Friday, May 13, 2011

Chaz on Becoming

In a banner week in which the governor of Hawaii signed a workplace nondiscrimination bill into law, and in which the legislature in Nevada is debating a similar measure, the biggest transgender-related news is coming from Chaz Bono. That’s because the documentary about his transition, Becoming Chaz, premiered Tuesday night on the Oprah Winfrey Network, and Chaz has been everywhere this week promoting it.

The few reviews I’ve read have found their way into the film via people other than Chaz. His partner Jennifer has been a fascinating figure for some, and Cher has for others. I haven’t read any reflections on his siblings, but they would be bridge figures for still other viewers of the film like, say, my sister. It makes sense—if you’re not trans (and even if you are), you might have a hard time relating to Chaz, but you could more easily imagine yourself in the position of those who have a relationship with him.

But as a transman myself, Chaz was the one on which I knew I would be primarily focused. Because he’s the son of celebrities, having grown up under completely different circumstances than did I or anyone I know, I honestly wasn’t sure how well I would relate. More than that, I was concerned that because of its celebrity connections, this film had the potential to feed into the mass media’s sensationalistic appetites. Given all that, I was fascinated how little this film actually does falls into that trap, and how Chaz and Jenny come across as remarkably down to earth and authentic, very human amid a fair bit of drama. Chaz is very clearly and simply himself, take it or leave it. So too is Jennifer. The two of them have been through a lot both individually and as a couple, and they’re remarkably honest about that.

I was intrigued — and oddly relieved — to hear that there nevertheless were aspects of the film that stretched their own comfort zones when they saw it after the fact. In the interview with Rosie O’Donnell after the Oprah channel premier, Chaz talked about the difficulty at first of seeing an argument that unfolded over kitchen preparations for Jenny’s graduation party. But then as he watched it again, he came to see the argument as a real portrayal of where he and Jenny were at that moment. That comment to O’Donnell conveyed a revealing sense of perspective, a sense that Chaz knows he was in a different space then and will be in a still different one down the road. Comments like those suggest to me that he takes his “becoming” very seriously, and in a much broader and deeper sense than transition alone.

Chaz has been through some seriously choppy life waters, and while he doesn’t put it this way, his remarks about previous eras of his life suggest that he has had to make a practice of seeking perspective. He has had to make a practice of accepting himself for who he is. When he said at one point that he didn’t want to lose anyone because of his decision to transition but knew that he had to make the decision regardless, I thought, yeah, I know what you’re talking about. You don’t get to a place like that, you don’t arrive at such a crossroad, without having done a ton of work-- discernment.

I also appreciated how Chaz did not present himself as speaking for every transman, let alone every trans person. In one scene, as he spoke at what I believe was a Transgender Day of Remembrance event in West Hollywood, I was impressed with the way he got up and described himself as a newcomer to the community, not presuming to speak for others, and acknowledging that tons of organizing and community building had preceded his arrival on the scene, in many ways making that arrival possible.

That said, there were some assertions in the film with which I disagreed. The misleading graphic listing the side-effects of testosterone failed to distinguish those that affect transmen alone (e.g. the need to monitor liver function) from those that all nontrans men have to watch (e.g. cholesterol). I wasn't crazy about the film's repeated use of “breast removal” language; as a result, many reviewers are now using it in a way that can subtly reinforce the judgment that this surgery is merely a form of “amputation” (or, worse, “mutilation"). Simply sticking to the term “chest reconstruction” would have been more straight forward. Chaz also made a few universalizing comments about the relational effects of testosterone, saying things about his insights into male/female difference that reminded me of remarks I once heard on the infamous testosterone episode of This American Life. All I could think was, Stop! Don’t go there! Trans folks don’t know any more about what “really” differentiates the sexes, where “really” means “biologically,” than anyone else. What I think we do have a chance to see at particularly close range is how gender gets culturally organized, how intricately, concretely, differentially, intersectionally each of us is woven into an ever-shifting socio-cultural fabric.

