GroundSpark in the San Francisco ChronicleWednesday 22, April 2009
By Brittney Shepherd, Staff Producer | Straightlaced
Read on for the article or click here to visit the Chronicle’s website.
Chasnoff’s latest documentary takes on gender
Justin Berton, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, April 20, 2009
The news of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover’s suicide two weeks ago stung Debra Chasnoff, the San Francisco filmmaker who will premiere her new documentary, “Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up,” on Thursday at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland.
Walker-Hoover is the 11-year-old boy from Springfield, Mass., who hanged himself with an electrical cord after relentless gay taunts from schoolmates, members of his family say. It was the fourth middle-school suicide connected to bullying this year, according to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
“The news read exactly why we needed to make this film,” Chasnoff said.
Chasnoff, who won an Academy Award for her short documentary “Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment” in 1991, spent two years interviewing hundreds of teenagers for “Straightlaced,” many in Northern California high schools. As in Chasnoff’s previous recent works, the film is remarkable for the candor with which its subjects speak – in this case, teens discussing their frustrations with gender roles and stereotypes.
The results may both please and confuse adults who hope today’s teenagers are growing up in a more tolerant society.
On one hand, viewers meet students like Claire Starks, an Oakland high school sophomore who can proudly and articulately discuss her bisexuality. She was encouraged by a teacher to participate in the film, to serve as an inspiration to other students who feared coming out.
Yet on the other side, the students in the film admit to a paralyzing fear of being labeled gay – “the ultimate insult,” as one student declares. “A powerful tool to control you,” another says.
In an opening scene where Chasnoff follows a group of males to a Bay Area clothing store, the teenagers freely explain the male fashion code: Clothes must be baggy, and no questionable colors allowed, such as purple. “That’s what a pretty boy would wear,” one student says of a shirt with pink stripes. “That’ll get you shot.”
“The film captures the contradictory experience,” Chasnoff said. “We’re a far more open culture, more aware of our differences – and, at the same time, the fear of being perceived (negatively) is way more intensified.”
For example, when Chasnoff interviews the refreshingly kind student Hamadah, a Pacifica High School basketball player who is unfazed by peer pressure, viewers learn that taunting on school campuses can come from unexpected sources. After Hamadah decorates his girlfriend’s desk with balloons, flowers and a box of Goldfish snacks for Valentine’s Day, Hamadah expects the razzing from his buddies. But he’s surprised when his teacher also gets in on the action, ribbing him for the romantic gesture.
“Even my teacher said something. He told me if I have to work that hard to get a girl, then I’ve got no game.”
Starks, now 19 and studying behavioral psychology at a junior college in Southern California, said that while she never witnessed overt homophobic bullying at her school, the teasing was rampant and part of the schoolyard culture.
“People who start out talking smack, inside it will grow into homophobia,” Starks said.
Starks said as fellow students learned of her role in the film, at least five younger females approached her to discreetly ask her about bisexuality.
“A lot of girls also expressed to me how scared they were to come out,” Starks said.
After word spread on campus about Starks’ bisexuality, the teasing and jokes soon followed, she said. Starks said the pestering mostly came from male students, who peppered her with questions such as, “Are you into that girl?”
“The jokes could be pretty annoying,” Starks said. “But I had good sense of humor.”
Chasnoff said she hopes the film will help start a larger discussion among teens, adults and teachers about the need for sexual tolerance and for codes of behavior in and outside of school.
“I want all young people to feel really good about themselves and about who they are,” she said, “and to have the courage to speak up for others who don’t have such an easy path. And for schools to provide a supportive climate for everyone, regardless of how they express their identity.”
Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up: 7 p.m. Thurs. $10-$30. Grand Lake Theater, 3200 Grand Ave., Oakland. (510) 452-3556. ground spark.org.