Chaz Bono & Trans in the Media: Hero or Zero?

Every community has its celebrities, and the hot ticket of the trans world right now seems to be Chaz Bono. I remember when Chaz came out, his requests for privacy, and the subsequent media hot mess that followed it. Since then Chaz has opened himself to the world with his book, his film, and community efforts like a trans focused discussion forum. All of this is awesome; visibility and community building is what we need, but what is the world doing with it?

The gender binary spins media inevitably puts on trans folk really irks me; especially when some of it comes from/is adopted by our own trans communities. When trans folk are discussed in media we see the same phrases over and over; “used to be,” “trapped,” “wrong,” “mistake,” “turn in to/become,” “new life.” And can I take a moment and ask: Does anyone say they had a sex change anymore? Even with elders in our community I’d say its at least 1-5 minority uses that expression. And yet no trans news story goes without talking about getting a “sex change” because it translates to a non-trans audience, and we all know that when we’re talking about trans issues it’s the non-trans people who matter most. I’m noticing a one trick trend in the media right now leaning towards a normalization of trans identity. Good thing right? But what does normal mean and what does it require? A big theme in the normalizing of trans is what gender identity disorder loves to call “cross gender interests” – or in familiar terms, “I only liked boy things” or “I always liked girl things.” Chaz Bono is a poster boy for this, mentioning it in every interview I’ve read or seen. Yes, interest in toys/stuff that is not culturally aligned to your assigned gender and sex is a reality for lots of trans folk, but for just as many trans folks it is not (I personally I liked both). AND it also many non-trans folks have the same “cross gender” interests, but they aren’t trans (herein lies the #1 issue with diagnosing gender identity disorder in children). Still, whether its in medical books or in magazines, this is promoted to be a requirement for trans identity. Is anyone else sick of the overused and hyper promoted stereotype that all trans people are heteronormatively aligned to whatever is “opposite” of their assigned gender and sex? All trans experiences vary. Many trans folk are more gender normative or binary in their experience and many are not. Both are valid, all are trans. The issue isn’t with gender normalcy existing, it is that if we focus only on gender normative folks we are not showing the whole picture, which means that someone is undoubtedly going to be overlooked. The impact of promoting the stereotype of gendered interests, therefore reinforcing gender binary standards for identity and behavior, lies in that once again we are creating hierarchal value systems based on normalcy while placing unrealistic expectations on humanity. That hurts everyone, binary or not, trans or not.

I have to give some props to Chaz Bono; in his interview on Oprah, while talking about how much easier his life is now that he has male privilege, did acknowledge that people should not have to be gender normative to be accepted and recognized in society. He also speaks about his experiences as “traditionally male” versus just one type of male for all of us. In a recent New York Times interview, Chaz speaks about how he doesn’t feel the need to get bottom surgery which, whether he meant it or not, challenges the stereotype that all trans people are desperate for gender confirming surgeries. He also addresses that trans identities are not mentally disordering, which is good, but then he continues to say how being trans is a “mix up” and a “birth defect…” which is bad. If he can’t recognize the 1) ableist connotations and 2) transphobic undertones to that language, he needs a wake up call. And speaking of wake up calls, he needs one about misogyny. He blatantly talks about how he believes in “biological differences” in men and women because T made him dislike small talk and has lost a lot of his “tolerance for women.” That’s not T, dude, that’s your misogyny! Lots of people get irritable for a couple months when they first start T, so if something kinda annoyed you before T, those first few months it might make you super annoyed or worse. Chaz probably just never liked certain things and now his “tolerance” is gone cause he’s got hormonal mood swings. He’s claiming its some “biological differences” in men and women, when really it’s his sexist stereotypes. Feministing gives Chaz the benefit of the doubt, assuming they were taken out of context via a known to be transphobic interviewer. But he wasn’t taken out of context when he repeats himself almost word for word on Oprah. Dudes got some demons over there, and none of them are feminists. Thanks for making all of us transguys on T look like macho jerks, Chaz, but at least it bought to a ticket as a socially acceptable “normal” guy.

