Interview: Chaz Bono on the journey to be himself

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Chaz Bono is approaching the end of a personal journey. Having once been the blonde-haired daughter on the Sonny and Cher Show, then a lesbian musician and activist, he recently emerged as the world’s most famous transgender man. He shares his story in a book Transition and in the documentary Becoming Chaz. Laurence Watts caught up with him to talk about his process of self-discovery and his desire to help others.

In his documentary Chaz Bono talks about growing up in a famous family. Doubtless, being the only child of Sonny and Cher had its advantages, but he says getting used to all the attention going their way wasn’t easy. His parents divorced when he was six. His father went on to become a Republican Congressman before a fatal skiing accident in 1998. His mother, well… his mother is Cher. Was it a hard decision to involve her in the documentary?

“It was necessary,” he tells me. “I wanted as many people to see the film as possible. Of course it’s also important to include what it’s like for parents when their child transitions. I made the documentary because I wanted to educate people. I thought I could reach a more mainstream audience than transgender documentaries typically manage. I also wanted to reach out. It took me nearly ten years of knowing I was transgender to actually transition. I wanted to help people like me who might be struggling. I’ve had a lot of feedback from people saying it’s really helped them.”

Such help or guidance was absent from Bono’s childhood. There were no role models, and little if any information on the subject. When he was young he says he would go to bed and pray he’d wake up as a boy.

“Gender identity is something you innately know when you’re very young. So if you feel like the opposite sex and you’re in a different body, when everyone around you tries to make you act a certain way, play with certain toys or be attracted to certain colours and clothes, it feels unnatural. I work with a group here in Los Angeles and we’ve had kids come in as young as four who have told their parents they’re actually the other gender.”

The then dearth of information on gender dysphoria led a teenage Bono to believe he was a lesbian.

“I didn’t know what a transgender person was when I was 13,” he says. “I knew what a gay person was and when I hit puberty and realised I had romantic feelings towards women I thought, “OK, this feeling of being different, wanting to be a boy and liking girls must mean I’m a lesbian.” I mistakenly thought there was a portion of the lesbian community that felt and wished they were male. I was about 31 when I realised that’s not at all the definition of a lesbian, that’s a transgender person.”

He describes his discovery as a fairly gradual process, but recounts his epiphany at a barbeque some lesbian friends of his hosted.

“There were a lot of women there and I remember hanging back and observing everyone. It struck me that all these women had in common a very strong female identity. Even though some were more feminine and others more masculine they were very comfortable being female. That was something I’d never felt.”

While he tried to make sense of it he kept the discovery to himself. Only later and over a number of years did he share it with those he felt closest to. I ask which is harder: coming out as gay or coming out as transgender?

“Coming out as transgender is much harder. There’s no comparison. My family was in show business, I knew lots of gay people and my family embraced them. When it comes to transgender men and women most people still don’t have an idea. They think of us as crazy people with some kind of mental defect.”

While he protests he can’t possibly represent a diverse demographic like the transgender community, Chaz Bono has promised to use his influence to further its cause.

“The Employment Non- Discrimination Act, which would protect the whole LGBT community in the work place, still hasn’t been passed here in America,” he says. “For trans people another key issue is that while on one hand we’re diagnosed as having a mental disorder, on the other hand the treatment that everybody agrees needs to happen isn’t covered by medical insurance. Some people just plain can’t afford it. Lastly, there are still horrific hate crimes against transgender people.”

Given it faces some very specific issues, is he comfortable with the transgender community being bundled with the gay, lesbian and bisexual caucus?

“There’s a big difference between gender identity and sexual orientation for sure, but I think there are a lot of good reasons why lumping us together and working as one community makes sense. First of all I think we’re all discriminated against for the same reason: atypical gender presentation. Gay bashing isn’t about who you’re having sex with, it’s about a guy walking down the street and someone decides to beat him up because he’s not ‘appropriately masculine.’”

“A lot of transgender people identify as gay or lesbian at some point on their journey so there’s attachment to the community. Also, in my experience there are a higher proportion of gay and bisexual people in the transgender community than the population at large. I know that there are gay people who don’t see the connections, but I think they’re there.”

Chaz’s believes his experience of male and female gives him a unique perspective on the differences between them. Specifically he wishes women understood just how biological male sex-drive is.

“Obviously there was something different about my brain compared to other women’s to begin with, that’s why I felt male, but when I added testosterone I felt more male in a way I didn’t expect. I’ve definitely become more assertive, my sex drive has increased and changed in nature. It’s become much less emotional. Now it’s much more of a physical necessity. It’s not a popular notion, but I think some of the characteristics we feel are learned behaviour are actually more biochemical.”

Having undertaken hormone treatment and ‘top surgery’ does he feels the need to have ‘bottom surgery’?

“It’s something I’d like to do and it’s something I probably will do at some point,” he says, “but it’s a very serious surgery and not something to be done lightly. There are very different techniques that render different results and each has potential complications.”

Chaz is lucky to have been supported throughout his transition by his girlfriend. Jennifer, who identified as bisexual when they met, is apprehensive about him having further surgery given the possible pitfalls. Nevertheless Chaz says she would support him were he to go ahead with it.

I wonder out loud if his mother’s reported use of cosmetic surgery made it easier for him to contemplate surgery. I regret the question as soon as the words leave my mouth.

“It didn’t even enter my mind,” he laughs. “Top surgery is a life changing, life-altering surgery. It’s about aligning your brain gender and your physical sex so that you can feel comfortable in your own body. There’s a huge difference between transitioning and having a face-lift or a nose job.”

‘Becoming Chaz’ premieres in the UK on Discovery Real Time on 19th September at 9pm.