Chaz Bono reflects on coming out to Sonny and Cher, appearing on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and even his love life as he prepares to headline the 31st annual Black Tie Dinner Saturday in Dallas
Chaz Bono says there was a big difference between coming out as a transgender man three years ago and coming out as a lesbian 15 years ago.
“Not even in the same ballpark,” he said.
When Bono came out as a lesbian, his mother, Cher, had difficulty accepting him and they didn’t speak for about a week. When he came out as a trans man, she didn’t speak to him for almost a year.
“When I started transitioning, although she tried to be incredibly supportive, it hit her when my voice started to change,” he said.
Their relationship is much better now. But, Bono said, his mother’s still not completely comfortable with the idea.
Bono will be in Dallas to receive the Elizabeth Birch Equality Award at Black Tie Dinner on Nov. 3. The award is presented to an individual, organization or company that has made a significant contribution of national scope to the LGBT community.
Black Tie Dinner co-chair Chris Kouvelis said of Bono’s coming out that “the courage it took to do that on a national stage” made Bono an inspiration “not just to the transgender community but to the entire LGBT community.”
Bono is the first transgender person to receive the Elizabeth Birch Award, and his selection marks something of a progression. Five years ago, a group of trans activists walked out of the dinner to protest the Human Rights Campaign’s support for a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that didn’t include trans protections. HRC is the primary beneficiary of Black Tie.
In yet another signal of that trend, Vice President Joe Biden this week called transgender discrimination “the civil rights issue of our time.”
Bono has become probably the best-known female-to-male transgender activist in the world. Last year he appeared on the reality TV show Dancing With The Stars. But before that, he made the film Becoming Chaz, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. A new film, Being Chaz, will be seen later this month on Oprah Winfrey’s network, OWN. Bono’s book Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man landed on the New York Times Bestseller list.
Chaz said he struggled with his gender identity from the time he was a little girl appearing on his parents’ TV show,
The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour — rebelling against appearing on the air in Bob Mackie dresses.
“Part of the reason I didn’t realize I was transgender when I was a kid was there was no information about it,” he said.
During puberty, he realized he was attracted to women.
“I knew about gay and lesbian people,” he said. “I knew a lot of gay and lesbian people. I thought that must be what I was.”
After coming out publicly as lesbian in 1995, Bono said he realized he wasn’t quite like other lesbians and began to understand he was a man. But it would be another decade before he began his transition.
“I was so fearful of it destroying my life,” he said.
After Dancing With The Stars began, Bono received death threats on Twitter. He beefed up his personal security, and he noted that his mother was among his biggest defenders online.
But during his transition, Bono said he turned primarily to his father’s side of the family for support.
“They were really there for me when I was transitioning,” he said. “We’re very close.”
He said that when his father — a Republican congressman from 1994 until his death in 1998 — was in office, they let politics get in the way of their relationship.
“We didn’t speak the last year of his life,” he said.
But after his father’s death, his father’s wife, Republican Mary Bono-Mack, won election to fill the seat and has been re-elected to the Palm Springs district ever since.
Bono remained close with his stepmother, his brother Chesare, sister Chianna and her stepmother’s new husband, Florida Republican Congressman Connie Mack.
Although Bono said he’s always been a Democrat, he described a family dynamic common in many families with an LGBT member.
“With Mary, we’ve always respected each other, respected each others’ differences and deeply love each other and really have that not be an issue,” he said.
Chaz raised eyebrows among some LGBT Democrats earlier this year when he co-hosted a fundraiser for his stepmother’s re-election campaign. However, he noted that she frequently breaks ranks with her party on LGBT issues and described her record on equality as “pretty good.”
“I think if there were more Republicans like her, it would be a very different party and we’d see a lot more getting done,” Bono said.
Bono’s relationship with his stepmom is one example of how he’s taken a difficult family dynamic and made it work.
And he approached his season on Dancing With The Stars the same way, describing it as his “absolute favorite” thing he ever did professionally, as well as the biggest challenge he ever took on. He called the experience emotionally hard with weeks filled with physical exhaustion and pain.
“Once you’re there, you don’t want to go home,” he said. “I was pushed to places I’ve never been before.”
Bono had absolutely no previous dance experience. He said he went through a week of excruciating ankle and knee pain. The second week of the show was the toughest to get through.
“My body went through a phase where it said no, no, I’m not doing this anymore,” he said. “Everyone told me my body would adapt to it and it did.”
He said the best part of the experience was the camaraderie. He was completely accepted on the show and became close with some people in the cast. After years of working for LGBT national organizations, he said there was even something nice about working with a group of straight people.
And performing as a man came quite naturally.
“I would have never done the show before I transitioned,” he said. “That wouldn’t have been an option for me because I always acted like a man.”
He called the show of support, in response to those who were “freaking out” about a trans person on the show, overwhelming. Once the show began, he said he felt like he was in the middle of something much bigger than just himself.
“I knew the longer I could make it on the show, the better it would be for the trans community and for broadening people’s minds,” he said.
And helping other people is why Bono made his films and wrote his book. He described the writing experience as harder emotionally but described himself as “not one of those very emotional people.”
But he said he wrote the book and made the films for several reasons.
During the period he knew he was transgender but was afraid to transition, he watched a lot of documentaries.
“Those really helped me,” he said. “I wanted to give back in that way.”
He also wanted to tell his story and have control over how it was told. And he said that doing the documentary was fun.
“I loved the people I was working with,” he said. “It didn’t feel invasive.”
But writing the book was emotionally harder to do, even though he had already written two books.
“I had to go through my whole life with a magnifying glass,” he said.
He said when he began working on the book, he already had his breasts removed and people were beginning to see him as a man. Before that, he said, he was in denial. While he wrote, he was going through a period of mourning how difficult his life had to be.
“I felt so good, but it had to be so late in my life and I had to wait for years,” he said. “I wasn’t ever going to experience life as a young man. I was only going to grow old as a man but I wasn’t going to grow up as a man.”
But Bono is positive about his future.
A year ago, he and his partner Jennifer Elia ended a six-year relationship, and he hasn’t dated much since then.
“Within my own circle of friends, most of my friends are lesbians or gay men,” he said. “For years, that’s where I was. It’s not always the best place to meet [straight] women.”
But as he entered the straight community, he realized his past relationships didn’t work out because he was with women who had expectations of being in a relationship with another woman. And he came to understand himself as a man who thought he was a lesbian, not a lesbian who became a man.
One of Bono’s close friends in the trans community is a gay trans man who works for one of the national transgender organizations who met his partner about a year into his transition.
“He said, ‘Look, when I started dating, I knew there was a segment who was dick crazy and they just weren’t going to be with me,’” Bono said.
He understands that some straight women won’t be comfortable with him intimately but he thinks many others don’t care. So Bono is optimistic about his life as a straight man. “There’s somebody out there for me,” he said.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 2, 2012.