Out filmmaker Deborah S. Esquenazi on telling the story of wrongfully imprisoned Latina lesbians

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Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four is one of the most moving documentaries I’ve seen in a while. The film looks at the story of four lesbian friends, Elizabeth “Liz” RamirezKristie MayhughCassandra “Cassie” Rivera and Anna Vasquez, who got caught up in the “satanic panic” that ran amuck in the American justice system in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

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I recently chatted with the film’s out director, Deborah S. Esquenazi. She explained how she got involved with the women’s case, how coming out to them helped the filmmaking process, what the public can do for the women as they continue their legal battle and much, much more.

AfterEllen.com: How did you get tipped off to this story?

Deborah S. Esquenazi: So my journalism mentor, basically. My colleague and friend from New York when I started off as a reporter is a woman named Debbie Nathan. Debbie Nathan is well known for writing this incredible book called Satan’s Silence. It was sort of the primer on the cultural hysteria that we now call the satanic sexual abuse panic of the ‘80s and ‘90s that formed in the United States and traveled to other parts of the English-speaking world.

Deb Nathan said, “I have this case. It’s haunted me since I wrote the book and I think I’m going to advocate for it, and I’d love for you to take a look at it now that you’re back in Texas.” It was really hard for me to take it because I was still in the closet. But one of the things that Deb said to me, and because she was a really dear friend and my mentor, was like, “You should really take a look at this because this could be you” kind of thing.

I read the discovery, I read the trial transcripts, I read the medical evidence, and it was pretty startling. And then after I really got to know the discovery material, I spoke to the Innocence Project and around that time is when, a little bit later, I got access into the prisons, which was really hard to do because, try to get access into a Texas prison. But I met the women and they’re just remarkable. I really mean that. They are remarkable people.

 

AE: Along the journey, did you eventually become convinced that it made even more sense for you to help tell their story because you’re also gay?

DSE: Yeah, and let me clarify the reason why that tension existed. Part of taking this case that was really unnerving to me was the issue of child sex abuse. It’s a very sensitive topic and my first reaction was to say, “Oh my gosh, that is really sensitive and that is obviously an issue.” It’s not an issue in this case because we know kind of what happened and I read the discovery. But my resistance in taking it was the kind of fear that exists that people look at us as if we’re sexual predators, like lurking to harm children. Part of my coming out fear was how my family, who have children, would react. Now I’m a mother. Now I have a wife and I’m a mother to a two-year-old, and it kills me–it kills me that some people feel this way because we know, the evidence is so clear, that being gay or gay-identified has nothing to do with child sex abuse.

I came out to the women before I came out to my own mother. I would walk into this space and I would ask these women to be so vulnerable to me, and then suddenly I would leave and I’d be back in the closet. The shame of that was really at some points quite overwhelming. It did force me to confront my own internalized homophobia. And then one day I did come out and then I rebuilt my life that way. But it definitely empowered me and it made me feel much stronger.

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AE: Do you think coming out to them changed the rest of the filmmaking experience?

DSE: Somebody at Tribeca when we opened the film, an audience member asked that of the women. They said, “Was it easier to let me into their lives because they knew I was gay?” It’s really interesting because I would’ve said, “I don’t think so.” But they did say, “Yes, of course.” Because they had been reviled by the media and to have somebody who–quote, unquote–is part of this juggernaut called the media, which I’m not, but you know what I mean. They felt like they could really open up and that there wasn’t that big of a risk because I was queer.

 

AE: What’s the support from the LGBT community been like for these women?

DSE: What we did is we took the raw footage when I was making the film, and this is after the recantation, and we would hold these raw screenings with just a bunch of queer folks throughout the state. Part of the reason why I think there started to be a kind of mainstream buzz–like The New York Times wrote a piece, Forbes magazine did something about the women’s case before they were released–I believe, fundamentally in my heart, that it was because of these grassroots screenings that even the mainstream press started to take a listen.

It was the ‘90s, and not to mention–here’s the other thing: these women weren’t exactly tuned in. They were sort of in the closet, but they were mostly preoccupied with their defense.

 

AE: So tell me, how did the “satanic panic” specifically target homosexuals and those perceived to be homosexual?

DSE: A lot of it is kind of overwhelmingly gender-based. They did target men. But I would say that it’s not just about being queer. It’s about being a woman. It’s about being these clusters of women, which if you are a person with kind of an ill mind who doesn’t understand sexuality and identity and you’re wanting to create these sort of witch hunts, sexuality is a way to diminish the authenticity of these people.

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