“I know because I am you,” were words I spoke in my It Gets Better video, and turned out to be one of the most heatedly debated moments in my online life (next to the transsexual vs. transgender brouhaha). It was a moment of impromptu human revelation. It was something I had said from the heart, something that I didn’t have in my talking points while I recorded my It Gets Better video. It was the one thing I knew for sure as I sat there pouring my heart out for the world to see.
And it was something that a number of personal blogs attacked: “Well, she is not me…coming off Oprah-esque with supermodel looks.”
Initially I was offended. Well obviously I wasn’t speaking to you directly, I said to myself in my own defense. I was speaking to the kid out there that was brave enough to deal with the bullshit of high school and transition as a teenager, to the girl who snuck mini-skirts and padded bras into her bedroom drawers, the boy who bought a binder at the moment his breasts began to bud. I was speaking to them.
But I didn’t really get it, didn’t really understand where these heated bloggers came from until I watched the Chaz Bono transition documentary Becoming Chaz with the Point Foundation’s LGBT scholars, regents and alumni over the weekend in Chicago. I was in town to speak at the LGBT non-profit’s (which was founded the same year I graduated from high school in 2001) annual leadership conference as part of a panel on blogging, new media and activism with fellow panelists Andy Towle of Towleroad and Pam Spaulding of Pam’s House Blend.
We shared our individual coming out stories, our experiences with living transparently online, and our varying outlooks on writing and curating content for our readers. But what was most fulfilling was spending time with the Point scholars. After the talk, I spoke with the LGBT scholars about writing and storytelling, about gender identity and expression, about my personal activism of visibility, about being a trans woman of color. After our face-to-face, I joined Pam and Andy and the scholars for dinner, before watching Becoming Chaz.
In a screening room filled with the scent of salted popcorn and just-opened cans of soda, the documentary was introduced by Point’s only transgender board member Joanne Herman (author of Transgender Explained For Those Who Are Not) and the film’s producer and director Randy Barbato. It was my second viewing of the documentary as I saw it’s much-publicized premiere on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, and both times I found the relationship, the bickering and scene-stealing Jennifer Elias, Chaz’s longtime partner, to be the focal point of the film, not so much Chaz’s transition from Sonny & Cher’s little girl to a “middle-aged man.”
Watching it in a room full of LGBT people was another experience all together. Most of the room cracked up at Elias, she stole the show from her famous offspring of a partner, who seemed to be more interested in twiddling his thumbs and gaming rather than becoming a spokesperson for trans men everywhere. Elias, on the other hand, was never “boring” as Chaz points out about his attraction to his girlfriend. She’s tailor-made for The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills; she’s good TV.
Upon Q&A with Barbato, a few scholars took issue with the light-hearted nature of the film, which was touted as a story of transition (mirroring the title of his book – one part of his multi-platform coming out story spearheaded by Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman, a producer on the doc). One scholar was near tears as he respectfully challenged Barbato and his film with something to the effect of:
As a trans man, I don’t feel Chaz and the presentation of his transition as representative of me and the trans men I know. I was offended that people in the audience were laughing, as if transitioning is something that’s funny. Injecting testosterone into your body and undergoing top surgery is not a laughing matter…Chaz is not me.
I immediately, as a fellow trans person, felt guilty about my own laughter. Was I insensitive? Did I watch a different movie? These questions ran through my head as I reflected on the moments in the film that brought me to chuckle: the bickering between the couple; RuPaul commenting on the video game characters’ wardrobe; the tense moments, fueled by Chaz’s stress and hormone levels, when they’re setting up Jennifer’s graduation brunch.
Then, other scholars offered their varying points of view. And in that moment I realized that though this is an LGBT organization and the scholars are well-versed in sexuality and the gay movement, gender identity and expression is still an uncharted territory, where we as a diverse community have yet to embark on. That’s why I was glad to be in that tense room, where I heard this uncomfortable, sensitive debate. Like race, I yearned for these moments when we could all just express our feelings and thoughts and opinions in a space where it was OK to slip up, learn and be enlightened.
The point of the discussion wasn’t to get an answer that would satisfy the men hurt by Chaz’s documentary, it was to get the conversation started, one that was unfortunately cut short and promised to continue in the morning. (I really hope the scholars really did get to continue the conversation at breakfast). Throughout the remainder of the weekend, I couldn’t stop thinking about the screening. I knew there were no right answers, no perfect sound bites that would assuage the concerns brought on by Chaz’s representation.
To me, the documentary was about how he and his partner and those closest to him transitioned because of his transition (Chaz went from a social recluse and prescription drug addict to a more outgoing – and oftentimes sexist – finally getting happy in his own body; Jennifer went from Chaz’s lesbian partner to his straight girlfriend who sought refuge in alcohol to get herself through his transition). Because of the limited portraits of trans people, the few that we do have tend to represent us all because they’re oftentimes the public’s introduction to trans people.
Therefore, Chaz’s journey is every trans man’s story because of its reach, but at the end of the day his journey is uniquely his. These stories shed light on all of us as trans people. The personal is political, but they’re also a solitary journey, one that is first and foremost your own before resonating with or representing others.
I felt for the filmmaker, for the men who felt Chaz is not me, and for Chaz himself having lived his life openly. When I shared my story publicly many said my experience was not theirs: I was called privilege because of my fitting into society’s physical ideal of how women are supposed to look; privileged because of my family support; privileged because of my access to education and a trans-inclusive medical care. Due to my “positive” outcomes, my experiences as a trans woman has been deeply discounted.
“She lived only a small fraction of her life actually ‘suffering’ from Transsexualism,” one woman wrote about me on my Facebook page. “In almost every way, Janet’s story is the fairy tale that the majority of us dreamed of, but never got.”
For me, the key takeaway in Becoming Chaz were the trans and gender-nonconforming children highlighted towards the end of the film, who have their very own play group organized by the support group, Transforming Family. With the support of their parents and community, these kids may be able to transition as young people, enabling them to live in bodies that reflect their inner essence, whatever that may be.
“The paradigm is, thankfully, shifting,” Jenn Burleton, executive director of TransActive Education and Advocacy, a Portland-based non-profit which supports trans youth, wrote in response to the “fairy tale” reaction above. “Children and youth are being given the opportunity to avoid all of the struggles you mentioned. Janet may NOT be a role model for you, but for current and future generations, she is. Please celebrate that.”
I personally don’t believe in fairy tales, but I do believe in happily-ever-afters. Maybe with support and acceptance and heightened visibility of trans people, these kids can grow up to transcend their bodies, society’s gender norms and live happily-every-after in their own tailor-made fairy tale that they’ll glowingly live to tell – one in which we can all gain wisdom, heatedly discuss and raise our society’s consciousness not of trans experience but of our collective human experience.