FOOD & FAMILY - Film looks at gender issues teens face at school

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Despite a few decades passing since she attended high school, things seem unhappily familiar to Debra Chasnoff.

Chasnoff is the president of Groundspark, a film company that specializes in producing films about issues facing today's families.

Making "Straightlaced: How Gender's Got Us All Tied Up" meant coming face-to-face with her secondary education years all over again, Chasnoff said by phone from her San Francisco office. "I'm 52 and I was having flashbacks to when I was in high school and wondering, ‘Has nothing changed?' With all the progress we've made culturally, we're still dealing with the ... double standard about girls and boys."

"Straightlaced" deals with numerous gender issues as seen by more than 50 teens from diverse backgrounds. Through intimate interviews, the film reveals how peer and societal pressures around gender and sexuality are confusing and defining American teens.

The film's stories reflect the participants' experiences, demonstrating how gender-role expectations and homophobia are interwoven, and illustrating the different ways that these expectations connect with culture, race and class.

"Straightlaced" is being presented in Walla Walla by Children's Home Society of Washington on Saturday at 7 p.m. in Maxey Hall auditorium at Whitman College. Middle- and high-school students can attend free with student identification cards; other tickets are $10.

Proceeds benefit Children's Home Society in Walla Walla.

The film is a year old and Chasnoff has seen positive reaction to it "across the board," she noted. "It really seems to resonate with people, regardless of where they live."

Screenings in smaller communities, such as here, can provide a safe venue for discussing the angst and questions teens often have surrounding gender issues. In "Straightlaced," for example, young people discuss the differing standards this culture had concerning weight and body image, manner of dress, school activities, even merchandising products by pink and blue, sweet or strong, powerful or seductive.

One girl examines something as simple as hand holding. Her boyfriend, she explained on-camera, insisted that his hand be on top, clasping hers underneath. Otherwise, it's not OK, he told her.

The film, part of Groundspark's "Respect For All Project," also deals with parental rejection, the impact of dropping out of school and using drugs and alcohol to escape fear and loathing.

One poignant story is that of Josh, a young high school student who killed himself rather than take continuing harassment because of being gay. His friends speak on camera as they create a memory garden to honor Josh and give dedicated space for feeling safe.

The kids in the movie point out a general lack of advocacy from school staff, the deep pressure to hide emotions and the spectrum of gender identity - not all one or the other, not all boy or all girl, one student said.

"Straightlaced" includes the perspectives of teens who self-identify as straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual or questioning. They open up their lives and choices to the camera - choosing between "male" and "female" deodorant; deciding whether to go along with anti-gay taunts in the locker room; having the courage to take ballet; avoiding the restroom so they won't get beaten up; or mourning the suicide of a classmate.

It quickly becomes clear that just about everything teens do requires thinking about gender and sexuality.

Heather Rodriguez of Children's Home Society feels the film is important for any parent of a teen or preteen to see, as well as those who work with youth. One of the most important components the film addresses is the devastating impact of the bullying that comes hand-in-hand with gender issues in today's schools, she said.

"There's not a lot of discussion in high schools about gender-based prejudice of teens," Chasnoff said. "The attitudes about gay people, about women, about what's masculine. How that is really affecting youth, holding them back from being themselves."

The issues can be "very charged" and difficult to talk about, the producer agreed. But with teen suicide rates going up, along with violence and lawsuits against school districts, "the stakes are a lot higher. I read every day about another suicide, another shooting. The stakes are too high for us to ignore this anymore."

Kids who see the film have different responses, Chasnoff added. "Some feel so supported and validated by the film, they think they're the only one like this. Then there is a whole other group I think is mortified. They realize they have been contributing to a lot of the pain other people have been suffering from."

Communities need a way to create empathy in kids. Rules against bullying are ineffective, just words on a posted piece of paper, she said. "This is not about an authority issue. This helps them to connect personally to these issues."

A panel discussion and short reception will follow the Walla Walla screening of "Straightlaced." For more information call 509-529-2130.

To see more about the film or the Respect For All Project, visit groundspark.org.

If you go

A screening of "Straightlaced: How Gender's Got Us All Tied Up" is scheduled for Saturday at 7 p.m. The film deals with gender issues and the societal pressures impacting all teens today.
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