High school teachers, Mills students, professors, and community members gathered in the Graduate School of Business Feb. 12 to explore gender and sexuality through Debra Chasnoff’s latest film, “Straightlaced–How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up.” The event was part of Chasnoff’s week-long residency at Mills as a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow.
“All youth are affected by homophobia, it doesn’t really matter what they personally identify as,” Chasnoff said. “Those pressures are very intertwined with messages about gender. My fantasy was to make a film that would help people see the connections between gender pressures and biases based on sexual orientation.”
“Straightlaced” is the fifth film of the Respect for All Project, “It’s Elementary—Talking About Gay Issues in School,” “It’s STILL Elementary,” “Let’s Get Real,” and “That’s a Family!” are the other three films. Which seek to develop inclusive, bias-free schools and communities. Each film is partnered with a guide-book to enable educators to help prevent discrimination and intolerance in school communities.
Like other films in the Respect for All Project, “Straightlaced” is entirely interview based. The film is a compilation of fifty interviews with students from various schools across northern California, a large portion of which come from the Oakland Unified School District.
Students in “Straightlaced” discussed their experience with gender identity and sexual orientation in front of an artistically animated backdrop.
“I may be male and I may be straight,” one student said. “But I am not completely rigid in a narrow way of what you call masculine.”
Another student explained the challenge of identifying as gender queer in a society where gender is traditionally offered as two distinct options.
“When someone asks me if I am a girl or a boy, I say I’m a girl because that’s who I am biologically,” the student said. “I’ve always been told to mark the box that says girl. Once I check that box that’s who I am supposed to be, but that’s not who I am.”
Following the showing of “Straightlaced,”Chasnoff encouraged audience members to pair off and discuss the film. Afterwards, the audience participated avidly in a questioning session.
One community member asked why no adult perspective is present in “Straightlaced.“ Chasnoff said she deliberately centered the film on interviews with youth, rather than including an adult contribution.
“If you see any other films about these issues, they’re made with adults commenting, pontificating, shaping it, and that’s great, we need those perspectives,” Chasnoff said. “But what I’ve been really committed to doing is finding a voice from people who we don’t often get to hear uncensored or without an adult commenting.”
Chasnoff visited a number of classes throughout the course of the week, including showing another of her films, “Homes and Hands—Community Land Trusts in Action,” which explores affordable housing in the United States, in a class on Thursday.
Chasnoff graduated from Wellesley College in 1978, and this was her first residency at a women’s college. Chasnoff said it was a refreshing and engaging experience to participate in a residency at Mills.
“I’ve been totally delighted being here,” Chasnoff said. “I’ve enjoyed it much more than I even imagined I would. You don’t often get opportunities to be in rooms with smart diverse, engaged young women at this age group; so it’s been very stimulating intellectually and invigorating.”
Likewise, the Mills community responded positively to Chasnoff’s visit.
Junior Jenya Lum was inspired by “Straightlaced” to bring awareness to gender conflicts within her community.
“I really appreciated this event because it got me thinking about how I can address these issues in my own community,” Lum said. “I was able to speak to Debra and get advice.”
Assistant Provost David Donohue also felt inspired by “Straightlaced.” Donohue was familiar with Chasnoff’s films after having incorporated them into his own curriculum as a teacher.
“There’s something important about remembering that we have to hope that we can make the world a better place,” Donohue said. “Debra Chasnoff’s films galvanize people to make the world a better place because they get to see that there is something hopeful and positive.”