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The Chaz Project: Gender, Celebrity And The Emergence Of An FTM Activist

May 17, 2011, 8:49 pm

Chaz Bono, with Billie Fitzpatrick, Transition:  The Story of How I Became A Man (New York:  Dutton, 2011).  244 pages.  Illustrations, index. $25.95.

Becoming Chaz (Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, 2010).  88 minutes.  Premiered at Sundance Festival and on the Oprah Winfrey Network (May 10 2011).

Famous people live in bubbles; the children of famous people also live in bubbles, and benefit much less from the experience.  Witness Chaz, the only child of Salvatore “Sonny” Bono and Cherilyn Sarkisian, otherwise known as Cher. One of the many criticisms that will doubtless emerge about Chaz Bono’s revised history, one that centers his gender transition and his new life as an embodied man, will be some version of this: how can a person who has had access to every possible advantage represent himself as an average transman?  To this I have two answers:

Everyone’s life is worth saving, no matter how rich his parents are, and;

One of the ways that rich people are different is that their books get published and distributed widely when other, equally good or better, books do not.  Get used to it.

Timed to come out together, Transition and Becoming Chaz, tell Chaz’s story about his journey to a fully male identity.  They are part of an activist project, in which Chaz hopes to use his fame to reach out to other people who may be struggling with their own or a loved one’s gender transition and promote tolerance towards queerly gendered people.  They are also a long-term public relations project, through which Chaz has struggled to represent himself rather than be represented by the tabloid press.  Together, for those of us who are more up to speed on trans politics and trans studies, these newly released accounts of Bono tell us less about the world of gender politics and gender transition technology than they tell us about the world of celebrity.

However, those who simply take celebrity for granted and know bupkis about transgender or transsexual lives may learn some things they need to know.  For example:

  • Kids who grow up into people who want to transition have very active inner lives that are gendered differently from the way their bodies present.
  • Puberty stinks even worse for trans people than it does for cisgendered people.
  • People who transition from female to male may initially come out as butch lesbians (but not all butch lesbians identify as trans.)
  • Parents often do not respond well to gender transition.
  • Girlfriends who appear to be on board with gender transition can still be self-centered and mean.  Sometimes they bail out.
  • Injectable testosterone works faster than Androgel.
  • Lots of psychotherapy is recommended. 
  • Having lots of gay friends doesn’t necessarily make a person sophisticated when it comes to actually having a queer kid.  (Cher is an excellent example of this:  did I say that lots of psychotherapy is recommended?  And Sonny, who seemed not to care that he had a queer kid, then cosponsored the Defense of Marriage Act.)
  • Having lots of psychotherapy, a big book contract, and the admiration of thousands of transmen doesn’t mean that when people call you fat, weird and ugly; or make sexist, homophobic and transphobic jokes at your expense, it doesn’t hurt.  A lot. (Editorial clarification:  Chaz has always been attractive, but in his new incarnation has an inner confidence and a sunny smile that makes him about as good or better looking as any other middle-aged Italian American guy.)

OK, so for those of you who knew fewer than five of the things I listed above, you should go read the book. If you have limited time, are only interested in the FTM part of Chaz’s life story, and are curious about the nature of celebrity, I would say watch the movie.  The first two-thirds of the book are a revision of Chaz’s coming-out-as-a-lesbian story (which someone of my age might recall was pretty awful) that accounts for his male identity.  It also includes a survey of Chaz’s descent into drug abuse, which is a cautionary tale worth reading.  Having known several people who became addicted to drugs like Vicodin and Oxycontin, this actually can happen to anyone. Chaz was getting legal scrips for so much high-dosage Oxy that he had to go to a hospital pharmacy to get them filled, and even the pharmacists did not bat an eye, much less call the DEA or the California medical licensing board.

I am not sure whether it will matter to you, but:  there are better books about trans lives out there, and if you follow the links in this post, you will find them.  Chaz speaks only for himself but, in trying to reach a far broader audience (in what has to be a rudimentary general education project if it is to succeed in Omaha as well as in Los Angeles), the book tends not to be very aware of its own limitations.  Chief among these are the essentialist story it tells about gender, the book’s main preoccupation; and its failure to address class, age and race.  Transitioning to a male body and a male social identity are quite different experiences for different people, as are the life histories that lead up to these transitions.  Although there are common themes, transmen have very different life stories, as do transwomen.  Generation matters: there are a significant number of people, particularly very young ones, for whom challenging gender as a system of power means living between or outside categories as a genderqueer person.  So Chaz’s story is the 100-level course.  If you want the 200 level course, go to Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, The Transgender Studies Reader (Routledge:  2006); if you want a better memoir, and one that tells the MTF story where our heroine gets to keep the girl and the kids, my favorite is Jennifer Finney Boylan, She’s Not There:  A Life In Two Genders (Broadway Books, 2003).

Which brings us to class.  While having access to lots of money hasn’t made Chaz’s life a happy one (one might argue the opposite, in fact), the book has nothing to say about the vast number of trans kids who are entirely without resources, even to feed, clothe or house themselves.  It is a sad fact that most people in America are poo
r, whether they are gender normative or not.  It is a sadder fact that vast numbers of gender non-conforming youth are bullied at school, abused by their families, and end up on the streets fending for themselves.  Many of these kids, particular male-bodied trans kids, are sex workers, as their foremothers were.

It is also the case that Chaz appears to be choosing trans children as his issue, having been a neglected and abused child himself, and it may be that as an activist he begins to hone in on the cross-class dimensions of this issue as well as the surgical abuse of intersexed children. Childhood was a bad time for Chaz, and while his boyishness is the part of that story that is central to the book, he was alternately cherished and neglected.  He  suffered emotional abuse from one nanny in particular, who terrorized him when his mother was absent for large stretches of time. While we don’t get details about his upbringing that stray far from the gender story, Chaz seems to go out of his way to understand and account for his parents’ lapses, and being a victim of the press himself, is probably kinder to them than they deserve. 

One result of parental neglect was that Sonny and Cher failed to notice that their child went to any number of schools but didn’t really learn to do anything except to be a public person:  everything else he has taught himself.  In a way this doesn’t seem odd, given Sonny and Cher’s route to success.  Cher was singing professionally at 16 when she teamed up with her 27 year-old partner, and my guess is that one or both were high school dropouts. Chaz was repeatedly pulled out of school by Cher to accommodate her career, and allowed to make his own decisions about whether and where he attended school (this meant living in New York with friends and attending the High School for Performing Arts) by the time he was fourteen.  While Chaz returned to college in mid-life, his only real work — other than three years of trying to break into the music business — has been to use his celebrity to do political advocacy, mostly for GLBT rights.

Don’t imagine that Transition will give you many insights into the inner life of a transman the way lesser-known, but more complex, autobiographies like Jamison Green’s Becoming a Visible Man (Vanderbilt,  2004) and Max Wolf Valerio’s The Testosterone Files (Seal Press, 2006) will.  The story Chaz has to tell is a carefully crafted one that is intended to educate, but not to reveal much about who he really is or what he really feels. Because of this, the most affecting moments are not in the book, but in Becoming Chaz when we watch Bono watching his mother in the well-orchestrated television appearances and interviews that are designed to voice her support for him.  And yet, even then, she can’t seem to bring herself to refer to Chaz with male pronouns.  Like, ever.  Which is a little strange given the fact that she is an actress.  The expression on Chaz’s face as Cher “forgets” her lines, over and over, is unforgettable, as is his rush to forgive her for doing so.  Nothing in the book is so ambivalent or complex as these moments when gender is temporarily displaced by the drama of the celebrity child.

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