"Becoming Chaz" airs Sunday, November 27 6PM ET/PT on OWN before the 8 p.m. premiere of its follow-up, "Being Chaz."
Not too long ago, I was planning to marry a woman who was born a man, so Chaz Bono's story is a bit familiar. It's pretty simple, really, and you've heard it a thousand times by now: A transgender person feels trapped in the "wrong" body. Just for acting upon this lifelong impulse by changing their physical characteristics to better represent their true selves, transpeople are being assaulted and murdered in shameful numbers. The movie "Boys Don't Cry" might have softened a few bigoted hearts around this issue, but the killing continues worldwide.
Chaz, born Chastity Bono to celebrity couple Sonny and Cher, could have lived through his transition from female to male in private, but it's clear in the documentary "Becoming Chaz" that he knew the true cost of invisibility in such a transphobic world. He let the cameras roll during some unflattering, raw moments--the idea being that this story shouldn't idealize his experience any more than it should exploit it for freak show appeal. The aim is to show that Chaz, the man, is as real as you and I, not an illusion to be brought off. It's hard to imagine that the killers out there might be moved by all this candor, but those whose indifference or unawareness helps perpetuate discrimination should at least get a healthy jolt of recognition. "Becoming Chaz" is as much about the kind-faced "Dancing with the Stars" contestant's relationship as it is about his metamorphosis. That was my way into the film: I know a little bit about being "the partner."
Chaz's girlfriend Jennifer is a piece of work. "Out of her fucking mind" is how Chaz affectionately describes her at one point. At first she comes off as a constantly doting chatterbox who cries as often as she stares into Chaz's eyes soap opera-style to tell him how proud she is of her big man. At the risk of sounding judgmental in reviewing a film that disdains easy judgment, Jennifer sometimes seems determined to turn the documentary into the sentimental Kleenex dispenser you'd expect from the Oprah Winfrey Network. As the film goes on, it becomes clear that the high-strung, vibrant Jennifer is just crazy about laidback Chaz. Yes, it's a standard case of "opposites attract," but also the intense bond between the outlier and the ordinary Jill who finds him beautiful.
In my own relationship, I got swept up in this kind of passion. No one could mistake my lady for anything other than a beautiful girl, but her legal status, male, was an albatross. Her past made her expect either disdain or open hostility from anyone who learned that she wasn't born this way. Traveling, banking and even using the restroom were a nightmare. She feared for her life. For a guy like me, who often sees life as a war between authoritarian bullies and moral cowards over the language used to cage individuals, loving this woman openly and proudly was a thrill. I knew who she was apart from what she was, and I was ready to live out my life with her.
We didn't make it. The whole thing was too new and turbulent for both of us. The hormone treatments that kept her looking like herself also played ping-pong with her emotions. Knowing her well didn't prevent me from idealizing her and unconsciously checking our progress against the romantic script scrolling underneath every public display of affection or traditional couple milestone.
Jennifer might be intoxicated by similar idealism about Chaz, but it's none of my business. Except that "Becoming Chaz" dares us not to mind the couple's business. We are there for some petty little kitchen fights that clearly aren't about using too many bowls to wash the strawberries or whatever--or maybe they are. If the proposition is that this is a "normal" couple, why does everything have to be about Chaz's transition?
Well, maybe because the cameras are there, heightening the stakes. Late in the film, Chaz has to remind his girlfriend that they are in a documentary, not a fiction film. And there's no telling, whether, for example, a scene of slinky Jennifer administering a hormone shot to husky Chaz's butt would have played as "King of Queens" light screwball comedy if HD camcorders were not present.
As Chaz prepares for gender reassignment, the other woman in his life, Cher, looms large in her conspicuous absence. She's in the film, sure, but not around for any of the major events in Chaz's transition. The most curious phenomenon in "Becoming Chaz" isn't any gender identity crisis or grisly surgeries but the fact that Cher, a gay icon and a favorite of drag impersonators, sounds so guardedly conservative about her transgender son: "It's hard because when she was young she was, like, the cutest girl, and I made clothes for her..." We see old photos and "Sonny and Cher" footage of Chaz as an adorable and girlish toddler. Though Cher seems poised to bite her tongue clean off before saying anything openly critical of Chaz, her heartbreak is all in the eyes. She is the only relative in the documentary who persists in calling Chaz "she." Watching her appear on David Letterman's Late Night, Chaz credits her for showing something close to pride in him on national TV. "Making an effort means a lot to me," he says. "This [Letterman appearance] is actually the first time that she said 'he' a few times."
Chaz is fine with the distance. He doesn't mind having no family present at his breast removal surgery because, "I didn't think about having anybody from my family there or not. Part of the process of going through this meant not worrying about what other people think of me. That included everybody. I didn't want to lose anybody in my life, but I was ready to." Not that a small army of family and friends don't step up and stand with Chaz. They do, and they provide a handy lesson on how to let your unusual loved one live.
Even though reality TV veterans Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey tell the story in the genre's familiar slick, A.D.D. style (with 2-second edits and soundbites about as frantic as Jennifer's attention span), a basic suspense prevails to the end: Will Chaz and Jenny survive as a couple? We'll find out, and likely arrive at another cliffhanger, in the followup documentary "Being Chaz," which premieres right after "Becoming Chaz." The more harrowing nailbiter is whether any of these kinds of programs will change hearts and minds all that much, out there in the LGBT killing fields. For my friend and former lover, I pray that they do.
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Steven Boone is a writer-at-large at Capital New York , conrtibutor to Fandor's Keyframe blog and Indiewire's Press Play blog http://blogs.indiewire.com/pressplay/. He experiments with images and video at Hentai Lab.