Academy Award-winning filmmaker, LGBTQ rights champion, and social justice educator Debra (Chas) Chasnoff '78 died on November 7, 2017 in San Francisco. Polly Munts Talen '77 remembers her friend and classmate Chas in this essay.
By Polly Munts Talen ’77
It is with honor and great sadness that I share the news that Debra (Chas) Chasnoff ‘78 died on November 7, 2017 of metastatic breast cancer at her home in San Francisco. She was surrounded by her wife Nancy Otto, sons Noah and Oscar and close friends.
When she arrived at Wellesley my sophomore year, I could tell Debra Chasnoff was special, so special I told her that I thought she needed a more unique name. She became Chas for the rest of her life. What I didn’t know was that same young woman, bopping through the halls of Pomeroy in her earth shoes, with her wonderfully big hair and great laugh, would later inspire my own parenting journey or that we would become lifelong friends.
While I knew Chas was very special, I didn’t know she would become nationally known as an Academy Award-winning and visionary filmmaker, an LGBTQ rights champion, and a social justice educator and change agent.
Chas was vibrant, courageous, collaborative and extremely loveable in her friendships, in her parenting, in founding GroundSpark, in leading New Day Films co-op, in her acceptance of numerous awards and accolades and in taking on the conservative right’s opposition to showing her LGBT-friendly films in schools.
She used film to tell stories in order to change the world on issues that were important to her. Her first film, Choosing Children (1985) showed a generation of LGBT folks they could become parents. Her Academy Award-winning Deadly Deception—General Electric Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment (1991) encouraged GE to abandon nuclear weapons production. She also made history when accepting the Academy Award as she thanked her same-sex partner—a first in 1992. Through GroundSpark’s Respect for All series, Chas created tools for educators, parents and youth to talk about LGBT issues, bullying, gender conformity, and the importance of understanding experiences different from one’s own – exactly what the world needs most right now.
In 2009, Wellesley’s Art Department and Cinema and Media Studies Program honored Chas with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Documentary Filmmaking. In the Wellesley Magazine article featuring Chas, she credited Wellesley for incubating her activism. She participated in the successful anti-apartheid campaign which prodded the college to divest from countries doing business in South Africa. She worked on campus cafeterias to boycott Nestle products for marketing infant formula overseas. In the article, she recalled “It was very empowering for me to see the power of activism to help change big institutional practices.”
I never imagined that just seven weeks after Chas’ 60th birthday, hundreds of friends, colleagues and family would join together at a very moving memorial service and celebration of her life in the hills of Marin County at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center. Memorial contributions can be made to the Center or to GroundSpark to support Chas’ final film on her journey with cancer. For more about Chas’ films and activism, check out these tributes and obituaries: The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Windy City Times, and The Advocate.