Chaz Bono on Dancing with the Stars: should kids be banned from watching?

Chaz Bono, left, and Lacey Schwimmer practice dance steps while rehearsing for "Dancing of the Stars".  AP Photo/Matt Sayles
Chaz Bono, left, and Lacey Schwimmer practice dance steps while rehearsing for "Dancing of the Stars". AP Photo/Matt Sayles

The new season of Dancing with the Stars debuted last night and controversy is still swirling over the inclusion of transsexual contestant Chaz Bono—a star via his famous parents, Sonny and Cher. (Bono, born Chastity, became a man two years ago and has a female dance partner.)

Dr. Keith Ablow, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, appeared on the Bill O’Reilly show last night and posted this commentary on Fox News telling parents not to let their kids watch Bono on the show since it might influence them to question their own gender identity.

Other leading psychiatrists in the field say that’s nonsense. “There is no evidence that viewing a television game show with a transgender contestant would induce Gender Identity Disorder in young people,” Dr. John Oldham, president of the American Psychiatric Association, said in an interview with TMZ last week.

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Ablow, who declined to be interviewed, wrote in his column that children who might be watching will be in the process of establishing a sense of self which includes a sexual/gender identity and that the last thing they need is to watch a “captive crowd in a studio audience applaud on cue for someone whose search for an identity culminated in the removal of her breasts, the injection of steroids.”

Just like kids who light up a cigarette after watching their favorite actors smoke in movies, so too might they be influenced to switch genders after seeing it turn mainstream, Ablow contended.

That logic sort of makes sense except I’m not sure that many children would go through the rigors of switching their identity as casually as they would puff on a cigarette or down a beer.

“Switching genders is the kind of decision that comes with a lot of emotional baggage and is rarely made lightly by most people,” said Dr. Jack Drescher, a New York City psychiatrist and member of the work group on sexual and gender identity disorders for the forthcoming psychiatric diagnostic manual DSM-5. “Yes, of course, there are children who are confused about gender and sexuality, but they usually need support and education,” he added, and not a ban on watching things that might influence them.

Rather than greeting the show with silence or an all-out prohibition, parents can use it as an opportunity to answer their child’s questions about Bono, if any arise.

I asked Drescher to educate me a bit on transgender issues since I’m not sure what I would tell my own kids—avid watchers of the show. First off, he said, transgender is a cultural term used by the community to describe anyone who takes on the role of the opposite sex by dressing like them or identifying themselves as a man if they were born a woman or vice versa.

“Transsexual is a medical term that usually involves taking hormones to transition from one gender to the other,” Drescher explained. Some people also have “top surgery” like breast implants or mastectomies to remove their breasts, which is what Bono had in addition to taking male hormones. An even smaller percentage has “bottom surgery” to remove their genitals and construct new ones that identify them with their new gender, even though the new parts don’t provide the feel or function of sex organs.

Some people may attempt suicide if they aren’t given the opportunity to transition to a different gender, and those with such strong gender issues are classified as having gender dysphoria, a psychiatric condition that helps enable them to get insurance coverage for therapy or medical treatment.

Parents should also realize that the likelihood of having a transgender child is rare, though studies are lacking on the exact incidence. Homosexuality is certainly more prevalent, and most homosexuals don’t wish to change genders, Drescher said. He couldn’t, though, identify specific biological or psychological causes for gender dysphoria, since researchers haven’t identified clear causes.

Making the decision to allow kids to watch the show or not is, of course, one of personal choice. No question, Bono’s appearance on the show is allowing transgender individuals to become more a part of the mainstream, said Karen Ruskin, a psychotherapist based in Sharon. “And that means society will be more accepting of the behavior, absolutely.”

But as Ruskin also pointed out, “the world is shifting every day and ... TV merely displays those shifts.” It also invites us to feel compassion for those whom we don’t normally encounter in real life. “We can feel empathy for Chaz’s struggles and not choose to go the same route,” she said. So can our kids.