Becoming a better Chaz

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday May 18, 2011
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(Illustration: Christine Smith)
(Illustration: Christine Smith)

I grew up with a television in much the same way those growing up today have the Internet. I can relay plot points from long-forgotten sitcoms and cop dramas in ways that hardly fill me with pride. I can rattle off meaningless facts like the number of Twilight Zone episodes Jack Klugman was in – four – let alone which 1970s-era celebrity game show featured his wife (Match Game).

Like many of my generation, too, I was alive during the era of the televised variety show. This television throwback would put its hosts in the unenviable position of having to do something – anything – to be entertaining for a half hour or hour. I watched Donnie and Marie Osmond crooning about how country and how rock 'n roll they were, and watched Carol Burnett tug her ear more times than I care to admit. I even sat through Robert Shields and Lorene Yarnell's variety show. They were professional mimes, of all things.

One of the biggest of the genre was Sonny and Cher. Sonny Bono and his then wife, Cher, turned a modest music career and their number 1 single, I Got You Babe , into an eventual variety show called The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. The show was a hit until its end, when the couple divorced. Sonny Bono, who went on to Congress, died in a 1998 skiing accident.

Smart readers have already seen where I'm going here.

In between the controversy of Cher's exposed belly button on national television, and the eventual implosion of their show during their divorce, the couple had trotted their adorable, blonde-haired child out. Decades later, their child would be outed as lesbian and then – in 2008 – Chaz Salvatore Bono would become tabloid fodder.

Bono recently released a documentary about his gender transition, called Becoming Chaz. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year, and last week aired on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Those of my generation – and before, for I was still of Saturday morning cartoon age during the run of The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour – remember Bono pre-transition. Indeed, I doubt there has been a trans person to have a more public transition since Christine Jorgensen's in 1952. I think it would be fair to state that Bono's transition has been the most visible female-to-male transition.

This is both a blessing and a curse.

Stories of gender transition in the public consciousness have long been dominated by male-to-female stories. Since Lili Elbe in 1931 and the much better known Jorgensen, one can see a nearly unbroken litany of MTF stories. Jan Morris, Renee Richards, Caroline Cossey, Jennifer Boylan, and many others have certainly become better known than FTM contemporaries like Lou Sullivan, Loren Cameron, or Jamison Green. Those who opt outside of gender binaries, such as Les Feinberg, end up even less known by society at large.

With Bono, this changes. Much like Jorgensen defined the male-to-female transsexual experience – and, frankly, transgender identity as a whole in the eyes of the public – Bono is now the face of female-to-male transsexuals.

In the public eye, this means that one may finally move past the phallocentricism that has sat in the middle of the popular view of transsexuals: it no longer becomes about "cutting one's penis off," but has to become somewhat more nuanced. Or at least I can hope it will.

On the down side, anything Bono says becomes emblematic about female-to-male transsexuals. Much like Richards's difficult statements about transsexuality over the last few years – likely stemming out of bitterness over the toll the publicity took on her – Bono will find additional weight placed on what he says.

Indeed, Bono has already caused many to raise an eyebrow, claiming "biological differences" – and his use of testosterone – have caused him to lose his "tolerance for women." As more than a few have rightfully pointed out, that isn't hormones, that's simple misogyny, perhaps coupled with the need to "push back" against your birth gender in order to feel more a man.

I've known far too many male-to-female transwomen who – often in the earlier part of their transitions – become virulent man-haters. Perhaps it is something people feel especially driven to do in order to establish their preferred gender – I don't know. When this plays out as nationwide tabloid spectacle, however, it harms all.

There have been other arguments, about how referring to transgenderism as a "birth defect" harms transgender people, for example, or the need by Bono to reinforce his identity based on the old tropes of liking sports as a child – as if women themselves cannot somehow enjoy sports without really being male.

Chaz, if you do read this column, please take this to heart:

It is a hard place to be in, when you are still trying to establish yourself as male in a world of people like me who remember the child you were on the set of a variety show. I know I had enough trouble getting people to respect and understand my transition within my circle of friends and family. I cannot fully comprehend having to explain this to a whole generation of people and the public at large.

I'm not saying you need to be a saint – none of us are – but do consider that until the next big transition story comes along, you are the one that the popular media is going to point to as the example, and you are the one that scores of young transgender people will look too.

There are those of us out there who accept you at face value, and hope you will continue to grow. Become Chaz, yes – but become a better Chaz.

Gwen Smith is glad she did not transition in the tabloids. You can find her on the web at