Over five years ago, I made my way to Indiana University for graduate school, largely because I knew about the Kinsey Institute and the strong community of sexuality scholars and advocates. And, each year, those same things, including IU Sexploration Week, bring some of the nation’s biggest names in activism and research on sexuality from Dan Savage to Jessica Valenti.
This year, Chaz Bono – LGBT activist, author, and former Dancing With The Stars contestant – visited IU, the Kinsey Institute, and gave a talk on his life as a transgender man. His visit was a part of both IU’s fifth annual Sexploration Week and the IU Themester on “Good Behavior, Bad Behavior: From Molecules to Morality.”
Chaz’s talk about his life, including the criticism (including death threats!) he has faced upon becoming the most famous transgender person in the US today, and his highly-publicized struggles with drug abuse, fits well in the 2012 Themester, which asks, “When is behavior good, or bad?”
Chaz Bono: “How I Became A Man”
The core of Chaz’s talk was on coming out as transgender, and undergoing the process of transitioning to make his sex assigned at birth (female) congruent with his gender identity (man). Like his book, Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man, he shared personal details of his life, including drug addition, first coming out as a lesbian and then as a (heterosexual) transman, and his evolving relationships with his family.
From his earliest memories, he resisted the pressure from family and society to act feminine and to be feminine, though he journeyed a long road before he could define and embrace his identity as a man. His visibility and increasing celebrity status has allowed many people in the US to put a face to an identity and experience they knew little about before.
A Sociologist’s Take
I enjoyed hearing about Chaz’s journey, and appreciate that his talk was a featured event at Indiana University. The warm reception of Chaz Bono into the limelight demonstrates just far we have come in achieving visibility and equal rights for transgender people in the US. Unfortunately, the hostility Chaz has faced, and the obsession with his transition, body, and relationships, also show just how much more work remains to eliminate transphobia.
It is important to remember, however, that there is great diversity among transgender people in terms of gender identity and gender expression, for some transpeople decide not (or are unable) to transition. Many transpeople embrace a fluid or “queer” expression of gender that is neither masculine nor feminine, or may be some combination of both. Also, transgender communities are diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, nationality, class, sexual identity, ability, and body size and shape. Indeed, the experiences of transpeople of color and those who are working-class or poor may be somewhat different from those of Chaz.
But, I stress that there is so much to learn from Chaz Bono’s life and experiences, and his openness and visibility will continue to help to raise awareness about the lives of transpeople. In addition to learning more about Chaz Bono, be sure to check out the open Kinsey Institute exhibit, “Gender Expressions,” before it ends on December 20th!