When you’ve been in the public eye pretty much since birth, there’s no way to go through a major life change without everyone noticing. So when Chastity Bono — the blonde daughter of Cher and Sonny Bono who had been featured on their TV variety shows throughout her childhood — came to accept the realization that she was a man born in a woman’s body, Chaz Bono knew the media was going to be all over the story once the process of transitioning from female to male began.
Realizing that he was about to become the most famous living transgender person in the world, Bono got ahead of the story and started writing a new memoir – “Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man,” available May 10 from Dutton – and teamed up with documentary filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”) to make a documentary about the process. That film, “Becoming Chaz,” charmed audiences upon its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and will begin airing on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network on Tuesday, May 11.
Over the course of both the book and the film, we get to know Chaz as someone who has survived battles with drugs, depression, and identity, but both suggest he’s come out the other end as a stronger person. That optimism and vitality seemed very apparent during a recent phone interview.
So what came first, the book or the movie?
Chaz Bono: Well, I guess, probably the book — once I decided to transition and I knew I wouldn’t have the luxury of doing it privately, I knew that I would probably do a book about it. The thought to do a documentary definitely came later, but it really made sense when it started to come up, because it seemed like another great way to capture such a visual process.
And what terms did you come to with the filmmakers before shooting started — did you have final approval, were there times you could ask them to stop filming?
Contractually? I don’t really remember. I had some say, but I knew that I was gonna give them a lot of access, so I think our vision was very similar, so I don’t think that ever really came into play. There were little things here and there, but for the most part, we pretty much agreed on the things that were important to show, and I was really impressed when they started cutting it together, how it was looking.
In both the book and the film, the part I found hardest to watch was the journey of Jenny, your girlfriend. Her struggles with your transition and with her own sobriety felt like some of the rawest parts of the story; you’ve both apparently come through all this in one piece, but watching you argue and reading some of the things she said to you over the course of everything really made me flinch.
That’s interesting, because most people love the relationship stuff.
Not that it wasn’t revealing or interesting, but it almost felt more personal, in a way, than “I’m having my breasts removed.”
Right. This is the great thing about documentary — you don’t know, exactly, what you’re gonna get when you start. Neither Jenny nor I knew what issues would come up for us in the context of our relationship as I went through this transition. But it’s very organic, it’s very real, and it’s what happened. I think a lot of people go through this when you transition in a relationship. I know other couples that were together for a certain period of time, and then one of the partners transitioned, and it’s a difficult, interesting journey. The emotional side of the change becomes much more impactful on the relationship than the physical side. We prepared for as much as we could prepare for, and the things we did prepare for didn’t really seem to be an issue, and things we didn’t even think about, we had to learn how to deal with.
And she’s signed off on both projects, she’s comfortable with everything?
Yeah, she loves the film — Jenny’s a real film buff, and she’s thrilled to be part of such a great film — and the book, she was probably the only person who got to read it and tweak stuff about herself, and she’s totally comfortable with it at this point.
The other thing that made me flinch in watching the doc is your mom’s inability to let go of the pronoun “she” when she’s talking about you, and I wonder if that’s improved since the shooting or if that’s still a process for her.
I think it’s a process, it’s getting better — it’s certainly not all the time, but I think she’s getting more “he” in there. But it’s hard; she knew me for 40 years one way, and it’s really hard to start thinking…it’s just a habit thing, really. My aunt goes through it a lot as well, and there’s a lot of “She…oops, I meant, he.” And I understand that you get into a habit of these kinds of things, and it’s hard.
I think it was savvy of you to figure out that there was no way to do this off the radar, and that you were going to be thrust into a public position whether you wanted to or not. I’m assuming you knew that once this got rolling, you were going to become a de facto spokesperson for the trans community.
I have a lot of experience with this from when I came out as a lesbian; it was a similar situation, and luckily for me, I am at heart an activist. If I see an issue that really affects me, or people not being treated fairly, I want to do something about it. So thank god I ended up with the personality I ended up with, because it would have been really difficult if I was kind of a wallflower.
I think it’s interesting when people in the spotlight can use their fame to say, “Well, if you’re going to follow me, you’re going to follow me here.” What are your targets, where do you want to take your spotlight?
Here’s the thing — the trans movement is still in its infancy. We’re culturally starting to come out, and we’re starting to see more films and books and characters and stuff like that, but it really is at the beginning and we’re probably where gay and lesbian people were maybe 20, 25 years ago. So I think the first and foremost thing that I can do is to start to put a face on this issue and really try to break it down to the very simplest terms. That’s where I see that I can make the biggest difference.
I’ve been active in the gay community for over 20 years, and nobody eats their own the way we do. Having had this position thrust upon you in the trans community, have other trans activists been supportive? Are there leaders who have been out there for a long time who resent that maybe now you’re the go-to for these issues? What’s the response been?
I think for the most part, really supportive. There’s always going to be a couple of the people you described. And also, it’s been two years since I started transitioning, and I tried to keep a low profile as much as I could in the beginning, and I went to a bunch of different trans conferences and events. I didn’t come out and try to take over. There are different issues, and I didn’t know them all. So I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can, and I think the best I can do is try to put this issue on the map a little bit, and break it down so people don’t have that knee-jerk scared reaction. It’s about getting people to think of gender a little bit differently, that there’s really two components to it: It’s not just the physical sex of your body, it’s also how your brain feels, and that for most people, those two things are in perfect alignment, but for transgender people they aren’t. And that’s what we’re talking about. It’s not a mental illness, and it’s not some creepy thing; it’s just a difference between the brain and the body.
I didn’t really realize until I read the book: you studied drama, you were in a band, and you’ve written three books. What do you want to be now that you’ve grown up?
I just want to keep working. (laughs) That’s what it is. I think I’ll do another book at some point. I’m very comfortable doing stuff in front of the camera, and if that comes up I will definitely do it. I’m just trying to stay open and keep moving, because for a long time I went through a period where I felt like I couldn’t work, and everything was a grind, and every project I tried to get off the ground went nowhere, and now, going forward, I just want to keep things in that direction.
"Becoming Chaz" debuts on OWN Tuesday, May 10 at 9 PM. Check your local listings for more details.