Chaz Bono seems to be having his fifteen minutes of media, with the recent documentary Becoming Chaz, his new book Transition, and a flurry of accompanying publicity, including Cintra Wilson's dismaying New York Times Sunday Style section cover story "The Reluctant Transgender Role Model."
I understand Bono's reluctance to be a role model, especially if it subjects him to strange, far-reaching sensationalism, such as this from Wilson:
Could it be possible that the fact that Chaz is now a man is somehow Cher's fault? Did the toxic culture of celebrity damage Chastity/Chaz's gender identity? Did Cher's almost drag-queenlike hyper-female persona somehow devour Chastity's emerging femininity? Could Chaz's transition have been motivated by gender-bent Oedipal revenge?
First of all, blaming the mother is so retro. Second, almost drag-queenlike? I could go on.
Oliver Bendorf at Autostraddle rightly describes the Times story as "a sloppy piece of journalism, written flippantly and insensitively." Bendorf's work is worth a read merely for its spot-on analysis of the article's "classic trans-reporting mistakes."
Yet while Bono may be a reluctant role model, many in the queer and trans community are equally reluctant to claim him.
"Wilson's writing wasn't the only reason the article unsettled me so much - it was also Chaz' own narrative," writes Bendorf. "Chaz' definition of what it means to be trans does not resonate for me at all."
Similarly, memoirist Nick Krieger objects to Bono's gender essentialism, his claim that being trans is a "mix-up" or "a birth defect, like a cleft palate." Writes Krieger:
The nature vs. nurture debate will continue in gay and lesbian research circles just like the essentialist vs. cultural construction debate will continue in gender research circles. To fall completely to one pole as Bono does with essentialism is to ignore the very complicated topic of gender presentations, expressions, embodiments, roles, and identities as lived in our culture.
Others took umbrage with his sexist remarks about women.
But Bono's individual perspective and experience are not the problem here -- the concern is that not enough gender-variant voices are being heard, and an entire diverse community is being under- and misrepresented. Bendorf puts it best:
Chaz Bono is entitled to his own story, yes. But as a public figure, he has the mic, and it worries me when that voice, and the storytellers filtering it, are painting such an incomplete picture.
Mainstream media representation is so often a mixed bag. Kudos to Bono for speaking out about his own life; if his story enables just one person to understand at least his version of trans experience, then he's done a service. But let us hope that this is just the beginning of this kind of media attention, leading to a fuller picture of the trans community in all its vibrancy and strength.