Guest Blogger

Chaz Bono & Media Representation of Trans People

Filed By Guest Blogger | November 06, 2009 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Chastity Bono, Chaz Bono, Cher, FTM, gender recognition, media bias, respectful reporting, transgender, transitioning

Editors' note: Antonia "Toni" D'orsay is an advocate and sociologist based out of Phoenix Arizona working for several organizations in an advisory capacity, where she works on issues of empowerment, education, and language within and without the LGBT community under the pen name of Dyssonance.

AED_5-2009.jpgChaz Bono, the child of Sonny of Cher, paraded before the nation in the frilliest dresses as a child, separated from parents after coming out as gay, losing a father in a tragic accident, and finally reconciling with his mother as he battled his way through addiction and denial before finally starting his transition at 40, is an interesting case.

Anyone who doubts that his presence and involvement in Hollywood was and is significant forgets that he has access to some of the most powerful people in the media, for Hollywood is absolutely part of the media, and these people, entertainers, inform the world in ways that people generally don't even want to know about, let alone think on.

His work with GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, has helped them to have a reach that might have been difficult otherwise, and his background involvement with projects is often rumored to be somewhat critical.

It doesn't hurt that his mother is somewhat more than revered by many gay and trans folk across the world, either.

In coming out as Trans, he gives us a outstanding case to look at how far the media, and those who get involved with the media, has come, and how far it has to go.

One example is the recent piece selected by the local press here for their story on him. Rather than have a local person write it from several different stories, as the Arizona Republic usually does with what they perceive to be controversial stories, they chose (an active action on their part) to go with the stringer version from "BANG Showbiz", a London based entertainment news agency who's "clients include all the major British tabloid newspapers, European magazines, commercial British radio stations and a galaxy of top entertainment outlets".

This article is quite surprising from a trans point of view. It starts off with "Cher's Daughter" - something that Chaz can probably expect to hear for the rest of his life, and one example of why the relationship that transfolk have with their families can often be complex - the fame and visual remainders will haunt him as reminders of privilege lost - cissexual privilege.

They respect, however, his name - which is notable. He is not called Chastity throughout it. This may have something to do with the Gender Recognition Act in the UK - I don't know, but that is about as far as the respect goes.

So why, one might wonder, does a Gannet owned, Phoenix, Arizona based newspaper go to a story from outside the country? Perhaps because other American sources for Chaz aren't as insulting in their somewhat more respective use of the proper pronouns? Or maybe its because this BANG Showbiz group is cheaper, or possibly even could it be that there aren't any local US stories about?

Hmmm.

TV Guide seems to have found someone to write its stringer story - Adam Bryant. It was picked up by the Seattle Post Intelligencer.

The Gannet flagship - USA Today - found a reporter with staff contributions who managed to get the pronouns right.

And used a flattering ET-linked image for the article as well.

So it's not that they didn't have a cheaper source or that there weren't any US sources.

Its that even in the media, we have people who actively seek to misrepresent us and essentially be rude on purpose.

This was one of the areas that Chaz worked in, and when I point this out, on occasion people make comments like "well, he might be transitioning to do that!". This very statement, itself, is deeply problematic - transfolk don't do things for reasons like that, and its insulting that people would think that - its essentially saying one chooses to be trans.

The media reports the last couple of days, as he's begun to step forward, have been fairly evenly split in their portrayal of him in terms of pronouns, and its not always along the conservative/liberal lines one would expect.

But there are other things that factor into the coverage as well.

The aforementioned TV Guide article headlines itself with "Chaz Bono Happy Being a Man". USA Today leans in with the less than exciting "Chaz Bono gives gender re-assignment update". The Republic - the largest circulated newspaper in the state - proclaims "From Chastity to Chaz: Bono speaks out" for a headline.

People takes an interesting tack in a "sidebar" style story that doesn't even talk to Jennifer Elia titled "Chaz Bono Girlfriend Completely Supports Sex Change" which gives me pause since it essentially removes her agency in the matter and hands it to the man to speak for her. Oh, and for those who think that transfolk are secondary creatures, he did indeed disclose to her beforehand.

The ET interview - a big deal, actually - says he is in a "modeled" heterosexual relationship (because a trans het relationship really isn't a het relationship, of course, which, as a het woman who is trans, I find particularly annoying, and my boyfriend probably isn't real happy with). This is important, because that's not how Chaz portrayed it - the quotes are around modeled only, when Chaz was talking about how from his and Jennifer's experience, it was always working in that manner.

Even more annoying still is the focus on prurient stuff. For trans women, there is a certain kind of scene that we always roll our eyes at - and drag queens do it as well. That's the makeup scene. In written stories, that translates into the long, drawn out descriptions of our fashion sense (because, hey, trans women can't have fashion sense, since, well, you know - they aren't really women). For guys, who are, for the most part, still invisible in general media. It becomes all about shaving.

