If you are a transgender person who’s spent the better part of your life feeling that you were born into the wrong body, there’s probably no easy route to becoming the person you were meant to be. In addition to the fact that what you end up looking like is not entirely within your control, there’s how your family reacts, how your spouse reacts, how your neighbors and co-workers will react.
It only gets more complicated if, like Chaz Bono, 42, you are the son of two international icons, Cher and the late Sonny Bono. Then, there is the question of how the entire world will react, and how you can be possibly become a “real man” when the publicity surrounding your transition turns you permanently into a famous woman who’s transitioned to become male. A man with a giant asterisk.
Yet the most surprising thing about Becoming Chaz, the documentary debuting on the OWN network tonight, is that the person at the center of the drama does not seem remotely tortured or despondent about making a change that has driven even some of the strongest people to despair (or suicide), or doing it publicly.
While the audience bears witness to a fairly graphic portrayal of what “top surgery” (removing his breasts) is like, nearly everything else about this film is sprightly.
Does Chaz’s girlfriend, Jen Elia, who met Chaz while he was still Chastity, break up with him as a result of his decision to change his sex? No, she does not.
Does anyone get beaten, ostracized, lose their job? Negative on all those as well.
In fact, even the Republican side of Chaz’s family—the Sonny Bono side—seem totally at ease about their transgendered relative.
On Monday afternoon, Chaz was on the line discussing all this while on a press tour in New York. A gabfest with Oprah was about to air! He was going on David Letterman! A memoir, Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man, had just been published. Things were pretty good.
“I feel I have quite a normal good life.”
As Chaz told it to me, the earliest years of his life were not so hard. “I felt like a guy and I fit in with the guys,” he said. “Then I hit puberty and it confused me. I felt incredibly uncomfortable. I hated what was happening to my body, but I also realized I had this attraction to women so I just made the assumption that I was a lesbian, and that’s why I felt this way. At first I was relieved, but as time went on, the older I got, I felt I didn’t fit into that identity and I didn’t know what was wrong with me.”
After getting sober in his early thirties, it began to dawn on him: She was a he.
Ironically, his mother, a world-famous gay icon, was not the first person he wanted to tell when he reached this realization. As Chaz said, “When I came out the first time, she was the last person I told. I was afraid of her. I knew she was going to be unhappy because the one thing we fought about was that I was too masculine. Whatever it was that I had previously labeled as gay was the thing she didn’t like.“
But by 2008 or 2009, Chaz could no longer keep his gender struggle a secret. He’d made up his mind to get his breasts removed and go on testosterone.
So began a series of difficult conversations, and eventually, a film about the process that was shot fover the course of more than a year.
Understandably, not everything about Chaz’s transition was pain-free.
In addition to Cher’s issues, the film has Jen Elia, a recovering alcoholic, talking openly on camera about relapsing during the transition and moving temporarily into another bedroom in their house.
“There was a rough patch for sure,” Elia said in a separate call, shortly after I finished speaking with Chaz. “I felt that his machismo had sort of spiked, he was quicker-tempered, and coupled with the fact that I was in grad school, writing a 150-page thesis, and had relapsed on alcohol … things got very tense.”
Still, Elia is anything but the wife driven to hysterics, at least as the documentary presents it. For example, when Chaz has his top surgery, Elia is pretty unflappable. And when Chaz shows Elia how to inject him with hormones (behaving as if it’s some sort of major surgery), Elia makes a fool of him showing how easy it is.
Even the physical reality of losing a girlfriend and gaining a boyfriend proves to be easier for Elia than one might imagine. “That didn’t effect me,” Elia said. “I’d been with men and women. Maybe I’m one of the true bisexual people of the world.” Also, she said, “His breasts didn’t factor into our love life because he hated them so much.”
Today, both Chaz and Jen appear to be pretty happy.
She said: “It’s the most stable, healthy relationship I’ve ever been in.”
He said: “I feel I have quite a normal good life.”
Chaz continues to hold out on having genital surgery, because the operation still hasn’t really been perfected. “None of the options that are available feel 100 percent comfortable to me at this point,” he said.
Cher, meanwhile, is still struggling with using the proper pronoun to describe her son.
But Chaz is largely unperturbed.
“She’s gotten a little better,” he said. “It will take some time. It’s a 40-year ingrained habit, I’m not expecting it to go away overnight… She’s trying harder and that’s what’s important to me.”
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.