Debra Chasnoff, the Academy Award-winning film director of Choosing Children, about the first generation of out lesbian moms, and a number of award-winning LGBTQ-inclusive educational films, has died at the age of 60 from breast cancer.
Chasnoff, a lesbian mom herself, may be best known to readers here for her educational documentaries that cover a range of LGBTQ-related topics. I had the pleasure of interviewing her in 2007, when a New Jersey school district tried to ban her That’s a Family from its curriculum, after a handful of parents objected to its inclusion of gay and lesbian families. The criticism didn’t stop her though: the same year she re-released her 1997 It’s Elementary (one of the first resources for educators wishing to better support LGBTQ students and those with LGBTQ parents) as It’s STILL Elementary, an updated 10th anniversary version. We spoke again in 2009, when her Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up, came out, a film for teens on how gender stereotypes can negatively impact all students. Additionally, she released Let’s Get Real in 2003, covering name-calling and bullying (including anti-LGBTQ bullying) in middle schools.
It was her 1985 film Choosing Children, however, that may have had the greatest impact on LGBTQ families. In it, she profiled six pioneering lesbian families who were among the first to have children after coming out. The children were created through known donors, unknown donors, and adoption. They ranged in age from infant to early teens. One mother was still pregnant when filming began. The women are white, black, and Hispanic, and include two interracial couples. In addition to three couples, there was one woman co-parenting with a gay man, a single mother, and a group of five women co-parenting together. Attorney Donna Hitchens, one of the founders of the Lesbian Rights Project (now the National Center for Lesbian Rights), provided legal commentary.
I interviewed her in 2010 for the 25th anniversary of its release, and she recalled that when the documentary was first shown at film festivals, “People would come to the screenings and you could see these little light bulbs going on over their heads, saying, ‘Oh my god, I could have a child if I wanted to?’ People would turn to each other and say, ‘Honey, what do you think?’ Over the years, I would get letters of so many people who said ‘I never thought I could have kids until I came to see the film. Now we have a four-year-old.’”
The screenings also generated coverage in mainstream newspapers, “the first media coverage in those areas ever that suggested that gay people could have kids,” Chasnoff said.
Her other films include One Wedding and…a Revolution, about the brief period in 2004 when same-sex couples could marry in San Francisco after a decision by Mayor Gavin Newsom. The first couple to wed, and whose vows are shown in the film, were long-time lesbian activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. When Martin died in 2008, she was commemorated by Chasnoff in Celebrating the Life of Del Martin. And her 1991 Deadly Deception, which exposed the health and environmental side effects caused by the production of nuclear materials by the General Electric Corporation, won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short. She then became the first lesbian to thank her partner in an Oscar’s acceptance speech.
In 2015, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and true to her calling, began documenting the experience, colleagues at her film company Groundspark tell us:
She envisioned a film that could help shape how people with cancer, their families, caregivers, healers, and medical practitioners approach life-changing diagnoses. She hoped to provide a powerful example of how to live fully in the face of an unknown prognosis. Central to Chas and her wife Nancy’s approach to dealing with cancer was an insistence that no one put a timeframe to her life expectancy. They offered the rest of us a breathtaking example.
After her death on November 7, her family and friends are continuing the effort with the working title: Prognosis, and are requesting contributions to carry on her legacy.
I am grateful for all she has done for our community—giving many of us the inspiration to become parents, and offering resources to help our children thrive. My condolences to her family and friends. We should all be thankful for her work.