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Not the Typical Wedding Video: Two Women Exchange Vows : 'Chicks in White Satin' could receive an Oscar for best short documentary at Monday's Academy Awards.

March 17, 1994|JAMES GILDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and a few grandparents wereassembled in a half circle around a television and videocassette recorder in a large meeting room at the Ventura Church of the Foothills.

This eclectic group of about 40 ran the gamut from freshly scrubbed twentysomethings to at least one octogenarian. In the center of the proceedings were Harold and Suzanne Stern of Camarillo.

It was the video of their daughter Debra's wedding that was first on the evening's playlist. Shot by Elaine Holliman, a student filmmaker from USC, the film is more than just a standard wedding video.

Holliman's documentary skillfully guides the viewer through the evolution of the relationship. The young couple speak to the camera about their decision to wed and about breaking the news to family members, who are also interviewed. The camera captures the couple as they prepare for the wedding: registering at The Broadway, writing invitations, going through premarital counseling with the rabbi. The denouement is, of course, the ceremony and reception.

Harold and Suzanne play featured roles in the film as the parents of one of the brides. They beam proudly at the end when the audience breaks into applause.

"Chicks in White Satin" is the title of Holliman's film. It has screened at the recent Sundance Film Festival and the Berlin Film Festival, and could receive an Oscar for best short documentary at the Academy Awards on Monday. Disney's Hollywood Pictures is even negotiating to turn it into a feature film.

It is an atypical wedding video certainly because of the professional quality and because of the critical attention it is attracting. But it is also atypical in that it is about two women--Debra Stern-Ellis, a Camarillo High School graduate, and her partner, Heidi Stern-Ellis--who decide to formalize their eight-year relationship by getting married.

Harold and Suzanne Stern are sharing the film this night with fellow members of the Ventura County Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), a support group of parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, children, friends and anyone struggling with the often difficult discovery that someone they love is gay or lesbian. Their meetings are held the first Tuesday evening of the month at the Church of the Foothills and are strictly confidential.

Marriage between two people of the same sex is not legally recognized in California. There are, however, eight municipalities in the state, including Los Angeles, West Hollywood and Laguna Beach, that offer some degree of recognition for same-sex unions.

There are no such municipalities in Ventura County, according to Neil Demers-Grey, president of the Unity Pride Coalition, a human rights group in Ventura County.

"We put this issue before the cities of Ventura County, proposing a redefinition of the term family to include domestic partnership rights for city employees" in January, 1993, said Demers-Grey.

There was no response from nine of the cities, he said. And from Ventura, the 10th, he received a letter signed by Ventura City Manager John Baker stating that monetary concerns prevented the city from changing benefits for any employee group.

For many gay and lesbian couples, the lack of support they receive from their communities is just a larger echo of what they have grown to expect from their families.

"I love my daughter unconditionally," said Suzanne Stern during a seminar recently in Thousand Oaks. "But that doesn't mean I said, 'Oh great!' when she told me she was gay."

The path traveled by Suzanne Stern, who is now eager to accept her daughter's sexuality, was not without pain.

Suzanne was almost 40 years old and Harold was nearly 50 when Debra was born. She is their only child, although each has children from previous marriages.

"I didn't know how I and everyone else in the family was going to handle this," said Suzanne.

Debra was attending UC Santa Barbara at the time she disclosed her sexuality to her mother. She scheduled an appointment with a psychologist in Santa Barbara to help her mother deal with some of the inevitable feelings and emotions such a pronouncement can create.

Suzanne came around soon after, but father Harold, a deeply religious man and a practicing Jew, had still not been told. And he was not to know for another three years.

"The first time she told me I said, 'Oh, well, it's your life, if that's the way you want to live,' " said Harold. "Then I went home and really stewed about it for a few weeks. (The next time I saw her) boy, I let her have it!"

"With both barrels," said Suzanne.

"I don't even remember all the things I said," said Harold. "But then I started reading about sexual orientation and learning about it."

"And we talked . . . and we talked . . . and talked, and I said, 'Harold, I'm not going to lose her,' " said Suzanne.

And the two found their way to the Ventura County chapter of PFLAG, in search of other parents of gays and lesbians who understood what the Sterns were going through.

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