Forget about gender identity, how he felt looking in the mirror all those years, navigating the thorny overlap of sexual orientation, the surgery and all that for a minute — for Chaz Bono, the sheer physiological aspects of being a woman wreaked decades of pain on him.
In the new memoir “Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man” (see review on page 48), Bono writes of “periods that were painful to the point of being debilitating” and regularly not being able to get out of bed. Menstrual pain, of course, is no picnic for anyone, but for Bono, there was precancerous cell growth on the cervix, endometrial cysts on the ovaries and, in his late 20s, a cyst in the uterus.
Upon having it removed when he was 36, a further issue — he can’t recall the medical term for it offhand — was discovered that doctors hadn’t been aware of before involving cell lining growing into muscle.
And though the hormone therapy Bono started taking in March 2009 at age 40 brought with it some adverse side effects (acne, for one), Bono writes of soon feeling “really good” physically with “more energy, more focus … as if I had been depressed and suddenly an antidepressant kicked in — everything in my life seemed easier … like my body had finally gotten something that it really needed to function.”
Bono, during a 45-minute phone chat this week, says he doesn’t think this is a coincidence.
“I’ve talked to lots of trans guys who have these kind of issues like with me, there was just issue after issue after issue with my female organs,” he says. “So it’s not just emotionally troubling, but physically painful my whole life … it was cyst after growth after this after that. I can’t help but think a little bit of that was my body trying to tell me something.”
Everybody, by now, knows the basics of Bono’s story, but even the searingly candid “Transition” leaves a few topics unexplored. Bono is up for any question and answers all in a low key non-melodramatic manner.
The media blitz, which has included appearances on Oprah and Letterman, has been “really good.”
“Oprah’s so weird, because it’s Oprah,” he says. “There’s this huge lead up to it and then before you know it, it’s over. Letterman, too, was really great. I felt he really represented a lot of the lack of knowledge about trans issues so it was a good opportunity to break it down in the most basic ways.”
Some gay groups criticized Letterman’s squeamish expressions as Bono explained “bottom surgery.” He says it didn’t faze him.
“I think seeing David Letterman for so many years, you realize he can always be kind of snarky with his guests. I didn’t feel he was being disrespectful to me.”
Bono’s friend Diego Sanchez, who’s also FTM transgender and a senior legislative adviser to gay U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, says Bono’s visibility and irrefutable pop culture cred, put him in a unique position to speak out.
“(He’s) been in America’s and the world’s eyes since he was 2, so the value and courage this open disclosure adds is immense,” Sanchez wrote in an e-mail.
Bono says his father’s side of the family easier time with the transition is likely due to a generation gap, though now his mom (Cher) and grandmother (85-year-old Georgia Holt) have, in many ways, come around.
“Transition” relays Cher’s initial nonchalance followed by months of withdrawal and inaccessibility.
“I think fear set in,” Bono says. “It was a sense of loss for her. There was a part of me that was gone forever.”
Though Holt was “cool from the get go,” Bono admits “I don’t think she still completely understands it. But she’s always been 100 percent supportive and said if this is what makes you happy. That never wavered. We’ve been close my whole life and that hasn’t changed an iota.”
Bono agrees it seems more butch lesbians seem to transition than gay men. Though he says his lesbian-identified years were never an accurate identification, he’s personally known way more FTMs in lesbian circles whereas many MTFs often have been married to women and not part of the gay community at all.
“For me, it was very much, ‘Oh, I’m attracted to women, I must be a lesbian.’ I don’t personally know any (trans men) who didn’t go through the lesbian community … I think maybe with (trans women) they tried to be extremely macho as guys and really tried to be guys, so they overcompensated and got married and had kids and all that. That may be part of it. I think the stigma for transwomen is a lot harder because we’re a very patriarchal society and masculinity is the most coveted thing, so I think they get a lot more flak. I don’t really know why, but it may have been important for them to fit into proper, and I put that in quotes, male behavior before they finally allowed themselves to be themselves.”