Our culture’s allegiance to the gender binary and gender normative behavior expectations is not the avenue in which we, the trans community, are going to gain rights and recognition. How can we expect to make spaces where we are allowed to be different if we continue to allow and even encourage outside sources, like the media, to label our community via the very system of binary gender that oppresses us? If you’re gonna be on TV talking about trans issues you need to recognize that like it or not,  you are a spokesperson for our community. Most of us don’t get mass media attention, so if you are getting it you better get it fucking right. As far as trans representatives go, I think Chaz Bono is working hard to promote a positive image for trans identities, but if I were him, not only would I brush up on my social justice and feminism, I would be saying “Look, Oprah, Look New York Times, I have standards on how my community is discussed and you need to respect that. This is the language you should be using, and let me make sure to clarify these points I’m making about MY experience versus the entire community I’m representing.” And if they cut it out, edit it, or just don’t do what is asked, you can publicize how oppressive the language used to discuss our community is. You have that airtime so use it. No excuses, our people don’t have time for that.

 

11 comments

  • SO well said. I have been incredibly interested in the language that interviewed transpeople (and the interviewer/media) have used. Some of them, like “mix-up”, and “birth defect” make me physically cringe when I hear them. It not only promotes a very negative view of being trans in general, but I have noticed it also gets incredibly misconstrued. I cannot tell you how many heteronormative people I have met who claim they “know all about that trans stuff” after seeing Thomas on Oprah or Max on the L Word. I feel a lot of people don’t specify that they’re only relating their own PERSONAL experience, and that all trans people and transitional experiences are unique. There is this incredibly rampant tendency for those not-in-the-know to generalize, which absolutely hurts and distorts the incredible complexity of the trans, and even the LGBT, community in general. I also get very defensive, as a woman, to hear a lot of the misogyny that many transmen display, so I’m very glad you brought that up.

    And I’d rather see you on Oprah than Chaz Bono any day! ^_^

  • I just wanted to say that I really appreciate you bringing up the issue of “cross-gender interests” as a requirement for trans identity. As a….what would you call me….a questioning transperson(?), it’s so frustrating when I see trans folk in the media talking about “always playing with the boys” or “only liking boy toys”, as it invalidates my not-so-binary-aligned identity. And so, still in the baby stages of all this trans-stuff, I am left confused, as I am led to think that ALL trans people feel such-and-such a way, and that, because I didn’t, I can’t be trans. It’s been very disconcerting because i’m just trying to find my way through and on the one hand, people are pretty much telling me that I am trans because I felt one way, but i’m not trans because I didn’t feel another.

    So when I read that little part, I was literally like “THANK YOU!!” So, thank you :D

    • and thank you! yeah I had that problem too when I was young and when I grew up and was dealing with trans stuff. It was really frustrating, and it was put on me primarily by other queers who refused to validate my experience because I wasn’t “trans enough” – and of course outside the queer community i could never be enough of anything, woman, man, whatever.

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  • How about instead of “birth defect” we say “common variant in the developmental process”? Because that is what is.

  • Also, I think the standard trans narratives such as “cross gender play” are artifacts left over from an oppressive era of medical typologies whose purpose was to stop the “wrong” people from transitioning and only allowed the “right” people.

    I think we have reached a tipping point where these things are no longer useful and are a hinderance to the public’s understanding of trans folk.

  • I too wondered whether some of the comments reinforcing biological differences between men and women, and enforcing gender stereotypes were taken out of context.

    I read the book and found (only) one part that counters stereotypes (although even here Bonod does refer to it as surprising): “The most surprising emotional change that I’ve experienced is that my eyes really tear up now when something moves me. I have never been a crier before, but I have noticed that sometimes when I’m watching a movie or a show on TV that touches me, I get all choked up.”

    If only the media would run the headline: Chaz Bono takes Testosterone and Can Finally Cry!

  • I read your book thinking you are telling my childhood life
    I woke up every morning wishing I would be a boy
    I always thought if I could be my dad’s boy we
    Would be a happy family I wanted to die everyday
    People constantly calling me a boy

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