Almost a Transgender Role Model

I really wanted Chaz Bono to be a transgender hero. By sharing his transition in his film, “Becoming Chaz,” and in his memoir, “Transition: The Story of How I became a Man,” he is offering gender-questioning people an intimate entry into his personal experience. With his fame, he is raising much-needed awareness about a marginalized population. But as I, a writer releasing my own transmasculine memoir on the same day as Bono, follow the coverage of his story, I feel like I’m watching a slow-motion media train wreck.

The New York Times article, “The Reluctant Transgender Role Model,” by Cintra Wilson, is the latest troubling piece. Wilson, in what must be an attempt at humor, investigates Bono’s motivations with questions about celebrity damage, gender-bent Oedipal revenge, and reclaiming childhood attention. I imagine Wilson aims to connect with skeptical mainstream readers, but those types of questions push well past curious and cynical to downright ridiculous.

In a cultural climate that forces transgender people to explain themselves at every turn, I cannot be too surprised that Bono plays into another story of overcoming pain and suffering, of transition as the last resort of the suicidal. As a transgender person, I find this narrative exhausting and self-victimizing. Why do we, as trans people, need to keep proving how awful our lives are in order for people to accept us? What if we modified our bodies, not “amputated” parts of them as Wilson so crudely states, because we thought our lives were so beautiful that we wanted to experience them in a vehicle that allowed us our deepest comfort and truest self-expression?

Bono reiterates the standard transgender narrative of identifying as a male since childhood, using as evidence gender stereotypes like “playing sports” to reinforce his case. Once again, it’s hard to blame Bono. The criteria for Gender Identity Disorder (GID) in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders refers to gender stereotypes in its diagnosis. Although the article claims GID was only classified as a mental disorder until 1999, this is incorrect. A diagnosis of GID is still required for many trans people seeking gender reassignment surgery, and reinforcing gender stereotypes is the necessary proof. While I cannot question Bono’s experience, I can challenge his facts and make it absolutely clear that his experience isn’t shared by all of us.

Bono says, “There’s a gender in your brain and a gender in your body. For 99 percent of people, those things are in alignment. For transgender people, they’re mismatched. That’s all it is. It’s not complicated, it’s not a neurosis. It’s a mix-up. It’s a birth defect, like a cleft palate.”

First I’d like to know where Bono confirmed the gender in your brain and gender in your body theory. Sure, researchers are looking for hard proof of transsexualism, but they are having about as much success as they are in finding a definitive “gay gene” or “gay brain” structure in homosexuals. The nature vs. nurture debate will continue in gay and lesbian research circles just like the essentialist vs. cultural construction debate will continue in gender research circles. To fall completely to one pole as Bono does with essentialism is to ignore the very complicated topic of gender presentations, expressions, embodiments, roles, and identities as lived in our culture. To Bono’s claim of mismatched alignment for transgender people, this is a gross misrepresentation of all of us.

“Transgender,” in its most common usage, is as an all-encompassing term and self-defined identity available to anyone who doesn’t fit into the man or woman boxes. Transsexuals (female-to-male/FTM like Bono; or male-to female/MTF) are the most well-known group under the transgender umbrella. But there are many trans people who live and identify outside of the stifling constraints of the gender binary. Some pursue hormones without surgery; some pursue surgery without hormones; some choose only to adopt a new name; some use the gender-neutral pronouns “ze” and “hir”; some use self-identifying words that encompass both man and woman, like genderqueer or gender fluid.

Therefore, the conclusion of Wilson’s article relating to diversity is correct, except that Bono actually reiterates the black and white of gender identification by wedding himself completely to the notion of a woman becoming a man. He may offer an alternative understanding of black and white, but as for ushering in a complete wheel of gender (not sexuality as Wilson mistakenly writes) into the mainstream, Technicolor Bono is not.

