Filmmaker Debra Chasnoff, Who Made History at the Oscars, Dies

Debra Chasnoff

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Debra Chasnoff, who made history as the first woman to thank a same-sex partner when accepting an Oscar, has died.

Chasnoff, 60, died of breast cancer, Mombian reported today. The blog did not give the date of her death.

Chasnoff won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject for her 1991 film Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons, and Our Environment, exposing the health and environmental effects of nuclear materials produced by GE. The film helped influence GE to leave the nuclear weapons industry. At the 1992 Oscar ceremony, she thanked her then-partner, Kim Klausner.

“When I did it, I thought, this is really astonishing to me that this hasn’t happened before,” Chasnoff 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.”

Chasnoff also made several acclaimed documentaries dealing with LGBT issues. She and Klauser collaborated on the 1985 film Choosing Children, profiling “six pioneering lesbian families who were among the first to have children after coming out,” Mombian notes. Of all her films, it is the one “that may have had the greatest impact on LGBTQ families,” according to the site. “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?’” Chasnoff told Mombian in 2010. In 2000’s That’s a Family, she depicted children from a variety of family structures — being raised by LGBT parents, parents of different races or religions, single parents, or grandparents.

She and Helen Cohen directed 1996’s It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in Schools, which Mombian calls “one of the first resources for educators wishing to better support LGBTQ students and those with LGBTQ parents.” Ten years later, she followed it with an updated anniversary edition, It’s STILL Elementary. Her 2003 film Let’s Get Real addresses bullying in schools, including anti-LGBT bullying, and 2009’s Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up deals with the negative effect of gender stereotypes on students.

One Wedding and … a Revolution, a short documentary from 2004, chronicles the brief period that year when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom declared same-sex marriage legal and numerous same-sex couples married in the city. The short features the wedding of longtime lesbian activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the first couple to marry after the mayor’s action. In 2008, after Martin’s death, Chasnoff made Celebrating the Life of Del Martin.

At the time of her death, Chasnoff was working on a film about her experience with breast cancer; she had been diagnosed in June 2015. “She envisioned a film that could help shape how people with cancer, their families, caregivers, healers, and medical practitioners approach life-changing diagnoses,” according to the website for her San Francisco–based production company, Groundspark. Her wife, Nancy Otto, and others plan to complete the film, tentatively titled Prognosis.

In addition to Otto, Chasnoff is survived by two sons. 

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