What Chaz Bono does for a transman’s public image

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By: Tynan Power/TRT Columnist-

When I started transitioning, my mother’s boyfriend, Bob, was trying to get his head around the idea and asked a tough question.

“Is there any famous person I’d know of who has done this?”

I couldn’t think of anyone.

Today, there’s Chaz Bono. For anyone old enough to remember the Sonny and Cher variety show of the ’70s, Bono is not famous for his gender change. He was first famous as the precious child of a celebrity couple, the Shiloh Jolie-Pitt of the day.

I would watch until the last moments of the show, hoping each time that this would be one of those magical nights when Chaz would appear, held up by his parents, just a little kid like me.

I had no idea just how much like me.

It’s hard not to take some of the reactions to Bono’s transition personally. When people say he’s brave, I feel affirmed. When Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association and Dr. Keith Ablow of Fox News say children will be harmed by seeing Chaz on “Dancing with the Stars,” I am mystified and hurt. How is the sight of a transgender person dancing harmful?

“At the end of the day, despite all the controversy around his inclusion, he’s just going to be another guy dancing,” says Ryan DiMartino, who doesn’t understand the fuss.

Bono isn’t perceived simply as “another guy dancing,” though — and maybe that’s not all bad.

“Every time Chaz moves his trans body with pride and joy across America’s stage, we increase our trans visibility,” says Bet Power, executive director of the Sexual Minorities Archives. “The mainstream gets to know us as likable, and queer youth get to see that they are cool rather than marginal.”

For some, having Chaz in the public eye is a mixed bag.

“It’s helpful for people to have someone they can have in mind and say ‘Oh, yeah, transman, of course, like Chaz Bono,’” says Michel Fitos. “On the other hand, he doesn’t do a lot to expand people’s awareness of different narratives [of trans identity].”

Tobias Davis also sees a downside.

“I see the same thing in him that I see in a lot of newly-out/newly-on-hormones transmen, which is the same thing I see in a lot of young [cisgender] men hitting puberty,” said Davis. “Basically all of these men are figuring out what it means to be a man in our society today, and what to do with all these new hormones in their systems.”

“There are thousands of authentic, compassionate, feminist ways to be a man, and thousands of macho, arrogant, misogynist ways to be a man,” Davis says. “I just wish that Chaz would lean more towards the former.”
Justin Cascio feels Bono shouldn’t have to represent other FTMs.

“It’s hard enough, I’m sure, just to be Chaz Bono,” said Cascio, “without Justin Cascio and every other transman in the world laying our needs on him, too — to ‘represent’ us well in public so people will receive us better when we meet, or to ‘keep it quiet’ so we can avoid scrutiny.”

Still, like Davis, Cascio wants transmen like Bono to recognize and harness their privilege for the good of others.

“We have so much power, and the need to talk about how to justly wield male privilege,” Cascio says. “That is a conversation worth having among transmen.”

Part of me is thrilled to see Chaz on TV, dancing with stars once again. Another part is skeptical of having a celebrity represent FTMs to a wide TV audience.

“A glorified game show probably isn’t the best place for publicity of social issues,” says Tobias Bennett.

What’s more, celebrity makes caricatures out of real people.

As one anonymous FTM put it: “Presenting Chaz Bono as a representative of transgender people, experiences, and realities is like presenting Snoopy as an average beagle.”

If I could go back to that conversation with Bob today, I’d point out Chaz Bono as a famous FTM. Then, I’d introduce Bob to Cascio, Davis, Fitos, DiMartino, Bennett and Power, real transmen whose ethics inspire me. I’d invite Bob to sit down with us and talk about handling male privilege gracefully. I think we’d all learn a lot from each other.

*Tynan Power is an FTM parent, writer, Muslim and interfaith leader. He is the author of “The War on the Home Front: A Queer Family after 9/11” in the new anthology “Progressive Muslim Identities.” E-mail him at tynanpower@yahoo.com.