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Why Chaz Matters

Why Chaz Matters

It was the fastest anyone has ever come out trans.  Within moments of TMZ’s June 11 announcement, emails, text messages, tweets and retweets zipped the news around the globe: Cher’s daughter Chasity Bono, was transitioning from lesbian to male.

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It was the fastest anyone has ever come out trans.  Within moments of TMZ’s June 11 announcement, emails, text messages, tweets and retweets zipped the news around the globe: Cher’s daughter Chasity Bono, was transitioning from lesbian to male.

Introduced as a toddler on The Sonny & CherShow and appearing on a People cover by age seven, Chaz Bono is the first person to come out trans after growing up in front of the camera.  In doing so, he may have catapulted transgender people into the territory Ellen DeGeneres took lesbians with her, “Yep, I’m gay,” cover of Time magazine. 

The kind of public life Bono has led cements the connection we feel to celebrities; and grants them greater impact on American perceptions and values than a dozens of everyday activists.

He is the first pop culture figure to come out as a trans man and he’s doing it in classic celebrity style: having a publicist release a statement (thus thwarting tabloid rumors and controlling spin) and then retiring to a private retreat to complete his metamorphosis.

Through spokesman Howard Bragman, Bono has said he hopes his “choice to transition will open the hearts and minds of the public regarding this issue.”  And there’s a good chance it will, despite concerns about how his coming out is being reported.

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In Chaz Bono: What the Media is Missing in its CoverageNational Gay and Lesbian Task Force senior policy analyst, Somjen Frazer, argues that media coverage of Bono’s coming out “has, like most other coverage of transgender people, been largely negative and sensationalist.” 

Frazer is right: by refusing to use male pronouns and focusing on surgery as the defining moment when the “sex change” occurs, some media outlets have demonstrated complete ignorance about the trans experience and what transitioning entails.  Despite last year’s obsession with Thomas Beatie (aka “the  pregnant man”) it seems some people haven’t figured out that genital surgery isn’t necessary for someone to look, act or live as a man.

At the same time, I think it’s important to acknowledge just how far media coverage has evolved in the 15 years since Bono publically came out as a lesbian.  Back then, the mainstream media response was universally virolent and even Cher admits she “flipped out” and initially banished Bono from their Manhattan home.

Juxtapositioning Cher’s response then and her public support of Bono’s transition now demonstrates the evolution many parents of LGBT children go through—from their initial, often shocked, reaction to one of tolerance and support. 

American Academy of Pediatrics recently published a San Francisco State University based study demonstrating that negative family reactions radically increases the likelihood LGBT youth will face severe depression, illegal drug use and attempted suicide.  But, Caitlin Ryan, head researcher with the university’s Family Acceptance Project contends that even faltering steps by parents to accept their children’s sexual orientation or gender identity can go a long way. Cher’s support of Bono is a shining example of how a parent can respond to such unexpected announcements.  

Meanwhile, some media outlets are following suit, covering Bono’s transition in a positive light and even using the news to address broader LGBT issues.  For example, TMZ—hardly the bastion of journalistic integrity—reported, Chaz Bono can do something as a man which she could never do as a woman in California—marry her partner. Exact same person—totally different result. Go figure.”

As a relatively stable individual, Bono also has a great opportunity to show mainstream America that trans people can be just like everyone else. But there are other lessons in his public life as well.  First, it demonstrates clearly how embracing one’s transgender identity can be a long and circuitous journey, one that can lead to excursions through the gay and lesbian community. 

While more and more children are publicly announcing and embracing their transgender identity at earlier ages, many late blooming trans guys—myself included—struggle for decades with these feelings, taking a detour through lesbo-land, a place so accepting of gender variance that it can eventually (and rather ironically) give us the confidence to accept our true selves.

That path can be muddling for many LGB and straight people, making it harder to discriminate gender identity and sexual orientation, an issue that people find more confounding when trans people comes out gay or lesbian.

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For some lesbians, Bono’s transition fuels fears that the lesbian community is at risk, that after so many high profile defections (Patrick Califia, Leslie Feinberg, Shannon Minter, et al) that butches are endangered species, fading into extinction until all that remains of the lesbian community are femmes—many of whom (the argument goes) will be dating those same lesbi-defectors. 

Unfortunately, in the LGBTQ community, we often don’t address these fears.  Many of us are too afraid of appearing close-minded or transphobic by openly admitting concerns about the changing face of the lesbian community.  That leaves Bono’s announcement to spark a sort of town hall meeting in the tweetosphere where we can project our issues onto Bono and his public-private transition.

So while Bono’s news was met with mixed, yet primarily positive, reaction among queer women, we’re all watching to see what comes next. Clearly, it’s not a zero sum game and not every former lesbian turned trans guy walks away from the queer community.

Reaching out from his self-imposed seclusion, Bono demonstrated that point loud and clear when he made a surprise appearance on the June 24 National Center for Transgender Equality conference call, joining other activists to urge support for the current ENDA legislation fighting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender expression.  

In doing so Bono showed he hasn’t forgotten where he came from; and his lesbian past will continue to influence his political future—and ours.

Trans journalist Jacob Anderson-Minshall wrote the syndicated column, TransNation (2004-2009) and co-hosts the radio show, Gender Blender, on kboo.fm. 

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Jacob Anderson-Minshall