in a dialogue about homophobia. We’ve made three other films addressing this issue from different perspectives: "It’s Elementary" made the case that all kids are affected by homophobia, and adults can do something about it; "That’s a Family" looked at what kids would like their peers to understand about growing up in different family structures, including those with gay or lesbian parents; "Let’s Get Real" dealt with name-calling and bullying at the middle-school level.
I saw homophobia as this huge cultural force that causes a lot of harm and leads to violence at the most extreme level. I thought if we were serious about preventing it from taking hold, we would really need to reexamine our assumptions about what’s appropriate to discuss with young people. We wanted to make a film aimed at high school students, and we landed on the idea of gender; the pressure kids are under to act a certain way because they’re male or female, and how that gets in the way of their being who they really are. Other kids fall into the role of policing the kids who deviate, and that can escalate into violence and other forms of harassment.
BAR: The word that kept coming up among the students was safety. It seems that quite a few of them feel threatened, or the people they care about are threatened.
DCThat’s really true. I think that’s the reality in many school environments today, particularly for anyone who’s a little bit different around gender lines.
BAR: How much, if any, have things changed since you were in high school?
DC: There were times that I wondered: What year is this? It was very odd working on this film, because in some ways I felt it was the same as when I was growing up. In fact, sometimes I thought it was worse, and other times I would be blown away. We’re living in a very confusing and contradictory time, where more and more young people are able to be who they really are, and at the same time, the cultural pressures are even more intense.
BAR: One thing that doesn’t seem to have changed is that a ’fag’ is the worst thing a teenager can be called.
DC: It’s still the worst insult. What we try to do in the film is to establish the connection between homophobia and anti-female prejudice. The kids make it clear that to be perceived as female is what leads you to be targeted with anti-gay harassment.
BAR: What has been the effect of Proposition 8 on young people?
DC: I think one of the least reported, negative side-effects of the passage of Prop. 8 was the horrible impact on school communities and young people. It’s a very powerful message when your state decides that they’re going to take away Constitutional rights from a group of people. Then you have to go to school the next day and your peers are saying, as has been reported to us, "Of course, gay people can’t get married, it’s disgusting for two men to kiss, we’ll beat you up, you fucking faggot."
BAR: Did you find out anything that surprised you?
DC:How little has changed. I was really struck by how much the fear of being perceived as gay drives so much of how they conduct themselves, especially the boys. It’s connected to this idea that if you’re perceived as female, you’re not a real man.
BAR: Do you think it’s possible to change these attitudes?
DC: The film is a small step. I’m encouraged by the feedback we’ve gotten. People have said this film has given them the courage to change.
The film will be shown Jan. 14 at YBCA, in a benefit screening for Chasnoff’s company Groundspark, to launch an educational campaign to promote dialogue among teens, the community and educators. Tickets: (415) 821-9693 or www.groundspark.org/straightlacedtickets