Chaz Bono: Coming out of the spotlight

Coming out for most of us is a difficult rite of passage, but for Chaz Bono, child of superstar Cher and the late entertainer and Republican Congressman Sonny Bono, it was twice as hard — first as a lesbian and then as a transman.

To celebrate the recent National Coming Out Day, Bono was invited to speak at Penn State Abington. I was invited to interview Chaz by Jose Rodriguez, track coach and campus coordinator of intercultural affairs. Observant readers might remember that Jose’s track team nominated him for a Family Portrait a few years back.

PGN: So, tell me a little about yourself. Where were you born? CB: In Los Angeles. I was a very shy, very quiet, very good kid.

PGN: What did you like to do? CB: Hang out and play with my friends, ride bikes and skateboards. I loved to swim, too. Normal kid stuff. As kids, there isn’t much difference between genders, so I was able to carve out a space for myself with my guy friends and have a pretty happy existence. Kids are so much more open and uh, fair, with that kind of thing.

PGN: Were you more bookish or active? CB: No, I was definitely more active at that point. I was a late reader. It was hard for me so I preferred being outside. But I was a good kid. I tried to blend into the woodwork as much as possible and please the adults. Looking back, part of that was feeling if I behaved and followed the rules, they might not realize how different I was. The only person it didn’t fool was my mother. I think she had expectations of what her little girl was going to be like before I was born. I can imagine it was hard for her to give up those dreams. So life became a series of negotiations, like I was allowed to have a superhero-themed birthday if I invited three girls to the party.

PGN: Do you remember your favorite toy? CB: [Smiles.] Yah! I had this bolt-action toy rifle that I really loved. It had a fake bullet in the chamber and my best friend and I would play Army in the back yard.

PGN: School? CB: I went to the Center For Early Education but really didn’t like school as a kid. I had a really hard time, partly because my parents were on the road a lot and took me out of school often so I was always trying to catch up. High school was a little better because I went to a performing-arts school in New York. I loved all my drama classes but still didn’t like the academic part. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I started getting into anything academic.

PGN: Did you do any plays? CB: We mostly did a lot of scene study. PGN: What was a favorite role? CB: I played Peter Quince in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It was a big wake-up call because all the roles up until then were female parts and I never felt comfortable. I’d even played a lesbian in one instance and thought, I am a lesbian, this should be easy, but it still didn’t feel right. It seemed foreign. But in my senior year, I played Peter and the character made sense to me. It was a big red flag.

PGN: Tell me a little about coming out. CB: It’s hard just to tell a little, especially since I’ve done it twice now and the first time I was on the wrong track. I got some relief from it, but it didn’t last. At around 13, I realized I was attracted to women so I thought that I must be gay and it took me a number of years to really figure things out. My first career was as a musician. I had a band that was signed to a record label and I was outed in the tabloids as being gay. My partner, who was in the band, and I were under a lot of pressure to stay in the closet and act in a “feminine” manner, I guess to make us attractive to male fans. Luckily for me, only my family and a few friends ever bought the album, so I didn’t have to suffer through a long career.

PGN: Who had the hardest time with it the first time you came out? CB: My mom. Definitely.

PGN: Was that a surprise? CB: No. I absolutely knew that would be the case. That she would be the worst one.

PGN: How come? CB: I knew because whatever it was inside of me, the male part or whatever it was that made me different and prevented me from being comfortable acting like other girls … it was very clear to me that it bothered her, because she kept trying to change it. When I thought I was gay, I thought that explained it, and I knew it was something that she wasn’t happy with.

PGN: So she equated lesbianism with flannel shirts and softball? CB: No, she didn’t. She just wanted me to be different. I remember thinking, she probably wouldn’t have cared so much if I’d been a lipstick lesbian. But I wasn’t.

PGN: What about your dad? CB: You know, my dad was always understanding with me. He always seemed to accept me for who I was and always made me feel OK about myself.

PGN: [Laughs.] Has it made you more tolerant of Republicans? CB: You know, I’m in such a weird position with that because I’m very close to my stepmom and her husband and they’re both Republicans. We have great love for each other and we’ve learned to have great respect for each other’s differences. I don’t always understand how good people could have that ideology but they’re good people and they do. Mary asked if I can go to an event for her when I go back to L.A. and I will, but I feel weird about it. Especially since I’m so involved in the Obama campaign. I’m headed first to Miami to speak for his re-election, which I feel really strongly about, and then I have to do that. Election time is very strange for us.