It’s time for an understanding of transgender experiences and identities to reach mainstream audiences. Bono is, with his celebrity bullhorn, an ideal candidate to be a transgender role model, but after I read that he once had a tolerance for women that he no longer has, he cannot be my hero. I do hope that his story is the starting point, an impetus to expand the conversation beyond sensationalism, gender stereotypes, and the Fashion & Style pages. But this poorly fact-checked article by Cinta Wilson makes me nervous that many will now claim to know about transgender people, and about me, because they read or saw something about Cher’s kid.

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For another perspective that I think is excellent, check out Oliver Bendorf’s commentary on Autostraddle.

13 Responses to “ Almost a Transgender Role Model ”

  1. westwood Says:

    I have been following this story from some interest. I appreciate your perspective, and Oliver’s perspective, and strangely enough even the rather biased and problematic perspective put forth by Wilson. All of these have served to highlight my own prejudices, assumptions, and misconceptions that I didn’t even know were there. Not to mention the need for clear definitions in my mind and those of others.

  2. helen boyd Says:

    AND his newly-lost tolerance for women’s gabbing must be because of T! really?! are we really okay with giving a trans guy a pass when he spouts misogynist bullshit?

    looking forward to reading your book, Nick.

  3. Emilio Espinosa Says:

    As a person with gender-identity issues in my own life, I have read a number of articles on the recent Chaz Bono film, including the one you mention her from the Times.

    I must say that I agree with you that Chaz does no great service to the transgender community. He comes across as a shallow caricature. At the same time, however, he doesn’t appear to paint himself as the charge-leading hero of the trans-world, either. If anything, he succeeds most at just being a lame dude – transition accomplished. Thus, I think it’s unfair to berate him for not opening the floodgates for every minor pan-gender variant to have free expression. Chaz’s only desire is to be this dude that he is becoming, and that’s fine. Others of us want all kinds of different things from our transitions, yes, but it is not Chaz’s job to be our guiding light. He himself claims in the Times article that the real impetus for going public was that he realized there was no way for the child of Sonny and Cher to transition without it becoming a matter of public notice. Had he had a choice, he would have done what nearly all of the rest of us have done and transitioned as quietly as possible and then gone into “stealth” mode lest our eventual spouses discover that we both began life in the same color blankies.

    I agree with you that we need some kind of a “hero.” I can sympathize with your hope that Chaz Bono could be that “hero” as well as with your disappointment that he’s not. I think, however, that you are being just as closed-minded as the world is when you dismiss the validity of Chaz’s contributions through his story just because his “version” of transgender isn’t the “right” kind for your needs.

    I like how you make the argument that we don’t all “need to keep proving how awful our lives are in order for people to accept us.” However, by that same token, not everyone has to be a mix of “gender presentations, expressions, embodiments, roles, and identities”. Some of us actually do “fall completely to one pole as Bono does with essentialism” and we deserve the right to do so, even as public figures, “because we thought our lives were so beautiful that we wanted to experience them in a vehicle that allowed us our deepest comfort and truest self-expression.”

    You are absolutely right, there is a whole myriad of issues within the issue of being transgendered, and Chaz is just one of them. Not all of us are going to be representative of every issue, nor should we be. It is the ultimate freedom of diversity to be able to be dull, shallow, and unremarkable without judgment.

  4. 13andcounting Says:

    Perhaps you find the depression narrative exhausting and self victimizing, but please don’t invalidate those who do struggle with depression and serious body dysphoria. Hooray for you for having the constitution of a non-suicidal, happy-go-lucky, nothing’s-wrong narrative. Not all of us can keep the peace within for whatever reason. But please, we have enough to deal within our community than to be disrespecting our own.

    Now, with that said, I also believe it’s sad that Chaz had to ‘come out’ so soon in his transition, because I think many of us get more perspective over time. I was more upset at his interview with Anderson Cooper. Talk about a disaster.

    I haven’t seen the movie or book yet, so don’t know how broad he generalizes to the rest of the community. I’m hoping he’s sure to frame it to HIS experience. But I’m sure he’s still figuring out what is HIS story, versus our base story. It took me several years to hammer it all out, but that didn’t stop me from spewing what I understood about myself at the time. People wanted to know and understand. It was the best set of words that fit me at such a crazy self-identifying time. In fact, I still alter my narrative after 13 years. But now I’m sure to say this is MY story.

