Chaz Bono is slotted to be the keynote speaker at Boston Spirit’s LGBT Executive Network Night on Wednesday, March 28 from 6-9 p.m. at the Boston Marriott Copley Place (for more information, visit www.bostonspiritmagazine.com. The following is an excerpt from a longer story in the March/April issue of Boston Spirit magazine.
All That Chaz
By Sam Baltrusis
In anticipation of his visit to Boston, Bono weighs in on his six-week run on Dancing With the Stars, his activism, the tabloids and, of course, his iconic mother
When Chaz Bono cha-cha’d his way back into the public eye last year during his stint on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars, he courageously waltzed into a hornet’s nest of controversy by sparking a national debate on gender identity and transphobia. While Bono admits that he expected to raise a few eyebrows when he signed on to compete in the 13th season of the celebrity ballroom TV show, he had no idea it would generate so much initial buzz. Bono just wanted to dance.
“I was a little surprised by the magnitude of the controversy,” the 43-year-old recalls, chatting with Boston Spirit from his home in West Hollywood. “But, I was also equally more surprised by the amount of people who were supporting me. It started to feel bigger than it actually was.”
For those out of the pop culture loop, Bono became a target of online hate messages from right-wing watchdog groups like the Culture and Media Institute after joining the cast last September. Dan Gainor, who unsuccessfully lobbied fans to boycott the show, said Bono’s participation on Dancing With The Stars was a “ridiculous, agenda-driven move” by the producers and was “the latest example of the networks trying to push a sexual agenda on American families.”
Bono’s iconic mother, Cher, blasted the so-called haters via Twitter calling them “angry bigots” and urged fans to rally for her son. “I support him no matter what he chooses to do. It took courage to do DWTS! Thank God Chaz has an unlimited supply,” she tweeted. Apparently, Cher’s legions of fans listened. Bono and his partner, Lacey Schwimmer, had a six-week run lasting until October 25, 2011.
“Obviously, I expected some backlash,” Bono remarks. “There was the initial controversy and it was bigger than I expected. Equally, I was more blown away by the backlash going the other way. The support that I was getting from people was tremendous and spurred me on through the experience.”
Bono says the barrage of support he received while competing on Dancing With The Stars reflects a cultural shift in public perception. “Things have changed a lot over the years,” he says. “Even with all of the initial heat I got from doing Dancing With The Stars, the progress I saw was that Carson Kressley, an openly gay and somewhat flamboyant man, got so little heat. No one really cared. I thought that was great. This is progress. Because, 20 years ago if he was on the show, people would be pulling their hair out. And a guy like me would never have been on it.”
As the celebrity offspring of Cher and Sonny Bono and a camera-shy regular on the’70s variety show Sonny & Cher, Bono was thrust into the media spotlight at an early age. When it comes to living a public life, he says it’s been an ongoing exercise in acceptance. “It’s the reality of my life,” he adds. “To fight against it would be an exercise in futility.”
In April 1995, Bono came out as a lesbian in an interview with The Advocate and published a book in 1998 called Public Outing, chronicling his coming-out story which began at 18. In 2008, Bono started the female-to-male transition process and came out as transgender publicly in May 2010, when a California court granted his request for a gender and name change.
“The difficult time for me was before I transitioned,” Bono says, adding that his documentary Becoming Chaz, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011, helped him through the transition process. “I knew it was something I needed to do but I was afraid to do it. It was difficult and painful. Once I finally got past all of my fears, it’s been amazing.”
Bono continues, “It’s not the decision I probably would have made if I had a choice about things. If I was an average person, I would have done this a long time ago. Knowing that I would have to do it publicly really made it a lot harder for me to come to the decision to transition. Once I got there, I knew I wanted to tell my story myself and try to help people in the process. So far, I achieved that.”
In addition to his television, film and print work, Bono has been a die-hard activist for the LGBT community, dating back to his coming-out days in the mid-’90s. “It’s interesting because there’s a new generation of people in our community who think I just started doing this when I came out as trans, but I’ve been an activist for a very long time. It really hasn’t changed that much, just the focus has changed a bit.”
As far as his famous mother, Bono says he’s carving his own niche in the pop culture landscape “We’re such different people and our popularity within the LGBT community is very different,” he says about Cher. “Although there may be some crossover, we kind of appeal to totally different people for different reasons.”
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