Bono, who got fired from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) in the ‘90s, says that’s all ancient history now and they’ve been supportive this time out. The staff has changed since he worked there and he says most of his problems stemmed from one person who’s no longer in the picture.
He imagines staying active in LGBT activism but has no concrete plans. He’d like to see trans and bi issues more prominent in LGBT activism.
“I feel like the T and the B, which is my household, don’t get nearly as much focus as the L and the G and I hope that starts to change. I certainly think we need the support of gays and lesbians, even though they’re somewhat different issues, but we’re generally discriminated against for the same reasons, for not being perceived as fitting into gender roles.”
For Bono, sexual orientation and gender identity are apples and oranges, though he imagines less rigidity in understanding in coming years.
“Since transgender encompasses any sort of non-typical gender expression, there are a lot of different people who could loosely or strongly fit under that umbrella … I think, especially with the younger generation, we’re gonna see more pan-sexuality, more pan-gender identity and less rigid labels.”
A conversation with RuPaul, Bono says, was helpful.
“I was like, ‘Dude, what’s up with the drag thing?,’ because I had kind of the same question. He said for him it was an act or rebellion initially. It was his way of being a rebel, of giving the finger to the establishment.”
He says he and his girlfriend of nearly six years, Jennifer Elia, may eventually tie the knot now that they legally could, but he says they’d “feel a little guilty since so many of our friends can’t.”
Bono, who’s grand marshalling San Francisco Pride this year, says he’s fully supportive of a trans-inclusive ENDA but suspects it’s on the back burner since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and marriage rights for same-sex couples seem to stuff activism coffers more readily than trans-connected issues.
Though Bono balks, in his book, at undue interest in his parents, he indulges a few questions about his parents’ relationship with each other. From their awkward Letterman reunion to the palpable grief Cher exhibited at Sonny’s funeral, it’s obvious they had a complicated relationship.
Bono remembers clearly the phone call in which he told his mom that Sonny was dead.
“She was OK at first, but then she very quickly started to unravel,” he says. “Like I’d never heard her. I was like, ‘OK, I’m gonna go and get (Aunt) Gee to call you now.’ I don’t have any memory of them together but I think (when he died) I started to realize the depth of love that was there.”
Growing up, Bono says they were mostly amicable with each other.
“There were many times when they were friendly, for sure. After the divorce there were times where it felt a little prickly. Well, not prickly, but something. But until my dad passed away, anytime I went to see one of them, they always asked about the other.”
He says it wasn’t especially hard to be so open in the new book and the documentary “Becoming Chaz” which found the crew behind “Eyes of Tammy Faye” following him during the process. The book, he says, was much harder to do.
“The documentary was kind of fun but the book, yeah, you’re sitting there at the computer wanting to pull your hair out. The book was really hard, especially writing about the years when I was in denial. I always knew it had been hard but looking back for the book, I don’t think I realized at the time, how hard it really was. The first part was a real grind to write and it took a really long time to get through.”
Even though life is obviously extremely different now, Bono is proud of his earlier work, the book “Family Outing” (“it did what I wanted it to do”) and even the 1993 flop album he did with his band Ceremony (“in a sense I’m glad it didn’t take off, but I still think it’s pretty good music — it’s not anything that I’m ashamed of”).
Bono closes the book by acknowledging “a loving God, a higher power who delights in diversity and has only our best interests at heart.”
In his estimation, then, why does God put people in the wrong bodies?
“Transgender people have lived both ways and there are so few on the earth who’ve experienced socializing in both bodies and feeling two different hormonal endocrine systems. I think we have a lot to share, so to me it kind of makes sense. In certain cultures, transgender people have been highly revered.”
But what about all the years of agony? Is there a payoff on the back end?
“Yes, definitely,” Bono says. “It’s horrible and very rough going through it, but you definitely gain a depth and an insight that people who sail through life probably don’t have. I have all that now. I really appreciate things. Life wasn’t so easy for so many years, so I try to always be grateful for the things I have and always have a positive attitude. It’s easier after years of feeling just the opposite.”