Gender is Between Your Ears: Thoughts on Chaz Bono, and His Surgically-Enhanced Mother, Cher
“Gender is between your ears, not between your legs,” as Chaz Bono—formerly Chastity—recently told an interviewer. The child of Sonny and Cher, Bono began transitioning medically from female to a male in 2008, at age 40, after years of feeling like his outer body didn’t match what was in his heart and mind. A documentary about his gender change experience—including the operation he had to have his breasts removed—aired on the Oprah network Tuesday.
For me, it takes some work of the imagination to relate to a transgender person, because his or her desires seem so dramatically different from my own—but are they?
As a young tomboy, I wanted to be more like the stereotypical man in a lot of ways. In particular, I wanted to be stronger—to be able to beat more of the boys, more often, at arm wrestling. I felt more naturally aggressive than most of the other girls in my class seemed to be. I loved “boys’ games,” like Manhunt and War, which we’d play in the vast, wooded back yard of Michael B.—a kid who, come to think of it, was teased for years because he’d carried a pocketbook to school once, maybe in Kindergarten. In the old-fashioned Catholic suburban community I grew up in, men seemed to have more power. They were always the breadwinners, always the career-people, always calling the shots. Mothers stayed home and seemed to do just what we kids did–nothing. I wanted power, too.
But wanting to be like is different from wanting to be, of course. When the boys in my grammar school class would taunt me by calling me a man, I was miserable. The tease was partly inspired, I’m sure, by my bossy, dominant personality, but my boyish body didn’t help. I had no waist or breasts; I wouldn’t go through puberty in any meaningful way until my junior year of high school. I wanted a different body, but not a man’s; more like the super-powered Wonder Woman’s. (I’d take a pair of those starred royal blue panties of hers, too.)
As I got older–and “filled out,” and grew my hair to my waist, and wore hippie bell-bottoms and flouncy shirts because I wanted to project a Janis Joplin kind of liberal sensuality—there was still a lot I didn’t like about being a woman. I often wished being the romantic aggressor was more societally acceptable (and perhaps also more biologically attractive to testosterone-fueled people), but playing a passive role always seemed to work better for me, dating-wise. I hated, and still hate, my menses. I hate the idea of menopause. I hate that my body naturally has a higher fat content than a man’s, which makes it harder to stay in shape, and makes me more susceptible to aging. I hate the way my estrogen levels seem to so often interfere with my sleep. I hate being judged on looks more than on something more meaningful, (if still fairly arbitrary) like intelligence or success. If I’d been given a choice in the matter, I would have asked to have been born a man.
And yet, having been born a biological woman, I’ve never yearned for a man’s body. I haven’t suffered in the same ways that Chaz Bono or other transgendered people have. Though I’ve been dissatisfied with my body for a long time, all of the changes to it that I’ve tried to make— dieting, exercise, cosmetic and style choices—were intended to make me look more like a woman, more like someone of my gender. (Or, at least, someone of my gender according to contemporary standards.) I have always been, and probably always will be obsessed with having a smaller waist and better décolletage. I’ve tried to enhance my feminine appearance by running and stair-mastering and lifting weights; by avoiding “white foods”; by cutting out carbs for a while; by eating nothing but protein for weeks; by getting laser hair removal, applying Retin-A, and visiting my dermatologist for another procedure I’ll plead the Fifth on. I’ve stopped short at anything that seems potentially dangerous or too expensive, like injections of facial fillers or breast enlargement surgery. But if the barriers of safety and financial concerns were removed, I imagine I’d have gone a lot further.
Another person who has gone to great lengths to make herself look more feminine, and more femininely attractive, is Cher, Chaz Bono’s mother. Cher has been candid about her struggle to accept her child’s choice. Many writers have voiced surprise that a gay icon like Cher might be having such a difficult time of this. What I find more surprising is that a woman who (according to Vanity Fair) has admitted to having work done on her nose, mouth and breasts—and was also once quoted as saying, “If I want to put my [breasts] on my back, it’s nobody’s business but my own”—wouldn’t see her own desire for physical transformation as a starting point for understanding Chaz.
Of course, Cher’s impulses and Chaz’s seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. (Indeed, during the documentary, Cher says that if she found herself in a man’s body, that’s when she would run to the doctor; the analogy isn’t lost on her, but maybe the irony is.) We can never truly understand what another person is going through; language is too imperfect, our abilities to use it too limited, our self-comprehension too flawed, our experience too fluid. But isn’t part of being human doing what we can to find a way? Shouldn’t it be?
Chaz is a person who has clearly suffered both emotionally and physically. He would never have gone through the painful surgeries and lengthy treatments required for his gender transition process—or the difficult process of trying to get people to accept him as he really wanted to be—were he not deeply miserable in the body he was born with. When someone is struggling to that extent, shouldn’t our hearts go out to them, even if understanding isn’t instantaneous?
“I hated my body since puberty,” Chaz says in the documentary trailer. It was only after going on hormones that he “started to feel comfortable.” The reel then cuts to Cher, who says, “I thought, you know, she’s just a real tomboy.” Then it cuts back to Chaz, saying, “There’s a lot of stuff she really doesn’t know. Because I haven’t told her. … there was that fear of ‘Who’s going to love somebody like me?’ ” Those of us who struggle to accept ourselves—and, maybe, also those who struggle to accept others—should be able to understand that fear.
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