Her Death Incites Me


by Karen Topakian

Yesterday, I attended the memorial of one more lesbian friend who moved mountains. Debra Chasnoff. I didn’t know her well or for very long. But I did know she put her curiosity and interests into her films, whether she tackled – nuclear weapons, promoting respect and equity in the classroom or LGBTQ issues. She went behind the camera to learn, explore, reveal and investigate. Debra even earned an Oscar for doing so. She showed the lives of lesbians, in a way others had forgotten, overlooked or shunned by opening up our loves, stresses and challenges for others to enter, learn and, hopefully, respect.

She didn’t shy away from the tough subjects or the sharp rebukes. She faced fear, however it arrived. And most recently it arrived as breast cancer, a deadly fear for many women. She embraced the disease by filming it. In a twist, she became the subject of her film.

She followed into the next world in the footsteps of another fallen giant – Barbara Brenner, world leader as a policy advocate and activist for women living with breast cancer. She wrote the heck out of her ALS diagnosis, treatments, and struggles in blog called Healthy Barbs. A sharp commentator, always on the side of the patient, the consumer, the survivor.

When I think of these two women’s lives and careers dedicated to social justice, I must add two other friends who, too passed away well before their time but still accomplished so much – Eileen Hansen and Carla Johnson.

Eileen’s birthdate of May 1st signifies how she spent her life – devoted to people left out and left behind. Working literally tirelessly for peace and justice at home and abroad from her years as a policy advocate for people globally living with HIV/AIDs to running local political campaigns for progressive candidates whose vision would address issues of inequity and injustice

And finally to Carla Johnson, an advocate for designing San Francisco buildings, events, websites and services for people with disabilities. A true believer in going above and beyond, Carla again worked tirelessly to meet the needs of people with disabilities.

I marvel at my friends’ accomplishments and will re-dedicate myself to reach higher. Face my fears. Give more. Fight back, nonviolently, of course. And never waver in the quest for freedom and justice for all.