    We grow, we live, we experience, we change, we are. Give us time. We’re still ‘young’. Look at how long it’s taken/taking for the G/L/B sector to be better understood. Mainstream takes a LONG time. This narrative provides a consistent beginning that seems to work in helping your average absolutely boggled non-queer (and sometimes even old school ‘queer’) in their baby-steps to GET it. We can build from there. Shoot, my wife of 12 years still has a hard time understanding this. And my wonderful accepting family who knew me to say I think I’m a boy since childhood, still don’t get it. It’s a hard concept.

    You’re a trans-coastal guy, right? East to west? Well, I’m midwestern as they come. Most of the rest of middle America are struggling (especially anyone over 40), and many try their best when they’re treated with kid gloves. Because that’s what they are in this … kids, ignorant of such concepts. How would you explain to a child who cannot understand? Be gentle. Have mercy. Uncle. Truce. Peace. Compassion.

    Btw, thanks for writing your book. Add another perspective to the bookshelves.

  5. 13andcounting Says:

    Westwood, thank you for your openness.

    And thank you Helen. There are a number of quite unfortunate correlations, not necessarily causations in the clip I saw. I still attribute this to his immature understanding of what he’s going through.

    Well said Emilio, I was glad someone covered what I cut out to shorten my novelette, chuckle.

  6. Nick Says:

    Thanks so much for offering your thoughts. I really like your comment, Westwood, how the story is highlighting your own prejudices, assumptions, and misconceptions. It’s definitely forcing me to face things about myself, like how much it bothers me that the dominant trans narrative doesn’t include me. And how frustrated I am that little seems to have changed since the media frenzy surrounding Christine Jorgensen over fifty years ago.

    One of my biggest issues with Chaz is that he’s not claiming his story as his “version” of transgender. He’s actually seeking to define transgender for all of us. Then again, I can never tell when the media is quoting someone out of context to shape the story they want. Perhaps Chaz said, “Trans people. We’re here. We’re all different,” and that part wasn’t included. I do think that’s the responsibility of someone who is in the spotlight. I know that as a trans memoirist myself, I aim to speak only for myself. And I’ll probably face criticism from people who believe that I’m attempting to represent them.

  7. Oliver Bendorf » Chaz Bono commentary on Autostraddle Says:

    [...] another great take on the issue, check out Nick Krieger’s “Almost a Transgender Role Model“.) Tags: Autostraddle, Chaz Bono, Nick Krieger, Transgender Previous article [...]

  8. JAC Stringer on Chaz Bono – en|Gender Says:

    [...] Check this other critique by Nick Krieger, author of Nina Here Nor There. [...]

  9. The New Gay » Gender Identity: Almost a Transgender Role Model Says:

    [...] Crossposted with permission from Ninja Here or There. [...]

  10. Anthony Ross Says:

    Just heard about your book release/signing in Santa Cruz, and read a bit here, and just want to say, I think you’re the shit! Love your writing – at least what I have seen so far. Thanks for sharing your skills!

  11. Nick Says:

    Anthony – Thanks for your comment. If you’re around, please come to my event in Santa Cruz. It’d be nice to meet you…

  12. Cameron Partridge Says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post, Nick, and thank you to Oliver Bendorff for your post as well. After watching the film, I wrote a piece for a couple of blogs I write for– Walking with Integrity and TransEpiscopal: if interested, it’s at http://blog.transepiscopal.com/2011/05/chaz-on-becoming.html. The last paragraph of my piece gets at questions of narrative, and of transformation. I’m fascinated with questions of trans narrativity and critical of any one-size-fits-all narrative frame. Looking forward to reading your book, Nick. peace, Cameron

  13. Nick Says:

    Cameron — thanks for sharing the link to your piece. It’s an even, honest, response to the Chaz Bono doc. And as far as your last paragraph is concerned, I love this question: “But that then raises the larger question, how do we narrate change without assuming the process moves in a straight line?” It’s deeply challenging.

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