There is so much more to say about this powerful film—more than I have time to write here. But the final thread I find myself pondering is that of narratives—with what stories we narrate our origins, the origins of our self-awareness, the origins of our decisions. Again and again, we were shown images of Chaz as a child on TV with Sonny and Cher, images that had the effect of asking the viewer to consider the narrative s/he supplied for that child. It makes me wonder, what narratives do we assume or project onto one another? How do we shift those narratives when our expectations are subverted? But that then raises the larger question, how do we narrate change without assuming the process moves in a straight line? There is something crucial about what it is to be human that is captured by Chaz’s process of becoming. Not only does it raise the question of how sexual difference fits into—indeed might change — one’s conception of the human person. It also asks us all, trans and non-trans, to consider how the process of becoming itself, how transformation, grounds and indeed defines our humanity.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

Easter People in a Good Friday World

Cross-posted from the Walking with Integrity Blog:

Retired Bishop Barbara C. Harris has a saying that we are “an Easter people in a Good Friday world.” That’s what I find myself pondering as I think of the current state of affairs for trans people in the U.S. right now. If we are an Easter people—an Easter body—we are, as tomorrow’s passage from John 20 so strikingly depicts it, a risen body marked by wounds that remain open.

The U.S. trans community got some good news this week when the Department of Labor announced it has added "gender identity" to its equal employment statement. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's press release on the addition can be found here.

We also got some good news two weeks ago when the state legislature of Hawaii sent legislation to Governor Neil Abercrombi that would protect trans people in the area of employment. On Monday, April 18th, Hawaii’s House of Representatives passed Bill #546 which, as the Star Advertiser explained, “would bar employers from discriminating on the basis of gender expression, bringing Hawaii's labor law in line with similar protections in the areas of housing and public accommodations.” The governor is widely expected to sign this legislation.

That Hawaii already protects trans people from discrimination in several areas, particularly access to public accommodations, is also significant. In other states, public accommodations access is being hotly debated, with opponents of equal access often caustically terming such legislation “bathroom bills.” The specter these opponents raise in such debates is of vulnerable women and children being open to attack in women’s restrooms—if not by trans people, then by people posing as trans. With such fear tactics, they seek either to prevent the passage of laws that would safeguard trans access to public accommodations, or they seek to repeal legislation already on the books.

The state of Maine is currently considering just such a repeal, as shown by Integrity Maine member Ben Garren’s recent testimony against that repeal effort.

As of Monday, Texas became the home of another repeal effort, this one attempting to prevent trans people from marrying. As Bay Windows reported earlier this week, “The legislation…. would prohibit county and district clerks from using a court order recognizing a sex change as documentation to get married, effectively requiring the state to recognize a 1999 state appeals court decision that said in cases of marriage, gender is assigned at birth and sticks with a person throughout their life even if they have a sex change.” In addition to preventing future marriages, this legislation may well undermine the legal standing of existing ones—my own, for instance, if I lived in Texas.

Meanwhile on April 11th in Maryland, the Gender-Identity Discrimination Act (House Bill 235—which addressed employment but left out public accommodations) was effectively killed for the current legislative year when it was narrowly voted back to the state’s Judiciary Proceedings Committee. As the Baltimore Sun reported, “While the bill was being debated on the House floor, one delegate alluded to Cpl. Klinger, a comic-relief character from the TV show "M*A*S*H" known for wearing women's clothes while trying to get a psychiatric discharge from the Army. The delegate wanted to know if his colleagues wanted Klinger leading a day care center.”

On April 18th, one week after the bill was killed, a young transwoman named Chrissy Lee Polis was attacked by young non-trans women as she tried to enter a bathroom in a Baltimore MacDonald’s. The story of the beating, including a video taken by a MacDonald’s employee -- in which Polis can be heard asking “what bathroom am I supposed to use?!” -- went viral in the days that followed (youtube has now removed it). This story has been covered everywhere, from this call to action by Chris Paige of TransFaith online to an NPR story yesterday and a Washington Post piece earlier this week. A Baltimore Sun story from earlier today considers whether perhaps this horrifying event may be a moment we look back upon as a turning point.

As TransEpiscopal co-founder Donna Cartwright put it in a letter to the editor of the New York Times today, “Defiance of rigid cultural gender expectations still makes many people uncomfortable, and all too often we pay the price for others’ discomfort.” Nevertheless, she continues, “we can create new cultural space by being who we are, without apology.”

When I think about the process of creating that “new cultural of space,” I can’t help but be reminded of the mystical theology of Julian of Norwich, whose feast day falls on May 8th. I think of her vision of the body of Christ, its side mystically opened to all as to Thomas in the upper room—opened in a strangely infinite capacity as a place of refuge, a body of transformation, a passage of rebirth.

An Easter people in a Good Friday world indeed.

-Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge is a Lecturer and Interim Episcopal Chaplain at Harvard University