A reader writes: “I have been reading your blog and unless I missed it, you didn’t comment on Chaz Bono. I was wondering what you think of all of the media coverage surrounding him and some of the sexist commentary he has made? He seems to have really essentialist ideas when it comes to gender.”
I haven’t yet commented on the media hoopla surrounding the release of Chaz Bono’s book and film, and I have not yet seen the film or read the book. I’m looking forward to both, so will probably have more to say after that.
Chaz’s parents were my idols when I was a teenager and young adult, and I “knew” Chaz – in reality, knew of him – since his first appearance on The Sonny & Cher Show when he was a toddler and went by Chastity. As I got older, I lost track of him media-wise, but was aware that he had come out as a lesbian.
When he came out as trans, I was actually pretty excited – finally, the world would know that trans guys actually existed. Although there are many prominent trans guys within particular communities, trans men have pretty much been dismissed by the mainstream media and the mainstream public, who seem to be far more interested in what they consider to be the more sensationalistic aspects of male-to-female transition.
I’m still happy that Chaz is out. I’m still happy that people finally realize that there is such a thing as female-to-male transition. I’m happy that the mainstream public realizes that we exist. Although I’ve seen and read recent interviews with Chaz, I no doubt have missed something. I’m going to respond based on what I have read and seen, and I also want to mention a couple of other criticisms/comments I have heard or seen online.
“Chaz Bono doesn’t represent all trans men”: Of course he doesn’t. Chaz has been thrust into the limelight based on his transition, and it’s true that he has embraced this. If not, he wouldn’t have written a book and agreed to be the subject of a film. But the fact that Chaz is in the limelight has caused people to believe that he should represent trans men in a certain way. And he can’t do that. He can only represent himself.
In the clips that I’ve seen, he has said this – things like “Well, for myself, this happened” or “This is what happened to me.” It’s true that the mainstream public is going to generalize Chaz’s experience to all other trans men, and possibly to all other trans people. But if the first thing that came out of Chaz’s mouth every time he opened it was “I speak only for myself,” they would still do that. It’s human nature.
There’s nothing we can do to prevent it, other than provide as much diverse public representation as possible, and Chaz will represent all trans men in the public’s mind until someone else with even more notoriety comes along, and then that person’s experience will be the one remembered.
“Chaz isn’t presenting an accurate portrayal of trans men or trans people”: Chaz is presenting an accurate portrayal of one trans person. He’s not being paid by the community to represent us. He couldn’t represent all of us if he wanted to. We are too diverse a group. Should none of us speak out because our experience isn’t everyone’s? Then none of us would ever speak out.
When I speak and write, I try to be very clear that I am representing only myself. I think Chaz has attempted this as well. But unlike me, Chaz is a celebrity and a media sensation, and the media is creating the version they want.
As someone who has been misquoted, whose quotes have been taken out of context, and who has refused to cooperate with certain media that wanted me to portray my situation in a specific (and inaccurate) way in order to generate interest, publicity, and sales, I have a very limited, but general, idea of what the media does for its own purposes – and that would be increased a hundredfold when it comes to Chaz.
“Chaz is sexist, essentialist, and reinforces the binary gender system”: This is the reader’s question, and I know that Chaz has received criticism for this on several fronts. But the truth is that Chaz is a straight white guy. He has been raised in a binary gender system. He reflects his culture, as we all, in some way, reflect our culture.
One of the assumptions that I think both trans and non-trans people make is that trans people are supposed to tear down the binary gender system – that we are supposed to be on the front line in the war against restrictive gender roles and expectations. And while I and many other trans people advocate for this, it’s not our mandate to do this. I know quite a few trans people who embrace the gender binary as much as, and sometimes even more than, non-trans people.
Many trans people, both men and women, have been waiting all their lives to fit into the gender roles and expectations of their culture – and our Western culture definitely has specific, and very different, gender assignments for men and women. I can’t speak for Chaz, but I do know that certain roles and behaviors that are designated by our culture as “masculine” come very naturally to a lot of trans guys, and fitting into the binary system as it is right now is exactly what they want.
In addition, testosterone does have some incredible effects. Not every guy responds in the same way, but I can say that testosterone changed me in some ways. My basic personality is the same, but my sex drive increased dramatically, the focus of it changed, my ability to interpret things visually changed, and my ability to express myself, particularly in writing, improved (I attribute the last to transition more than to testosterone).
I don’t know if I became more angry or aggressive – I was pretty angry, and sometimes aggressive, on estrogen. But Chaz says that he has become more assertive and confident, and his girlfriend says that he has changed – in some cases, in ways that she doesn’t like. This could be the testosterone. This could be Chaz expressing the authentic self that has been locked away for half a lifetime.
Some people may not like that authentic self. And because Chaz is a media personality, he becomes open to both public praise and public criticism. Even I wouldn’t dream of commenting so extensively on another person’s individual transition, but this is what we are inclined to do with those in the public eye, and Chaz is no different.
I’m not defending Chaz, nor am I criticizing him. I’m just making observations on what I see going on. But more than ever, I’m looking forward to hearing what other people think about all this. So, readers, let’s hear it.
(More Ask Matt next week – I still have a ton of questions to be answered!)