This past summer, The New Republic published a lengthy cover story about the transgender community. Among the magazine’s strongest statements was one reading, “Transgender people are some of the least protected, most persecuted people in the United States.”
Numerous facts in the article supported that statement. The piece reported, for instance, that a recent study of trans students found that nearly half had been “punched, kicked, or injured with a weapon” during the previous year. The story also said trans women and men are regularly evicted from their homes, fired from their jobs and denied medical care. Another chilling statistic was that more than a third of trans people attempt suicide at some point in their lives.
All these distressing details ran under a headline that asked: “What will it take for America to accept transgender people for who they really are?”
When I read that question, I instinctively answered, “It’ll take the media showcasing the trans community in a favorable light.”
A few weeks later when I read that the folks behind ABC’s Dancing with the Stars had cast Chaz Bono for the new season, I asked myself, “Could this be the moment that the struggle for transgender rights moves on to the national agenda?”
If you think I’m exaggerating a TV show’s influence, check out the LGBT leaders who’ve credited the likes of Will & Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy with playing a major role—by increasing Middle America’s gay comfort level—in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 decision to legalize sodomy.
And so I ask: If not Chaz Bono now, who and when?
People of a certain age have vivid memories of Cher and Sonny Bono, back in the early 1970s, bringing their blond-haired daughter Chastity—then a toddler—out on stage at the end of their weekly Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour to smile shyly and wave to the audience.
The technology hasn’t yet been developed that was able to track precisely how many of those same viewers were again sitting on their couches for the premiere of this season’s Dancing . . . or how many of them dropped their jaws in amazement when the grown-up version of Chastity appeared as a 42- year-old man with a big belly and a tiny beard, but I’m guessing the number was sizeable—after all, this reality show skews to a gray-haired crowd.
No matter how many of the 19 million viewers who tuned into Dancing on that first night had seen both Chastity four decades ago and Chastity 2.0 this year, that number was dwarfed by the millions of young media consumers who’ve learned bits and pieces about Chaz’s life courtesy of TMZ or Perez Hilton or E! Online.
They may know, for example, that in 1995 Chaz—while still Chastity—came out as a lesbian and tout suite became a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign. They also may know that he later took a job with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, until he was misquoted as saying that Ellen DeGeneres’s sitcom was “too gay” and got the boot.
Committed students of Chaz Bono may also know that watching the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry made him realize that maybe being a lesbian wasn’t the end of the story, prompting him to find a transgender therapist who helped him work through the list of fears he had about transitioning into becoming a man.
After lots of therapy and supervised medical care, plus plenty of support from his girlfriend Jennifer Elia, who entered his life in 2005, Chaz underwent top surgery—which means having his breasts removed—two years ago. He’s still undecided about what many people consider the final step in going from female to male. “To me, the options of bottom surgery aren’t that great,” he told The Advocate in a cover story published last summer, “considering the time, money and pain you have to go through.”
Despite being in the media spotlight much of his life, Chaz walking onto that Dancing with the Stars stage was still a huge moment. Viewers didn’t just get a gander at him—for many of them, their first look at a real-live trans man—but also heard him talk and saw him glide across the floor with a real-live girl.
And Chaz done good.
He introduced himself to the TV audience by saying, “I’m Chaz Bono,” a smile spread across his chubby face, “and I’m the first transgender contestant on Dancing with the Stars.” Determined to do some educating, he then went on to say—as a photo of him as an adorable toddler filled the screen—“I was born in the female body but have transitioned, and I am now a male.”
He and partner Lacey Schwimmer then did the cha-cha to the infectious Mamas and Papas classic “Dancing in the Street.” As is typical with a professional/celebrity duo, Lacey did a lot more fancy footwork than Chaz did, but he did a totally respectable job of trying to keep up with her, smiling all the while.
All three judges praised their most controversial contestant of the season (READ: The one who could take the show’s ratings through the roof). Head judge Len Goodman dubbed him “Razz-a-ma-Tazz Chaz” and then went on to address him directly by saying, “You really came out with the right attitude.” Carrie Ann Inaba was even more exuberant, telling Chaz, “You’ve got so much joy. You light up this room!” The most excitable of the judges, Bruno Tonioli, called the show’s first trans contestant “cute and cuddly” and then turned to the man of the hour and said, “Great, great debut, Chaz. You should be proud.”
Some people outside the ABC studio weren’t so positive. FoxNews.com ran an editorial in which a professor from the Tufts University School of Medicine wrote that children who see the trans contestant on the show may decide to have gender reassignment surgery.
“It is a toxic and unnecessary byproduct of the tragic celebration of transgender surgery,” Keith Ablow said, “that millions of young people who watch ‘Dancing with the Stars’ will have to ponder this question: Maybe my problems really stem from the fact that I’m a girl inside a boy’s body (or a boy inside a girl’s body).”
Chaz’s second week on the program was tougher than the first. Training for the quickstep proved to be a major challenge for him because he carries around so much extra weight that he could pass for Humpty Dumpty. After Lacey put him through his paces for several days, his knees swelled up so bad he had to have medical attention, which included lots of ice packs.
During the show, the judges had no choice but to give Chaz low scores for the slowest quickstep in the show’s thirteen seasons, but they still showered him with (unofficial) 10s in other categories. Len praised his “determination,” Carrie Ann gave him props for his “charm,” and Bruno gushed about his “likeability.”
It’s clear that Chaz shouldn’t be taking home the mirror-ball trophy at the end of the season, as he’s not the best celebrity dancer. But it’s also clear that he’s already done more for the transgender community than can be measured.
So I’ll quote Bruno Tonioli and say to Chaz Bono: “You should be proud.”
By Rodger Streitmatter
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