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Sunday, May 15, 2011

OUTscene: (RE-view) Becoming Chaz: An Unfinished Story, from a Trans-Man and Audience perspective!

by Lincoln Rose
OUTscene Special

I went to the screen premier of Becoming Chaz this past weekend. It was the big draw of Seattle’s Translations Film Festival, and people were packed in to see it! I was both elated and apprehensive. There are not many positive mainstream transmasculine life stories being told, so I was excited by the movie’s potential. However, trans lives can still play badly out on screen, even when a director has the best intentions. I wondered what we would see when the lights dimmed.

Becoming Chaz turned out to be a slightly jumpy, intense, often fun romp through a small slice of Chaz Bono’s life. First, we were inundated with photos and footage from his childhood to remind us that yes, he had been raised female against his will. Look, there he is in a dress! There he is again! Get it fixed in your mind, so you fully understand how amazing this transformation is. It’s a common theme used in discussing trans lives. Cisgender people seem to need that buildup and contrast, but it went on for too long. The footage was re-used so much later that at times the story tripped over it.

Chest surgery was the cornerstone for exploring Chaz’s growth as a man. We followed him and his girlfriend Jennifer Elia down to San Francisco, where he underwent surgery with Dr. Michael Brownstein. Dr. Brownstein is well known in the trans male community for his quality of work, sense of humor, and office “guard” dog Frank. Unfortunately, Frank passed in 2010, and is greatly missed.

This was one of the things I really enjoyed about the movie. It took cisgender people by the hand and led them through Chaz’s process, providing a basic trans education. But it didn’t shut out people in the community, or those who already understand trans issues. We got to see familiar places and faces, like the Southern Comfort Conference, or Mason from the Trans Law Center. The two tracks of the movie worked well, almost like a story within a story. What tied it all together was the complete honesty Chaz and Jennifer shared as they talked about their life together. Nothing was off limits, even if it seemed to verge on hurtful or regretful. Chaz’s transition was supposed to be the centerpiece of the show, but I found myself more drawn in by the love, tension, and commitment between Chaz and Jennifer. All too often, trans people are portrayed as living in a bubble during transition, isolated from family and loved ones. Seeing them standing center stage together, surrounded by people committed to supporting them, was heartwarming and inspiring.

The best decision Chaz made was to take control of the public telling of his story. Watching him work with the publicist really had me enthralled! No, you can’t wear purple shirts, it’s too feminine. Shirts and ties, outdoor looks, pictures shot in stark backgrounds. Stand here in the kitchen and get Jennifer kind of draped over you while you pour some coffee. This last bit elicited an exclamation from Chaz: “Oh my god, this is SO hetero!”. The audience roared with appreciation, and I started to wonder what they were thinking. After the movie I headed over to the premier after party to get some on the ground opinions.

A Quality Film
The first people I talked to were Chante and her friend. They said they came to be supportive, and see a film they’d heard a lot about. It was one of the better documentaries the two of them had seen in a long time. Sometimes folks don’t have much to say, and sometimes they do. Like Laura.

“I’m very angry about Cher’s attitude.”

Laura is the mother of a transgender child and partner to a trans man, who thought that the film was amazing. She admits to having a “high expectation of Cher” because of her status, but still thinks there’s no excuse for what we saw in the interview. It wasn’t easy for Laura to begin the shift when her son came to her at age five and said he was a boy. She understands the difficulties involved in raising a trans child. She feels caught between wanting to cut Cher a little slack and holding her accountable for her actions.

“As a mom, I just think she was being incredibly selfish. I know a lot of parents of trans children, and they would give their right arm to make life easier for any trans child. If I could send a message to her, mother to mother, saying honey, step up to the plate, I would do it in a heartbeat. He is still the child that you pushed into this world.”

The Missing Piece
I talked to a group of younger people who were amazed at how many different things were going on in Chaz and Jennifer’s lives all at once. They also were left with a lot more questions than answers. They were curious about why his chest surgery was the jumping off point. Was that the first thing he did, or did they just not want to show any of the decision making and work that usually leads up to that? His economic status was also a mystery. Why did someone else loan him money for his surgery? How could he afford to sit and play video games for so long during his serious bout with depression? What did each of them do for a living that they had a nice house and had been able to keep it? Did Jennifer work, or just go to school?

One of the youth made the point that these aren’t just idle questions. “Economic status plays a big role in the lives of trans people. I think to dismiss that conversation, it leaves a real missing piece.”

“I Definitely Feel Like I’m Still In The Oven Right Now…”

I really did enjoy a lot of things about Becoming Chaz. It was warm, turbulent, bright, and sometimes even bouncy. The directors did a decent job of holding the tension between making the movie accessible to those who know nothing about trans issues, while keeping the attention of trans people and our allies. Chaz and his family were honest and genuine about their struggles, and the editing that poked fun at the press coverage was amusing and meaningful. Overall, I would say that Becoming Chaz is a winner. The documentary equivalent of a classic short story, we come away having met a man who is still young in his transition, but graceful in navigating the public gaze.

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