PGN: That segues into the beauty of Coming Out Day: People with families who might not be on the same page can open some hearts by having them realize people they know and love are LGBT. CB: Right. The interesting thing … I’ve known Mary since I was 14 and we’ve always been close, but since I’ve started transitioning I’ve become even closer with that side of the family. The reason is, frankly, they’ve been more accepting than the other side of the family. The Democrats had a much harder time with it. You can’t assume that because people have a certain ideology, when it comes to their own family they’ll be more or less accepting.

PGN: So what does the day mean to you? CB: It’s a renewed opportunity for people to live an authentic life, a yearly reminder.

PGN: I would think yours was one of the scariest journeys, having to do it in such a public fashion. CB: Oh yes, absolutely. All I can say is that I know, after having done it twice, I’m so much happier than when I was trying to keep parts of myself concealed.

PGN: I watched your documentary and one thing that surprised me was that you had to borrow money for your surgery from some friends. My thought was, gee, I would think his mother was pretty well off, why did he have to borrow funds? CB: Right, right. I think a lot of people were surprised by that, but I just didn’t feel comfortable going to her for that. First of all, I hate taking money from her. Like most kids, my goal has always been to be self-supporting. I had money coming in that was late so I needed a short-term loan.

PGN: How is she now? CB: Great. Surprisingly, when I first told her I was sure about transitioning, she was really cool with it. I thought she was channeling Gandhi or something. But as we got closer to it, she freaked out a bit, especially when my voice changed. Not because she had any intellectual problems with it, but emotionally, I guess like many parents, there’s a grieving process and she pulled back. We didn’t talk for almost a year, but I gave her the space she needed until she was ready to handle it. But, as I’m sure many people witnessed on “Dancing with the Stars,” she’s come around and is very proud of me.

PGN: Before you came out, especially the first time, was it weird to have a mother who was a gay icon when you were the actual LGBT person in the family? CB: No, it’s just kind of a given. I don’t exactly understand what it is that endears her to the LGBT community, but that goes for her and Madonna, etc. What is “that thing” that makes people in the community embrace them?

PGN: I guess they’re perceived as kick-ass women who speak their minds, which goes against what society teaches. CB: Yes, yes.

PGN: What were some early signs? CB: It’s interesting because when I was a kid, it was really crystal-clear, other than the fact that I didn’t know the word “trans” or that there was anything that could be done about it. But as I got older, I went through decades of trying to fit in to being something that I wasn’t. But there were really big signs throughout my life that I just missed that were signals.

PGN: Gun-toting? CB: [Laughs.] Yes, gun-toting and the fact that up to early adolescence, all my friends were boys and I always wanted to wear boy’s clothes.

PGN: I imagine those ugly frilly dresses they used to put you in on the show must have driven you crazy. CB: Yeah, they were Bob Mackie dresses supplied by his costume house. I don’t really remember very much about being on the show, but I do remember at a certain point putting my foot down about those dresses. If you were an avid watcher, you’d see that in the later seasons of the show, I’m always in some kind of pants outfit.

PGN: So you had a little bit of rebellion. CB: Well, my natural instinct is not to rebel. In general, I’m a rule follower, but I felt I didn’t have a choice there. I just couldn’t do that and feel at all comfortable.

PGN: What was one thing that helped you get comfortable with who you were? CB: I watched a lot of documentaries. “A Boy Named Sue,” “Southern Comfort” and “You Don’t Know Dick” were some that helped me understand what I was feeling.

PGN: Speaking of films, I did a cartoon that was trans-positive and, as a trans ally, I was surprised at the transphobia within the community that I first found. CB: There’s a tremendous amount of it. Fortunately, I’ve been treated very well by the community and I still have ties with a lot of gay and lesbian organizations like GLAAD and the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center that are starting to offer more resources. But, yeah, the average gay or lesbian person isn’t necessarily any more open or understanding of trans issues. PGN: I think it’s much more multi-faceted than the LGB community for sure, which makes it hard for people to figure it out. But I think people, especially the straight community, are surprised at how large a community it is. CB: Yes, I think it’s starting to change, especially with the advent of the Internet and social media. The more awareness there is of the issue, the easier it is for people to figure it out a lot sooner and a lot younger than I did. I work with an organization in L.A. called Transforming Family and they work with trans kids and families and we must have at least two new families coming in each month and that’s just in Los Angeles. We have two FTM kids going to the same school. It’s astounding to me. There weren’t these kind of resources when I came out. Heck, when I came out, Elton John was still bisexual!

