’Becoming Chaz’ Documents Celeb’s Trans Journey

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday May 10, 2011

The journey from Chastity Bono to Chaz has been arduous--and public. "Becoming Chaz," a documentary about Chaz Bono's transition from woman to man is set to premiere tonight on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), The Day.com reported on May 10.

Bono, 42, also has a new book out.

The new doc "details his breast-removal surgery, interactions with (mostly supportive) family members and relationship with his fiancée, Jenny," the article reported. "Interviews with his mother make it clear that Cher--one of the world's top entertainers--is still struggling with her son's decision, not to mention which pronouns to use in referring to him."

Bono has recorded an interview with Oprah Winfrey for her talk show. The segment airs on May 16. The Chaz documentary is meant to serve as a springboard for documentaries on the talk host's cable channel, said the film's co-creator, Fenton Bailey, the Day article said.

"The goal and intention is for Oprah to do for docs what she's done for books," said Bailey.

Many trans individuals say that they identified as a member of the opposite sex at extremely early ages. Bono's memoir, "Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man" describes a similar story, with a young Chastity Bono reluctant to dress like a girl.

Being the child of two showbiz starts, Chastity was not able to undertake the transition to manhood without it becoming public knowledge. "I couldn't do it privately," Bono said. "So I could either have done it [without making any public comment] and other people would have written about it, and it wouldn't be the truth. Or I could do it myself and try to help people and put a face on an issue people don't understand."

Added Bono, "This journey wasn't just about transitioning; it was a journey of coming to understand myself, learning how to take care of myself, putting my fears away, and putting my needs as a priority instead of concerning myself with what everyone else thought."

"There are few transgender storylines in entertainment media," the head of GLAAD, Jarrett Barrios, said. "And even fewer where the story is told fully and fairly, so that the public understands why someone chooses to transition and what they're hoping for."

Barrios went on to lament that trans individuals are still largely "invisible," and to laud Bono. "Here you've got a well-known celebrity who transitioned and who chose to open up his life to the world. I think it's extraordinarily generous of Chaz."

Bono broke the news through a publicist in 2009 that he would be transitioning. The announcement raised the profile on a poorly understood phenomenon in which individuals born with the physical characteristics of one gender experience a deep and persistent conviction that they actually belong to the other gender.

Gender identification that contradicts physical characteristics is also sometimes observable in individuals who are born intersex, which is to say, with both male and female genitalia. In such cases, or when a child is born with indeterminate genitalia, surgery is often performed to "assign" the child a specific gender.

Men who identify as females are more commonplace than women identifying as men, and the surgical and hormone treatment options for physical transition from one gender to the other are easier, relatively speaking, for those undertaking to change their male bodies to female in order to correspond with the gender with which they identify.

Celebrities have transitioned before, but this time the public may be more ready to hear about, and learn about, the issue.

Bono's announcement prompted a June 18 article at LiveScience.com, which took the opportunity to educate readers on the subject.

The LiveScience article noted that sex, sexuality, and gender are all specific terms relating to specific ideas and meanings, but that the three are often used interchangeably.

Explained Seton Hall University professor C. Lynn Carr, "Sex is the biological," meaning the person's physical characteristics. By contrast, "gender is the social," as in gender roles and expectations: boys wear blue and girls wear pink.

And "sexuality is the erotic," Carr added, meaning whether a person is gay, straight, bisexual, or other.

The public, and even some academics, become confused when thinking about these notions in ways that may be unfamiliar to them. For example, some might assume that a person with a male body seeking to transition to a female physique must be homosexual--which, in their reckoning, means that he's a man who is sexually attracted to other men.

But some males who identify as female and wish to live in a woman's body are actually attracted to women. Does that make them "male lesbians?" At this point, Western society is not as yet equipped semantically or culturally to know quite how to think about such issues. But other societies have long made room for a wider understanding of gender; in some cultures, there can be up to five options for gender identification.

American culture, though growing more accepting and informed, still struggles to comprehend the trans experience, often mistaking trans people for gays and lesbians. Moreover, anti-trans groups protest anti-discrimination bills, dismissing them as "bathroom bills" that would allow sexual predators to enter women's restrooms under cover of the law.

Cher told People Magazine at the time, "Chaz is embarking on a difficult journey, but one that I will support."

Added the singer and actress--who is herself an icon to her gay fan base--"I respect the courage it takes to go through this transition in the glare of public scrutiny and although I may not understand I will strive to be understanding.

"The one thing that will never change is my abiding love for my child."

"Becoming Chaz" airs this evening at 9:00 p.m. EST on OWN. The Hollywood Reporter said in a May 9 article that the doc has already garnered thumbs-up reviews from critics.

"Miraculously, 'Becoming Chaz' doesn't go much for triumph, at least not in the theatrical sense," reviewer Mary McNamara wrote in a May 10 Los Angeles Times article. "Instead, the film presents life as ongoing and complicated, as it actually is, for the transgendered and non-transgendered alike. Becoming a man doesn't solve all of Chaz's problems, just his biggest one."

McNamara called the doc "raw and revelatory," and described a scene in which Chaz, midway through the transition, tries to describe to several women how the hormone treatments have affected him--especially in the area of romantic interest. "It's a shame women can't feel it," the review quotes Bono as saying of the male sex drive, "and know how biological it is."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.