Bright Lights Film Journal

Far from Elementary: Debra Chasnoff’s <em>Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up</em>

“I told him, ‘I’m not gay. My neck was cold.'”

A June 2009 Gallup poll showed that six in ten Americans favor repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Two-thirds of Americans think hate crimes laws should protect LGBT people and that gay domestic partners deserve access to their partner’s employee benefits, like health insurance. It also seems that young people are exponentially more forward-thinking on these issues than their elders; that same poll showed that the majority of age group 18-24 favor gay marriage.

Does that mean everything has changed for LGBT kids, that society – and young people in particular – has moved beyond homophobic thinking and is busily producing safe, well-adjusted, out-and-proud youngsters? The answer is a complex one, judging from Debra Chasnoff’s excellent documentary Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up. Chasnoff is the Oscar-winning director of Deadly Deception (1991) and a film that rattled many a right-wing cage, It’s Elementary – Talking about Gay Issues in School (1996) along with its follow-up, It’s Still Elementary (2007).

For Straightlaced, Chasnoff wanted to hear young people’s own voices on sexuality and gender. She interviewed hundreds of California high-school students about whether they had ever felt they had to act a certain way because they were male or female, and whether they would like to share their feelings with the world. Fifty students made it into the film, talking with bracing candor and insight about how they navigate gender, sexuality, peer pressure, and homophobia. The results are sometimes encouraging, sometimes disheartening, but consistently fascinating.

Straightlaced opens with two contrasting but related social rituals: a group of boys is shopping for clothes, and a group of girls is enjoying a dress-up session. The rigidity of social norms in the minds of the boys is immediately apparent as they meticulously analyze and select their fashions, approving of baggy styles and dismissing tight clothes as being in the dreaded “pretty boy style.” The stakes are high, with peer acceptance, humiliation, even physical violence among the possible results of choosing the right or wrong clothes. Macho-boy norms must be met at all cost. “If you wear that,” says one boy, indicating a less than manly outfit, “you gonna get shot.” Even the simplest accessory can become a test of obedience to gender roles. When one straight guy wears a scarf, his friend ridicules him. He replies, mystified, “I told him, ‘I’m not gay. My neck was cold.'”

The girls are shown as equally driven by inflexible gender rules as they try to figure out how to “look my best,” which often means “meet my gender compliance target.” But it’s soon clear that many of them (as well as the boys) are aware that they’ve been manipulated and socialized into their behaviors and attitudes by unthinking parents and a society unwilling to deal with what one kid calls “the spectrum of genders.” While one girl says that she spends an agonizing hour-and-a-half dressing and making up for school, another laughs at the unrealistic but influential images society projects on girls, particularly through advertising: “Who wears makeup to jump in a pool?”

Straightlaced tells grimly familiar tales of homophobic harassment, including one that ended in suicide. We hear dispiriting stories of kids who still pretend to be straight, withdraw, or spiral into drugs as a result of the pressure to be constantly on guard about the simple fact of who they are. But balancing these are bracing stories of youngsters who stand up to their peers and denounce the practice of harassment, or simply refuse to play-act a gender or orientation that doesn’t feel authentic. In one affecting scene, a straight girl describes getting fed up with hearing a boy called “faggot”; despite being afraid of the group, who are boys and older, she attacks them with gusto. Some teens, queer or simply searching, seen here are unapologetic and use an array of strategies to be themselves, from purposely obscuring their birth sex as gender agents provocateur to filing lawsuits for harassment.

Straightlaced explores issues around queer youth in depth but isn’t limited to them. A straight football player wistfully recalls wanting to hug a teammate after a particularly hard-fought win. That he was rejected in this basic human gesture speaks volumes about how restricting gender to a narrow set of approved behaviors hurts not only gay people but everyone.