David Gately

Sticks and Stones, or lessons on humanity from Chaz Bono (and maybe Forrest Gump)

In Chaz Bono, Cher, David Gately, Humanity on May 13, 2011 at 10:48 am
Chaz and Cher

Tuesday was an extraordinary day for Chaz Bono. The only child of Sonny and Cher–together the iconic 70s TV variety show couple; separately the late California congressman and the long-perserved diva-with-a-D who put the icon in iconoclastic–released a new book, appeared on Oprah and debuted a new documentary, Becoming Chaz. It was all-Chaz news all day.

Unless you’ve had your head in the sand the past 30 years as his supernova mother has ruled the tabloids, won an Oscar and become a Las Vegas legend, Chaz, of course, was born Chastity, came out as lesbian in her twenties and recently transitioned to a man. At 42, his book and documentary media-blitz, I imagine, serves a dual purpose: to testify his gender identity struggles growing up, while, hopefully, educating an increasing curious public that seems increasing open to being better educated. I am one of them.

I read Chaz’s book release and the online news coverage of it. I didn’t catch the Oprah interview, but watched the video snippets available on YouTube. I surveyed the comments on Facebook and Twitter. I’m fascinated. As I digest the all-Chaz news, I found myself digging deeper into my own curiosity to discern exactly what is it about Chaz’s story that compels me, equally validating my understanding of the intensity and range of human experience and challenging my perceptions. I’m drawn in on so many levels.

I have never felt trapped in the wrong body. But I too have had body issues, lost a partner and felt different than. Chaz’s story affirms that life is really hard sometimes. Growing up “was complicated,” he told Oprah. But it also validates life’s blessings. His mother “adores” him, he said, and so did his father. In many ways Chaz’s story is no different than mine, maybe even yours, except for the transgender part. Therein lies an element that trips me.

I can’t stop juxtaposing Chaz’s current appearance with the image of little Chastity: the adorable petite blonde girl who often appeared at the end of her parents’ show, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Show (1971-74), as they dutifully delighted their huge stage and TV-land fans with their number one sing-song hit, I Got You Babe. Once, during a particularly famous show closing, when Chastitiy was about two or three, she is wearing a white and green-stripe sundress with pigtails in her hair. Sonny is holding her in his arms and says, “Say good night Chastity.” “Good night,” she whimpers, “And God bless everyone.”

As a kid, I loved that segment of the show and the image of little Chastity.

When she was Chasity, I thought she was good-looking. As Chaz I feel the same. More honestly, I’m struck by what a physically appealing man he makes. So “normal,” I wouldn’t look twice if I passed him on the street. But physically appealing, good-looking and normal are labels I use, preconceived and limited by words and images I’ve learned to accept as traditional. They fuel my prejudices of what I think people should look, sound and act like.

Chaz knows this conundrum all too well. That’s partly the reason he wrote the book and made the documentary. He told Oprah and states upfront in his book, Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man, that although the world still holds dear the image of him as this “cherubic little girl” on his parents’ show, he has little memory of the experience. More to the point, as an adult, he says, he does not identify with the image or the little-girl label.

I genuinely like Chaz, always have. And I truly hope others like Chaz too. In a detached, co-dependent sort of way, I want the general public to embrace his journey, to “really, really like” him, as Sally Field’s might say. To learn, in Forrest Gump fashion, that life really is like a box of chocolates, each of us alike and connected to a destiny that defines success by how we collectively deal with chance elements in life.

Forrest Gump was curious about humanity. In the movie his favorite book is Curious George, given and read to him by his movie mother, the aforementioned Ms. Fields. In an opening scene of one Curious George reading, a feather comes floating down to Forrest’s feet, and he stores it in the book. The feather falls out of the book at the end of the film, rising up and floating through the air. Some say it represents the child-like innocence that Forrest once had. We all had it once. Chaz did too, and for those of us who watched Chastity transition to Chaz, it’s an emotional journey we share.

Emotional estrangement is sometimes blamed on an intensity of human experience one can not (or will not) fully penetrate. It’s an excuse to pretend to not understand. I am not transgender, therefore I can not comprehend.

What’s that saying: you have to have been there to understand? To an extent this axiom holds truth. The forever-wounded American soldier, returning stateside, can certainly testify. I have never been to war. I have never been married with kids either. I’ve also never committed murder. But marriage and kids and, unfortunately, war and murder are part of humanity, which enlightens and connects us, and I am human and I comprehend.

Chaz’s story about gender transition infuses hope. Its public reception symbolizes optimism for a 21st century shift toward more social progressiveness and understanding. In today’s highly charged political rhetoric, Chaz’s story, however, is not about politics or values. It’s about humanity, common respect, tolerance and acceptance.

If life is really about the spiritual, our bodies are merely short-term vessels any way. The physical is not what’s important. Who cares about the labels and images? They can waft skyward like Forrest’s feather. Sticks and stones my break our bones, but words and labels and images don’t Photoshop our real reflections.

So I’m casting the old image of little Chastity free. Say good night Chaz.

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