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Chaz Bono Discusses Trans Issues, Documentary "Becoming Chaz"

By Pollo Del Mar

“I feel like I’m letting you down,” admits Chaz Bono halfway through our interview.

Admittedly, as celebrity interviews go, this conversation with the only child of music industry legends Sonny & Cher has not been my easiest. While our discussion of his much-publicized sex reassignment surgery – chronicled in both the memoir Transition: How I Became a Man and Oprah Winfrey Network documentary Becoming Chaz – has been “fine,” any sign of a real connection has been noticeably absent.

“I’m not a terribly emotional person,” he confesses, “As you’re probably getting.”

Indeed. That aside, Bono and I are determined to find a middle ground and make things work. In addition to discussing the gay/lesbian community’s lack of understanding of trans issues, we also talk openly about how his girlfriend came to embrace his transition, the greater prevalence of gender identity issues within the lesbian community and his iconic mother’s growing acceptance of his new identity..

What kind of feedback have you been getting from the trans community and the gay/lesbian community?

I’ve gotten pretty positive responses. I haven’t gotten a ton of responses  from the gay/lesbian community personally, other than people I know in the community personally. I’ve gotten a lot of great responses from the trans community, mostly through Facebook and Twitter.

I read one sign of success for a trans individual is to break from the gay/lesbian community and “blend into” the straight world. How would you respond to that?

God…That’s like walking into a mine field for me. I don’t really want to respond to that. I feel like any way I could respond is going to piss somebody off.

Even within the LGBT world, we don’t have a significant understanding of the trans portion of our community.

No, I would definitely agree with you there. I think there needs to be more understanding from the gay/lesbian community on this subject. I think it’ll happen more and more. The gay/lesbian community is just barely starting to understand a little bit about transgender people. You’re just starting to see larger organizations or community centers have programs for the trans community.

And acceptance within the gay/lesbian community is greater than outside...

I don’t know that I’d agree with you there, at least not in my experience. My personal experience is I’ve gotten as much acceptance from straight friends who have nothing to do with the community as I have from gay and lesbian friends. I don’t think it’s necessarily a given that gay people – maybe just a hair! – understand trans issues better than straight people. I think it’s still the idea of blending these two issues which are really different. I think there are a lot of gay people who don’t understand the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity.

When I interviewed Lucas Silveira of The Cliks, he mentioned the gender identity issue comes up much more often in the lesbian community than it seems to in the gay male community.

Yeah, it does, and I don’t really have an answer as to why it does, but it’s definitely the case. Every trans man who is my friend thought he was a lesbian at one point, he went through that experience. It’s certainly not the case with trans women, though there is some of that. I think we’re going to see more of that, but traditionally that’s really not been the case.

When you decided to let camera crews follow you through this experience, documenting it on film, what were your initial thoughts? Why do that?

My initial thought was that when I transitioned, I wasn’t going to be able to do it privately. I wanted to be able to have some control over the way my story was told, so I decided to write a book. Then the idea of doing a documentary came up, so I thought that would be a good opportunity to reach people in a different way. It also seemed like a good idea because it’s very visual what happened. I thought that medium would be a good way to show it. I think probably the main thing that fueled me wanting to do this is that, while I was struggling with this issue, I tried to watch as many documentaries on the subject and read as many books written by trans people as I could.

Was it frightening to pour your feelings into first a book, then put it all on film?

I’ve been in the public eye as far back as I can remember. I’m used to this. I know how the response will be, pretty much. I have a fairly good idea. I know some people are never going to get you but most people do. You can’t please everybody, especially in the LGBT community.

One of the key elements of Becoming Chaz is the struggle your mom has with the decision. How has your relationship evolved since the cameras stopped rolling?

I’d say she’s probably gotten more comfortable with this since then. She’s gotten better at using the right pronounces, using my name. I think she’s gotten better about reaching a greater comfort level for me.

Though Cher is iconic within the gay community, she had a hard time accepting her daughter as a lesbian. Now this adds a whole new layer to a mother’s struggle. I thought it very brave of you both to let the world see this.

Well, yeah, I really appreciated her involvement in the project. It’s an important part of the story for sure.

One of the most touching parts of the film is when your mom goes on late night TV and finally acknowledges what is happening. Tell me more about that, since it’s the kind of acceptance I think we all struggle for at times, whether we’re gay, trans or even straight!

You know, it’s hard. I’m not a terribly emotional person, as you’re probably getting. Your questions are very emotional -- so I feel like I’m letting you down – but it was nice. I really appreciated it. I appreciated that I felt some movement in the issue. That she used “he” a few times made me feel good.

You’re not letting me down. The reverse feels true, actually. As an interviewer, I’m looking for a connection, so I feel like I’m failing at my job. To me, this seems like a pretty emotional topic, but I can change gears.

Yeah, but I’m a pretty pragmatic guy.  I’m probably even a little moreso now in some ways. For me, all of this was about a) really being able to tell my story. In the past, I’ve had incidences where when you don’t talk about a story of interest, you’re letting tabloid people tell your story for you, which is just horrible. They tell it wrong, and it doesn’t feel good. And b) I really wanted to help people. As I said, for me, the thing that helped me the most when I was really struggling over an eight-year period, was any material I could get from transgender people. It was documentaries and people’s memoirs which really bolstered me and helped me get moving along my own journey. I wanted to give back in that way. I know there are people out there who feel exactly the same way I did, knowing they’re transgendered, knowing the only thing that’s going to really make them feel happy, comfortable and complete is to transition but being terrified of what kind of rejection they will face if they do it.

For such a life-long struggle, it always amazes me when we see people who finally make the decision to transition later than we would think.

I know a lot of people who transitioned at 40, oddly enough. I think there’s some significance with that number. Hopefully my generation will be the last of that, where people will get it much earlier and transition either in their teens or 20s. Definitely for an older generation, there are people who get to that age and go, “Shit! I’ve got to start living my life for myself.” That’s really what my process was like. People wait until their older for all kinds of different reasons. They wait for  kids to get older. They wait for parents to die – all sorts of things – before they can allow themselves to be happy in their lives. It’s really a sad, horrible thing. Hopefully it will change.

Your girlfriend goes from being a lesbian woman to being a – heterosexual woman?

She would tell you she’s bisexual. She would have told you that before and after. That made it a little easier for us.

I love hearing stories of people whose partners are supportive of their transition, but the decision clearly impacts that individual. If it’s a heterosexual couple, and the man transitions, where does that leave the woman?

Absolutely! Or vice-versa? It’s tough. I think it’s difficult under any circumstances. I was pretty lucky to be with someone like Jen. It made it easier on us.  For us, it was never about the physical change. She was comfortable with all that. I think – no, actually I know because she’s said – she finds me more attractive now physically. It was the emotional changes we had to learn how to deal with. I’m just emotionally different now than I was before. That was a hard thing. We had to almost learn all over again how to communicate with each other. It changed it so much.

You’re a Grand Marshal in the San Francisco Pride Parade. What are your feelings about our city?

San Francisco, to me, feels like a world unto itself really. I lived there for just over a year. It’s a beautiful city, and it’s probably the only city I can think of where I feel like a “conservative.” It’s so liberal!

You don’t get much more liberal than a drag queen, but even I’m like, “Hey, put on some clothes! I’m eating over here!”

(Laughing.) Yeah, but it’s a great city. It’s interesting and sparks thought and debate, which I love.

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