PGN: Speaking of visibility, how was being on “Dancing with the Stars”? CB: I loved doing it. I had a great time.

PGN: People seem to be really fervent and emotional about it. What’s the deal? CB: You’re exhausted and in pain, you’re pushing yourself harder than you ever have, doing something that you don’t know how to do in front of millions of people. It’s very emotional and the majority of people who do the show take it seriously. It’s truly life-changing. I’ve always been kind of a wuss when it comes to not feeling well. [Laughs.] If I’m sick, it’s like, “Oh, the world has to stop now!” But, on DWTS, it doesn’t. I had to fight through a lot of pain and that was life-altering to realize you can put your body through more than you think you can. Also, overcoming such a fear of performing, doing something like dancing, that’s a difficult skill and makes you vulnerable, but I left the show feeling a great sense of accomplishment and that if I could get through that, I could get through anything. Also, they treat you very well there. The people are really nice and make it a good experience and that’s not always true in television. On most shows, they’re trying to dial up the drama and pit people against each other, but that doesn’t happen on DWTS. So people come away from it feeling part of a family. I mean, I go back whenever I’m in town and sit in the audience. There are a ton of us who do that. I don’t think a lot of people are clamoring to go back and visit people on “Celebrity Apprentice.”

PGN: Switching gears, where in your journey were you when you lost your father? CB: At that time, I was out as a lesbian and was working in the community. We’d found ourselves on different sides of some issues and I didn’t handle it well, which is part of the reasons I’m careful to maintain a great relationship with Mary and that side of the family, because I didn’t do it well with my dad.

PGN: How old were you? CB: 29.

PGN: That’s so young to lose a parent. Where were you when you found out? CB: I was at home. I’d just gone to bed when Mary called and told me what happened. They were still in Lake Tahoe and were going home in the morning so I immediately got up and drove down.

PGN: What traits do you think you inherited from your parents? CB: I think I’m a lot like my dad, temperament-wise and … I don’t know, we’re just similar. My dad didn’t really like to go out a lot and neither do I, but he loved having his close circle of friends and his kids around. He was a really great entertainer at home, always cooking, and it was always a fun, welcoming atmosphere. And I’m very much like that with my friends. I have a pool so in the summertime there are a lot of barbecues and friends hanging out. Now my mom and I are really different people. I don’t know exactly what we have in common. [Laughs.] I’m sure there’s something, I just can’t think of it.

PGN: Sense of right and wrong? CB: Yes, that’s true. Absolutely. There are a lot of people who don’t know that, but my mom isn’t one of them. She definitely has a good moral compass.

PGN: If you could barbecue for three people, who would you choose? CB: President Clinton, Secretary Clinton and Ghandi. PGN: Any hobbies? CB: I’m a big gamer, so any free time I like to play.

PGN: Top three games? CB: Oh, that’s hard. Oblivion, Fable II and BioShock.

PGN: Who was a favorite artist as a kid? CB: Kiss. I loved their theatrics.

PGN: Best Halloween costume? CB: I remember one year I went as a Hell’s Angel and my best friend went as a punk rocker. I think that was the last time I went trick-or-treating.

PGN: Ever have any paranormal experiences? CB: No, unfortunately I’m the least psychic person I know. And I actually kind of believe in all that stuff. I lost, first my girlfriend to cancer, and four years later my dad, so I’m a big “life-after-death” person and I have friends who are extremely psychic but I don’t have that ability at all.

PGN: What do you think is the worst advice you’ve ever given? CB: Oh, I’m not big on that. People always ask me, What advice did your parents give you? But they weren’t big on giving advice. Personally I’d rather lead by example than tell people what to do.

PGN: Parting words? CB: I knew that transitioning would be the right thing for me and that I’d feel much better, but without having that “better” to compare it to in my life previously, I way underestimated how great it would be. We all have something of ourselves that we repress and often feel we have to follow the rules set out for us, like becoming a doctor because your parent is a doctor even though you want to be a journalist. We all do things that aren’t really us, but life is very short, way too short to compromise and not do the things you are passionate about and that inspire you. Go out and live an authentic life.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portrait,” write to [email protected].

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