Debra Chasnoff, Whose Films Redefined Gay Families, Dies at 60

Debra Chasnoff, Whose Films Redefined Gay Families, Dies at 60


Debra Chasnoff, an Oscar-winning documentarian whose educational films promoted greater tolerance for gays and lesbians, died on Nov. 7 at her home in San Francisco. She was 60.

Her wife, Nancy Otto, said the cause was breast cancer.

Ms. Chasnoff’s first film, which she produced in 1984 with her companion at the time, Kim Klausner, was titled “Choosing Children.” It profiled six households headed by same-sex parents who were raising children through adoption, foster parenting, previous relationships and donor insemination.

The film was said to have inspired many gay and lesbian couples to start raising families of their own.

“I think that very first film has done more to change the world than anything else I could possibly do,” Ms. Chasnoff said in a 2013 interview on “It’s no longer assumed you can’t be a parent if you’re gay.”

Ms. Chasnoff won the Academy Award for documentary short in 1992 for producing and directing “Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment,” which explored that company’s role in making bombs and its impact on public health.

At the awards ceremony in Hollywood, she praised Infact (now called Corporate Accountability), an advocacy group that had organized a boycott of General Electric products to protest the company’s involvement with nuclear weapons.

Infact credited the film for influencing G.E.’s decision later that year to divest itself of the division that made bomb triggers. A G.E. spokesman said, however, that the sale was made solely for financial reasons as military budgets shrunk.

Ms. Chasnoff also made Oscar history at that ceremony by acknowledging Ms. Klausner as “my life partner.” It was said to be the first time a female recipient had thanked a same-sex partner from the ceremony’s stage.

“When I did it, I thought, this is really astonishing to me that this hasn’t happened before,” she told Lesbian News magazine in 2009. “We all know plenty of gay people who have won Academy Awards, but we’re all just quiet about it. I couldn’t imagine having that profound of an honor and not acknowledging my partner.”

“Deadly Deception” was only Ms. Chasnoff’s second documentary, after “Choosing Children,” which she had also directed. She went on to produce and direct documentaries on a number of other social issues, including middle-school bullying and generating affordable housing.

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Deadly Deception—General Electric Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment – TRAILERCreditVideo by GroundSpark

But she was best known for films like “It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School” (1996) and “That’s a Family” (2000), shown in classrooms, which exposed students to diverse relationships, including households headed by single mothers, multiracial families and same-sex couples.

She said that each film was intended to be a catalyst for further discussion in an age-appropriate curriculum.

“Our approach in making the film is giving young people a chance to know what’s going on in their lives,” she told The New York Times in 2007. “There are some things that all loving families share.”

But “That’s a Family” provoked a backlash from conservative groups and parents who considered the subject matter unfit for younger children.

A New Jersey school district banned the film from its third-grade classrooms. A district in Marin County, north of San Francisco, gave individual parents the option of withholding consent for their own fifth-grade children to view it.

Ms. Chasnoff was president of GroundSpark, a nonprofit company whose Respect for All Project distributes films and companion educational guides for classroom discussion. She was also an owner of New Day Films, another distributor.

Her other producing and directing credits include “Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up” (2009), about sexuality conflicts faced by teenagers; “Let’s Get Real” (2003), about name calling; “One Wedding and a Revolution” (2004), about the legalization of same-sex marriage; and “Celebrating the Life of Del Martin” (2011), about a leading lesbian-rightsactivist.

Andrea Levere, the president of Prosperity Now, whose programs provide financial stability for poor people and with whom Ms. Chasnoff made two films, said in a telephone interview that Ms. Chasnoff “combined an artistic sensibility with the ability to tell stories that promote understanding, activism and justice.”

Debra Hill Chasnoff was born on Oct. 12, 1957, in Philadelphia and was raised in a Maryland suburb of Washington. Her father, Joel, was a lawyer and a Maryland state legislator. Her mother, the former Selina Sue Prosen, was a psychologist.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1978 and worked briefly as a rate analyst, with clients including companies involved in nuclear weaponry. She and Ms. Klausner moved from Boston to San Francisco in 1985 and had two sons together. They later separated.

In addition to Ms. Otto, Ms. Chasnoff, who was known by friends as Chas, is survived by Noah and Oscar Klausner, her sons with Ms. Klausner; her father; her sister, Lori Langford; and her brother, Jordan Chasnoff.

Ms. Chasnoff, who learned she had breast cancer in 2015, was working at her death on a documentary that, according to her website, “could help shape how people with cancer, their families, caregivers, healers and medical practitioners approach life-changing diagnoses.”

Ms. Otto and Ms. Chasnoff’s colleagues at GroundSpark hope to complete the film. It is tentatively titled “Prognosis.”


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