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10 May 2011, 9:00 am 6 Comments

Television: OWN Explores Trans Issues with ‘Becoming Chaz’

This post was submitted by Topher Burns

Courtesy OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network

Covering transgendered issues in mainstream television is a really difficult thing to do. Pronoun confusion might in fact be the lesser of all the potential pitfalls in documenting a subject that can be confusing and uncomfortable for not only the subjects of the story but also the viewer. The Oprah Winfrey Network has made an honest attempt at discussing transgendered issues recently, via Lisa Ling’s “Transgendered Lives” episode of Our America. This week the network will again prompt trans discussion by airing Becoming Chaz, a documentary about Chaz Bono’s transformation from a woman to a man.

Airing this Tuesday at 9pm ET/PT, this will be the television premiere of a documentary released originally at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The documentary’s strength is in its small moments of daily life. It certainly discusses the major issues associated with being a transgendered individual (filling in the “gender” box when buying an airplane ticket, recalling feelings of body alienation that began during puberty), but the power in Becoming Chaz stems from the small reminders that make Chaz more human and less a trans spokesman. He fights over stupid things with his girlfriend, he makes that silly scrutinizing face we all do when doing our hair in the mirror.

Courtesy OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network

The documentary also threw more light on the other half of a relationship involved in gender transition. Chaz’s girlfriend Jenny was elated when Chaz had a breast-removal operation because she saw how much more comfortable it made him. But when his hormone therapy began to kick in, she began to notice personality changes as he became more “male.” To be honest it’s a perspective on the whole process I’d never considered – imagine dating men, then at a certain point making the choice to pursue relationships with women again. You come out to your family as a lesbian, you become comfortable with the new identity, and then your girlfriend decides to become a man. At one point Jenny confessed to the camera that a lot of the new behavior she was seeing from Chaz was typically “male” behavior that she’d been eager to leave behind when identifying as a lesbian. Chaz was becoming more aggressive, outspoken, assertive, and it was interesting to see Jenny grapple with that shift.

And of course, Cher was crazy. From what I could tell she gave only one interview to the filmmakers, and from this fertile conversation they were pretty much able to have a running thread of Cher through the whole documentary. Chaz, obviously more than familiar with his mother’s quirks, brought a valuable perspective to his mother’s discomfort with the general subject: she looks great and she’s in a young person’s business, but she was born in 1946, so her attitudes will naturally reflect that.

Following Becoming Chaz, Rosie O’Donnell will host The Doc Club with Rosie O’Donnell – a one-hour forum with Chaz as a guest meant to continue the conversations begun in the film (airing 10:30pm ET/PT).

I’ve heard from many individuals, both trans and cisgendered, that they have major concerns with portrayals of trans individuals in the media. While I agree that the potential for exploitation, mockery, and further confusion is indeed real, I’m really happy that outlets like OWN are doing their best to approach the subject with maturity and an open mind. All the terms and pronouns might not be right, and occasional ignorance might reveal itself, but this is how we learn.

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  • Shane said:

    A appreciate the story. I wanted to offer a suggestion. Please don’t use the word “transgendered.” We would never say “gayed” or “lesbianed.” Being transgender is an identity, a state of being, it is not something that happens to someone or a condition. I know that it is commonly used in academic writing, but usually not in social justice ones. Thank you.

  • Topher Burns (author) said:

    Glad you enjoyed the article, and thanks for the feedback – will definitely keep that in mind with future writing. I’ll be the first to admit my ignorance to the finer points on this subject, so I appreciate your kind correction.

  • Genderalizing Shiloh Jolie-Pitt: How We Discount Trans Voices | Canonball said:

    [...] Bono’s documentary Becoming Chaz, which recently premiered on OWN, and his new book Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man [...]

  • The New Gay » Commentary: Genderalizing Shiloh Jolie-Pitt: How We Discount Trans Voices said:

    [...] Bono’s documentary Becoming Chaz, which recently premiered on OWN, and his new book Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man [...]

  • Chaz Bono, Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, and the Way We Gender Children : Ms Magazine Blog said:

    [...] 2, 2011 by James Worsdale · Leave a Comment  Chaz Bono’s documentary Becoming Chaz, which recently premiered on OWN, and his new book, Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man, [...]

  • Web Marketing said:

    As good as these articles are, I just couldn’t comprehend why they weren’t finding much more attention.