Born in 1969 as Chastity Bono, the daughter of entertainers Sonny Bono and Cher, the man who now calls himself Chaz Bono realized early on that she, or he, was at odds with his physical body.
“As far back as I have memory, the one thing that I really remember and was really clear to me, and this goes back probably to somewhere between [ages] four and six, I remember that I wished that I were a boy and that… I felt like a boy,” according to Bono.
But it would take until 2000 for Chastity to finally understand that she was a transgendered person, and until 2008 before Chaz made the necessary medical and surgical transition and emerged as the person he knew he always was.
Bono described his long journey to claiming his identity during a lecture at the University of Alabama at Birmingham on October 18.
The event, held at the Alys Stephens Center, was part of UAB’s commemoration of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History Month.
Bono, an author, filmmaker and LGBT activist, told the large audience he hoped his remarks would help them gain a greater understanding of gender expression and gender identity.
As a kid, Bono’s friends were all boys, and he was readily accepted by them on the playground and elsewhere. “I didn’t really feel that different than the boys I was hanging out with,” he said. “I wasn’t delusional, but I was kind of taken in by that, and was kind of one of the guys.”
He also felt uncomfortable dressing like a girl — a point of contention with Cher, who sent him to school one day in the second grade wearing a jean skirt covered in Wonder Woman patches.
“I was a total superhero freak,” Bono said, but this outfit definitely didn’t suit him. “My favorite superhero was the Hulk, and here I was covered in Wonder Woman,” he said.
Bono said that he went to school and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, but it didn’t work.
“I ran smack into one of my best friends,” he said. “He had a look of horror in my face, and said, ‘What are you wearing? Why are you dressed as a girl?’ … “I was absolutely mortified, embarrassed, humiliated. I went home that day and said I’ll never, ever wear a dress again,” Bono recalls. “And I don’t know that I really did, maybe once or twice, but much, much later in life.”
His mom, Cher, had a tough time, in part, Bono thinks, because she had expected to have a daughter to go shopping, having girls’ days out. “I wasn’t the person she could do that with,” he said.
Bono said he was “a nauseatingly good child, a rule follower” and developed a pattern of trying to fit in so people wouldn’t notice he was different. “I didn’t want to call attention to me,” he said.
Bono said, “I could kind of get by with the real atypical gender expression because I was a good, well-behaved child.”
On the whole, Bono was a fairly happy kid until that dreaded time called puberty, when the gap between the gender identity he felt and his actual body became clear. “I felt my body was betraying me, literally,” he said.
He also went to a new middle school where he didn’t fit in with the boys or girls and ate lunch alone or with the teachers every day. “I got more depressed as time went on,” he said.
The unhappy boy in a girl’s body found partial redemption on his 14th birthday, when Cher got him acting lessons, which he enjoyed. He even applied successfully to the Performing Arts High School in New York and moved there alone. “It was awesome,” he said. “I had a lot of freedom, which was great. And because it was a really artistic, open place, I could really be myself with my friends.”
Bono was attracted to girls and decided he must be gay. “I didn’t know anything about transgendered people or transitioning or the difference between gender and gender identity of any of those issues,” he said.
During high school and after, Bono began dating women. He also formed his own conception of the varieties of lesbian experience to try to account for the desire he felt to be a man, based in part on observing a lesbian couple who were friends of his family and had what he called “a more traditional kind of butch-femme relationship.”
“I formulated the idea that there was a portion of the lesbian community who were more like men and wished that they were men, and tried to make the best of it,” Bono said.
Bono later formed a band with his girlfriend, got a major label record deal and was outed as a lesbian by The Star tabloid in 1990. After his band’s record bombed, he sought direction for his life through activism in the GLBT community.
He came out officially in the pages of The Advocate in 1995 and wrote for the magazine. He worked with the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).
But all was not well. “I still had this feeling of something not being right about me,” he said, referring to his failure to come to terms with his sexual identity.
The late 1990s were not a good time for Bono. He lost a girlfriend to cancer, and Sonny died in a skiing accident. He was also “dealing with some chronic pain,” as well as feeling “internally uncomfortable,” and got hooked on painkillers. “I went into a darker and darker and darker place,” he said.
Bono experienced a realization about his true identity in about 2000 at, of all places, “a big lesbian barbecue,” he said. He looked around at the diverse crowd. “You had all your major lesbian groups represented,” he said. “But no matter how they dressed, or how they expressed themselves, they were all comfortable with the core female identity,” he said. “And I was struck that this was something I had never felt, something I had never been.”
His old theory about lesbians who wanted to be men “went out the window,” he said. “That’s really the first time that I began to think that I may be transgendered.”
The realization came with a dose of fear about the risks of transitioning, especially as a lesbian activist, a public figure and a member of a famous family. “It really scared me a lot,” he said. “I sort of had this self-knowledge of who I was [but] I didn’t know what to do with it.”
Bono went into a holding pattern for several years, afraid to begin the change, though he did get clean and sober in 2004. His desire to become a man also affected his work as an activist. “I felt I was a fraud, that I was trying to pass as a lesbian when I wasn’t,” he said. “I felt like a hypocrite.”
It would be 2008 before Bono finally begin the transition. “I knew I couldn’t do it privately,” he said. “I knew I wanted to take control of my story and do it my way.”
So Bono wrote the book, Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man; made a successful documentary film, Becoming Chaz; and even braved death threats to become one of the stars of the 13th season of ABC-TV’s Dancing with the Stars.
He felt his appearance on TV could help educate people about members of the trans community. “I’m a big believer in the power of media to do good, to get messages out there, to let people meet people they would never meet in their daily lives,” he said.
Bono’s other books are Family Outing: A Guide to the Coming Out Process for Gays, Lesbians and their Families and The End of Innocence.
Becoming Chaz premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011 and was nominated for three Emmy Awards.
Jesse Chambers is the editor of Weld Local. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.