Which leads us to take away from this that women are all about fashion sense and men are all about shaving, and no one could possibly have both.

Even Towleroad gets into that one. Possibly excusable given the perception of it as a bastion of pure guyness. (guy, guy! Not gay!)

The flip side of this, of course, is the interest from the second string, forum and blog locales that simple marvel at his girlfriend, who is a hottie (I'll leave the objectification aside for now).

They can't understand how he can possibly have a girlfriend as pretty as she is.

I find this somewhat fitting, actually, in a slightly devilish way - in het society, there is a long standing joke about the heavyset schlub with the hot girl, because women, of course, are only interested in good looking men with the brains of peanuts and the egos of elephants. Or money.

And in all of these stories, you *never* want to read the comments.

I have, of course, since your darling Dyssonance here is the sort that does the things you never want to do ;)

And there it is interesting. There are not a lot of transfolk. So we can't be everywhere (though many of us give that illusion, lol, and Zoe Brain is among the best at it), and in reading through a lot of the article comments, you see an interesting thing - instead of transfolk defending Chaz, you see cisfolk doing it.

Or, more accurately, what they do is chide, gently, hesitatingly, the 15 on up to 30 to 1 others for the hash things they say.

Stuff like the usual hesheit, the annoyingly juvenile addadicktome Limbaugh idiotism, and the ever present fat/ugly stuff. All right alongside the seemingly common "I threw up a little in my mouth" admittance of transphobia, the ignorant "well its born x so its always x", and the ever popular "that's not a man, that's a woman" argument that is used of gay men.

Which is strikingly odd, since not too long ago most of these people were calling him a guy anyway since he was so butch as an out lesbian.

Hypocrisy is not foreign to them.

Nor is it to our own community of LGBT folks, where such put downs are used just as routinely - and often laughed off as "humor between friends".

But all of it shows that we are changing things, and Chaz is helping Trans folks in a way similar to what he did for the broader community already. One of his first appearances in public will be November 5th, at a VIP reception for the Transgender Law Center, run at present by Masen Davis - one of the best guys I've met.

All of this, and, ultimately, Chaz is still *very early* in his transition. Transition is not something that handles this kind of exposure very well - it is an intensely personal thing, and it takes effort to learn more about that many transfolk don't do. As a result, you get people who make "blunders" in public speaking and gain the ire of transfolk everywhere - take Susan Stanton, for example.

Or it drives one into a sense of pressure to finish - transfolk are hard on all their leaders - we tend to glom onto people we see as strong and overwhelm them - as has been said (by an eaten leader who upset folks), we eat our own. Not so much in terms of malice or foul things said (although there is much of that, and Susan Stanton is an example), but in our sheer hunger for positive role models. While there's no certain knowledge why Christine Daniels returned to being Mike Penner, its fairly certain that the sheer weight of attention had something to do with it, because of the pressure that was placed on him. In his case, that may have been a good thing, in someone else's, not so much.

Wanna be a rock star? Have a camera, something halfway decent for a life, and start transitioning.

But Transition takes a long time, and there is a HUGE amount of information out there to absorb and take in and there is a great deal of internalized prejudice to deal with as well - all compounded by the sheer weight of the baggage late transitioners often carry to a higher degree than young ones - living as trans in this world, and growing up in it is hard, and it can be very damaging.

Many of the more vocal transfolk point out things like this at sites like here at Bilerico and Pam's House Blend and HuffPost and more often. We get a little angry about it, as well, because of the erasure and the lack of willingness to learn and embrace and come to understand that while transfolk are different on one way, we are all the same in another, and we want to be included.

It will take time for Chaz to learn those things himself, and he's newish to it, still. With much to learn.

Maybe, just maybe, he'll take the rest of us on that journey with him.


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This is one of your best articles. Thank you.

Great piece. Thanks for the extensive analysis of the media coverage, as well as how this all impacts the personal side of transitioning. Nice to see both aspects here.

I felt so bad for Chaz, when Barbara Walters and the girls of the View, consistently used female pronouns when talking about him. Barbara should have known better.

Yes, she should have.

She's one of the more "educated" ones, and this is how even they carry this sort of disrespect forward.

This is related to two things I will talk about in the future, but one, especially -- the deep seated nature of transphobia in a way people don't normally think of:

Being afraid to talk abut trans stuff.

Great post. thanks for the roundup!

Sean Graham | November 7, 2009 1:42 PM

This should be part of workshop curriculum in high schools

God bless our transgender brothers and sisters. They often undergo multiple coming outs in their process and face many more difficulties than I could ever imagine.

Chaz Chaz Chaz thank you for all your hard work... and enjoy your life always looking forward!

A very interesting analysis, Antonia. I really enjoyed reading this. I, too, have worried about Chaz getting dragged under by publicity, but I am glad that he is out there changing hearts and minds.