Who Chaz Bono Is Not

Chaz Bono dancingI’ve had it. I gave Chaz Bono’s interview with The New York Times a tired, jaundiced eye because there was a lot of gender stereotyping going on in his comments, and at the time it reminded me of other problematic things I’ve heard transfolk say when the spotlight is upon them. But I freely admit that a lot  of this is about the questions culturally incompetent people ask (read: I don’t think David Letterman has any training in which questions to avoid asking trans-identified people), and the stress of coming up with responses on the spot. Given the documentary that focused on Chaz’s transition, and Chaz’s gracefulness during the Dancing with the Stars competition—in which people have questioned his manhood, his fitness, and his dance skills—I’d say Chaz is treading more carefully now, repeatedly speaking about listening to his elders in transition/transitude, and more importantly, speaking only for himself. I dare say it’s a level of diplomacy that Thomas Beatie, a.k.a. “the pregnant man” has not shown himself capable.

Certainly, I didn’t have high hopes for the national response to Chaz as a transsexual, but even skeptical moi is surprised at the intensity of the vitriol and resentment.

  1. People have called for children to be banned from the television live audience because Chaz is a participant. Personally, I’d rather they have limited access to Nancy Grace, boob reveal or no boob reveal. Fox News went so far as to write that Chaz was someone who was taking “hormones to appear to be a man,” in its charge against children watching the show. Because there’s no such thing as transgender kids, and no need for role models, right? Shame on you, Fox News.
  2. Ignorant transphobes have taken to piling comments on ABC’s Web site, citing their anger over his inclusion. Fortunately, his mom Cher put them in their place.
  3. In talking about his performances for DWTS, in which he openly discusses his knee pain, one Fox News personality asked why he hasn’t yet had knee surgery. “Hasn’t he had surgery on everything else?”
  4. A feminist publication openly wonders why trans men like Chaz get all the glory while trans women just get mocked and never find celebrity (I guess you don’t exist, Kate Bornstein and Calpernia Addams).
  5. Ultra conservatives in California, discombobulated by the recently passed education law that will include the contributions of LGBT people in the state’s textbooks, are using Chaz as an example of why the law should be repealed.

Enough is enough. Chaz is one person, and it is intellectually impoverished to castigate him because of his trans status, his weight, his celebrity, the age at which he began transition, and his freaking knee surgery status. Seriously. Some of these attacks are from so far afield I begin wondering what it’s all about.

In a climate in which media continually reinforce polarizing interpretations of current events and popular culture, any individual on the margins taken up by that media necessarily must be forced to reinforce those lines of tension. There are no human interest stories, except those told by Bob Costas during the Olympics; there is only the “what does this mean for” question peppered at us, which seems to only come back with an answer of “it’s a threat.” I think Steven Colbert does a good job of taking on the fear-mongering, but so far he’s not taken up the transphobia around Chaz.

In conversation with this laziness in media reporting, is a now longstanding tendency to give a microphone to conservative commentators, in part because of the right’s challenge that the journalism industry is left-biased. It’s not surprising that groups like the Family Research Council would try to leverage Chaz’s known quantity in its challenge to California’s Fair Education Act, but it does take me back a little that their messaging is not called to the carpet by the press as the bald-faced bigotry that it is.

After eight years since I started my own transition, I’ve come to the conclusion that the popular idea in the US to “be yourself” is itself a facade. If we limit our identities to the clothing we can consume and the occupations we presume we can enter, then that goes to the economic engine of our country, and all is good. But once we stretch beyond assumptions about gender, class mobility, cultural awareness, our lives as sexual adults, then the be yourself mantra wears thin fast. Anything that makes us call into question those assumptions can expect significant pushback, and often, pressure in one area begins a cascade into others. Thinking about gender transition ties into sexual orientation, just as people from different races and ethnicities transition with racialized expectations as part of their process. More than one person has told me not to grow a beard, for example, for fear that my Lebanese body will look too much like a terrorist. (Ironically, I still can’t grow a full beard.)

I don’t appreciate the dishonesty of be yourself, certainly, but more than that I despise its persistence as a mantra we tell ourselves. And I’m frustrated that those of us on the margins have other people’s anger thrown at us when all we’re doing is trying to live that mantra.

Chaz didn’t use his transsexualism to gain celebrity; rather, he grew up in the limelight between two superstars, both of whom had public reservations about his prior lesbian status. Cher later expressed concern about his decision to transition, although I’m happy she’s since come around. But for Chaz, there wasn’t much space for him to transition away from the morning talk shows and ignorant opinions. Certainly Alexis Arquette would receive misinformed opinions right and left if she were on DWTS instead of her brother, David. If what Chaz is receiving is about his trans status and not him per se, then perhaps we can take a step back and ask some more direct, rigorous questions about why we’re so okay with mocking trans people. And with letting our popular culture and news outlets frame the conversation in such offensive terms.

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Categories: Pop Culture, popular culture, Uncategorized

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4 Comments on “Who Chaz Bono Is Not”

  1. October 7, 2011 at 5:58 pm #

    Very well put.
    I especially appreciate the fact that Chaz grew up in the spotlight, the child of two huge celebrities. His transgender status is not the reason for his fame; there are many trans people without fame who never have to face the public vitriol.

    • evmaroon
      October 7, 2011 at 6:02 pm #

      Definitely, transitioning away from the public eye is no cakewalk; what I’m pointing to here is that it’s misguided to heap anger onto Chaz as a transgender person who gets a lot of media attention. He can’t not get media attention, right? And I honestly don’t get that he’s trying to get attention because he’s trans. It’s a hard line to walk, but he’s managing it!

  2. October 8, 2011 at 1:03 pm #

    Honestly, that’s such a privileged thing. You know, where people hold up a single example of a group and demand that one person shoulder the entire burden of representation, and shoulder it while always appearing as humble as an ascetic monk, as chaste and modest as the most pious nun. We distrust actors, television, the media, even as we consume all of those things constantly. So people go ahead and take their transphobia and frame it like that. Oh well, I just don’t like attention whores, as if a person loses all humanity the minute a camera is pointed at them and they are now a thing, an object to be ridiculed with no consequences. No. What they don’t like is trans people. What they don’t like is questioning their world view. It’s just more acceptable for them to take shots at the celebrity angle to hide their bigotry. (also what’s a better example of be yourself being superficial than the medically controlled transition process? Be yourself….as long as you are traditionally masculine/feminine enough to pass our hetero standards. Beg for your hormones dammit! Beg!)

    • evmaroon
      October 8, 2011 at 6:16 pm #

      Without entering into a whole discussion on celebrity, which is valuable in its own right, it just seems beyond ludicrous to me that people think ridiculing anyone like this is fair game. He’s not criminal, misusing political office, etc., but moralism is funny that way; people and the media feel free to justify mocking others. When it gets to the point that Chaz’s visage is used to rally the troops against including LGBT people in school curricula, I start to lose my sh*t.

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