LGBT History Month

LGBT History Month: Oct. 10-11

Debra Chasnoff, Documentary Filmmaker
b. Oct. 12, 1957
d. Nov. 7, 2017

“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.” 

Debra Hill Chasnoff was an American documentary filmmaker and activist. She won the 1992 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject for Deadly Deception. In her acceptance speech, Chasnoff became the first Academy-award recipient to acknowledge a same-sex partner during the ceremony’s live national telecast. In doing so, she came out.

Chasnoff was born in Philadelphia and grew up in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Her father, Joel Chasnoff, was a Maryland state legislator and her mother, Selina Sue Prosen, was a psychologist. In 1978, Chasnoff graduated with a degree in economics from Wellesley College.

Chasnoff made 12 documentary films. With her production company, GroundSpark, she produced and distributed documentaries covering social issues such as income inequality, environmental rights, and LGBT rights. The company’s mission was to “create films and dynamic educational campaigns that move individuals and communities to take action for a more just world.” Films like That’s a Family (2000) exposed students nationwide to diverse households of multiracial families and same-sex parents.

Chasnoff’s influential first film, Choosing Children (1984), showcased six same-sex American couples raising children through adoption, biological donors, or fostering. It won Best Short Documentary at the New York Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and First Prize from the National Educational Film Festival. The New York Times reported that the film “inspired many gay and lesbian couples to start raising families of their own.”

In 1991 Chasnoff directed and produced Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment. The exposé earned her the 1992 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject. In accepting the award, Chasnoff thanked her then-partner, Kim Klausner.

In addition to filmmaking, Chasnoff was a visiting scholar in public policy at Mills College in California. Mayor Art Agnos of San Francisco appointed her vice chair of the city’s Film and Video Arts Commission. She also served on the advisory boards of the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and the Jewish Voices for Peace organization.

At age 60, Chasnoff died of breast cancer. She was survived by her spouse Nancy Otto, an artist and nonprofit fundraiser, and two sons from her relationship with Klausner.

Chi Chia-wei. Taiwanese Gay Pioneer
b. Oct. 12, 1958

“This should certainly offer some encouragement to different societies to consider following in Taiwan’s footsteps and giving gays and lesbians the right to marry.”

Chi Chia-wei is a pioneering Taiwanese gay-rights activist and marriage-equality champion. He helped make Taiwan the first nation in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage.

Chi was raised by open-minded parents who were supportive of his homosexuality. He came out in high school, and his classmates were overwhelmingly accepting.

Chi began his LGBT activism in his 20s when there were virtually no other visible gay rights activists. Today, hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese support or have joined the LGBT-rights movement.

For some time, Chi was Taiwan’s only AIDS activist. He operated a halfway house for HIV/AIDS patients and created awareness campaigns to promote safe sex among the country’s LGBT citizens.

In 1986, the then 28-year-old Chi organized an international press conference to announce his sexual orientation and bring attention to the HIV/AIDS crisis. In doing so, he became the first person in Taiwan to come out on national television. Media outlets such as the Associated Press and Reuters covered the event.

Chi’s quest to bring same-sex unions to Taiwan also began in 1986, when he applied for a marriage license. However, the Taipei District Court Notary Office denied his request, as well as the Legislative Appeals Court. Later that year, he was detained by police and served a 162-day sentence. Such imprisonment was ordinary during Taiwan’s White Terror, a period of oppression during which the government imprisoned political dissidents.

Chi, however, unsuccessfully applied for a same-sex marriage license again in 1994, 1998, and 2000. In 2013, when he applied and denied once more, Chi appealed the decision to the Taipei city government’s Department of Civil Affairs, who referred the issue to the Constitutional Court.

Chi and the Taipei government petitioned the court to examine the constitutionality of the same-sex marriage prohibition. On May 24, 2017, Taiwan’s Constitutional Court struck down the previous classification of marriage and ruled that same-sex couples could marry, beginning in May 2019. A celebration erupted outside the court and Chi announced, “Today’s victory is for everybody!” The decision marked the culmination of Chi’s 30 years of activism.

In October 2016, Queermosa, a leading Taiwanese LGBT organization, presented Chi with its first Queer Pioneer Award. Chi has a longtime romantic partner whose identity he keeps private.

Photo of Chi Chia-wei by Kay Tobin

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