Transition: Becoming Who I Was Always Meant to Be
“He has helped us to better understand . . . others who question their sexual identities and their sexual selves—and in doing so, he has helped us to better understand ourselves.”
Reportedly, the moment in which Chaz Bono’s famous mother, Cher, fully realized that her daughter Chastity was actually in the process of becoming her son Chaz was when she called her child and got her answering machine instead. When asking for the caller to leave a message, the machine recreated the voice of her daughter, a voice that the mother suddenly realized she would never hear again.
Because—as can be attested to in any of the many television interviews with the author coinciding with the release of this book—Chaz Bono speaks with the voice of a man.
Interestingly, the same thing may be said within the book itself—as Chastity undergoes her transformation from woman to man, her author’s voice changes as well: it deepens, and moves from the emotionalized, sensationalized voice of all too many celebrity memoirs (in which every pain is “searing” and every problem is tinted with Hollywood lighting) to become a deeply personal meditation on, variously: sexuality, gender, relationships, and, most important, identity—the evolution of and definition of our sense of self.
Like many other celebrity memoirs, Transition comes packaged with a nice assortment of photographs neatly tucked in the center of the book. But never before has this reader seen a memoir in which those photographs acted as sort of a Mason-Dixon Line, dividing the first section of the book—a rather trivial gathering of memories of a childhood spent bouncing between Sonny and Cher, in which Nanny was mean and solace came from traveling with Mother when she played Vegas—and the second half, in which the spirit of the book changes, as if it were written by a different person. As if Chastity, the little blonde girl who leaned against her father’s shoulders as he held her up to the camera at the end of the Sonny & Cher Show for her to blow kisses to the audience at home, had narrated the opening chapters, only to have a self-confessed ex-drug addict middle-aged man named Chaz take over from there.
What begins as a negligible, forgettable, “poor me” celebrity memoir becomes an honest account of the person’s search for his truest, deepest identity and the cost of discovering it.
Take for example this sample of journal writing dated January 2008:
“I have heard the saying ‘We are only as sick as our secrets’ used time and time again in recovery programs I belong to, and I’ve slowly come to understand that while this is true, my spirituality is on life support. I have a secret, a big fucking doozy of a secret that I have held in for a long time. Even as I sit here, I still don’t know if I’m ready to confess my secret publicly.
“However as a public figure that’s shared everything else about myself with the world, anything less that a public admission seems a big fat lie.
“So here goes. I’m not a lesbian. I’m not a straight woman either. The truth is that I have never felt like very much of any kind of woman. What I believe I am is a transgender person. I use the word ‘person’ because as of now I have not done anything to physically transition into being or becoming male or more male, and because I have always been uncomfortable using gender specific pronouns in reference to myself. Before I go back to the beginning and try to explain how I have come to identify myself as transgender, I want [to] elucidate why it’s important to me now to write all this down.
“Because I feel like a liar and a fraud. I feel like I’ve been ‘passing’ as a lesbian for years and pretending to be something I’m not. It’s because due to the all-consuming fear I have experienced since I came to this realization, I find myself back in the dark but safe closet I thought I closed the door on forever twelve years ago. Finally it is because I think it might be time to, once again, leave the darkness and step into the light. . . .
“The fear of rejection from my family, friends, recovery sisters and brothers, gay, lesbian, and bisexual community, and the gay-friendly straight community, has prevented me from being true to myself and helping other transgender people who are suffering as I am.
“In 1998 I wrote a book called Family Outing that was a coming-out guide for gays and lesbians and their parents. I believed then and I believe now that coming out of the closet is the most personally healing and politically empowering action that we can do for ourselves and our community. Yet I have let fear conquer my convictions, silence my voice and render me impotent as an activist. . . .”
Obviously Mr. Bono, a leading activist for GLBT rights, has moved beyond fear, just as he has moved beyond the place in his life in which he felt alien in his own body. As is fully and richly detailed in the book, he has transitioned, using both hormone therapy and surgery to reshape his body in his own image of self, and, more important, undergone a period of self-assessment that few have undertaken.
And the written record of this transition interestingly stands as both as story that few of us can truly fully understand—(The concept was famously presented by Cher on the “David Letterman” show, on which she said, “I really like being a woman and like my body. If I woke up in a man’s body, I would think, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve got to get out of here,’ and that’s the way Chaz felt.”)—as well as a universal story, one to which all readers can relate: the individual’s search for self.
There have been other books about sexual transformations, male to female, from Christine Jorgensen onward, as well as female to male. Many of them are better written (and certainly this one could have been improved by some sharp editing of the first section and focusing more totally on the transition itself). But none is more important.
Using his inherited celebrity in the best way possible, Chaz Bono stands not as a novelty or as a D-lister in search of a reality show, but, instead as someone we all know, with whom we have all grown up and grown old—that little blond girl from that TV show, who, in showing up the why and how of her transformation into him, Chas to Chaz, gives full humanity to something that has, heretofore, seemed alien, seemed Other.
By putting a face to his particular need for transformation and then by showing the changes to the face that transformation brings, Chaz Bono has done something special in writing Transition, and something valuable and laudable as well. He has helped us to better understand Chaz Bono and others who question their sexual identities and their sexual selves—and in doing so, he has helped us to better understand ourselves.