When I met my husband, he told me he had a son and a daughter. But after about a month of dating, he came over one night, after his kid-weekend, looking somewhat sad and confused. “Turns out I have two sons,” he told me. “My daughter is going back to school this fall as a boy, and has changed her name. Today was the day she asked me to cut all her hair off.”
“Well, that’s very cool of you to support her,” I said, while inside I thought, What have I gotten myself into?
What I thought, at first, was a passing phase, I have now (four years later) accepted as fact: Ben is a boy and needs my unconditional support. My step-son is my hero. And I recently had the chance to introduce him to his hero, Chaz Bono, the son (and former daughter) of Sonny and Cher and subject of the recent OWN documentary Becoming Chaz as well as a memoir, Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man.
When I met Ben, six months into my relationship with his dad, he was completely settled into his new role; I never knew him as anyone but Ben. He was also kind of a difficult kid -- super-angry at his dad (even three years after the divorce), and therefore at me, and uncomfortable with our weekends together. It took a long time for us to connect, but as he grew older and matured, we grew much closer.
I have been through many phases of understanding with Ben. At first, I thought this was a reaction to the divorce, or how it was handled, or something that happened to him in its aftermath. I doubted his commitment; I worried he was overcompensating. I even felt insulted that he didn’t want to be a woman -- who was anyone to reject my awesome gender?
But through the years, as he has changed his favorite music, movies, sports, and celebrity crushes (poor Vanessa Hudgens, completely forgotten!), he has been unwavering in his commitment to his gender. And after talking to Chaz, watching the documentary, and, most importantly, talking to Ben about his feelings and our shared memories, I am completely committed to supporting him. As is the rest of his family. Some say he’s a lucky kid, but I think we’re the lucky ones, as we’ve watched him handle many difficult situations with a level of calm and good humor I can only envy.
Here’s our conversation with Chaz, who was gracious and generous with his time.
The Stir Blogger: You seem really present and just so at peace and comfortable in your own skin.
Chaz: I am. Totally.
TSB: There was this great moment in the documentary where your mom came out at the end, and she was so charismatic with just the camera guys, and I could really see why she's a star. And I think you have the same quality.
C: Well, thank you.
TSB: And I think Ben has that quality, too: he’s someone people feel at ease with. He just received the Social Justice Award at his high school. His classmates had to write letters to the one person who affected them the most this year, and he got more letters than anyone else.
C: That’s great!
TSB: They are amazing. And Ben is pretty much “out” at school, right?
Ben: I’m starting to. After I watched your documentary, I started to come out.
TSB: Since the documentary, you've become the de facto spokesman for trans issues. I mean, you've had a public childhood. So, does that prepare you for that kind of role, or do you ever just wish you could go through this without having to tell everybody every step?
C: I don't mind that. But the thing that I just always like to remind people of is that I'm just sharing my experience, and that I can't speak for the entire community. It's a really diverse community, and so like if you identify with me and my story, that's great, and if you don't, I'm not trying to slight you. I'm just sharing my experience. That's all I can talk about.
TSB: I've had people that I don't even know just come up to me and ask if Ben is starting hormone therapy, and this is when Ben was 10. I had only just met him! And in the documentary, we see an interviewer just up and ask you if you’re having additional surgery. Is there a polite way to tell people to back off of to answer people when they ask an incredibly intrusive question?
C: Well, if you don't feel comfortable answering it, then just say: “I don't feel comfortable answering that.” People are fascinated and don't understand, and everybody seems to be most interested in the actual physical sex reassignment surgery. And many trans men never even have surgery. So it’s always interesting to me that other people think about it a hell of a lot more than I do.
TSB: I have a great position with Ben, because as the step-parent in the non-custodial home, I don’t have much responsibility and I can just be a cheerleader.
C: How are his parents?
TSB: Great. The mom has been the one to go into the schools and come up with a safety plan. I think it’s hard for her. I imagine how it would be with my daughter: you’ve changed their diapers and kissed their little feet, and you think they’re perfect, and they tell you they are not. You hurt for them.
C: The thing to remember is that the sooner you can get them on hormone blockers, the easier their transition will be. That’s the urgency with kids.
TSB: You’re so kind about your mom. In the documentary, you say she lives a young person’s life, but she was born in the '40s. That’s a level of understanding many people never reach with their parents.
C: It just takes time. Especially for the people who’ve known you your whole life, it’s hard. You have to be understanding. The important thing is the effort. I mean, my grandmother calls me “she,” and I don’t even think about it. She accepts me completely, she’s been supportive of this, but she’s 85 years old and she forgets things. It’s not a big deal, you know?
TSB: In a way, it can be easier for the person who is transgender to be gracious because it’s their journey. As a parent, I want to be protective, to save a kid from every bit of pain, but you can’t.
C: You can’t.
TSB: Ben has told me he’s totally supportive of gay rights, and active in his school’s gay-straight alliance, but he identifies as a straight guy, and it’s uncomfortable when people see him, a guy, in a gay setting, and assume he’s into guys. Is it hard for you to identify with a queer movement when you live as a straight guy?
C: No. For one thing, I thought I was a lesbian for so long, so I’m already a part of that community. The one thing I haven’t really gotten yet, that I’ve been looking for, is some straight guy friends, you know? Most of my friends are women or gay men, which is great, but it would be nice to have a couple of guys that I can talk about women and relationship issues with.
TSB: Right. Not necessarily just guys who used to get their periods.
TSB: I went to a women’s college that recently made the decision to admit trans men.
C: Oh, interesting. I didn’t know about that.
TSB: At first, I was annoyed, but it was explained to me that the school has gone from being “a women’s college” to “a college for people for whom gender is an issue.”
C: I’ve heard that a lot of people are transitioning at women’s colleges, and it makes sense to me because they probably just felt safer doing it in that kind of environment. I wouldn’t want to go to a women’s college myself, but everyone does this a little differently. I’ve always felt very traditionally, heterosexually male. Not every trans guy feels the way I do.
TSB: You and I are the same age. I thought we were pretty hip. I was going to Gay Pride parades in college, I was part of different protests -- I am shocked that there is still something that could shock me.
C: It’s all new. Plus, when it comes to kids, people get very freaked out and scared. But I’m telling you, in my earliest memories, I knew that I felt like a boy.
TSB: Did you feel that way, Ben?
B: Yeah. Definitely.
TSB: I remember watching you on TV, and you were this adorable little kid clunking around in these big shoes and fancy dresses, and you really did look so uncomfortable. I thought it was just because you didn’t want to be on TV, but you say in your book that it was much more than that.
TSB: Ben seemed like such a happy kid, but I guess you never know.
B: I think you said, in the documentary, that you had happy times and stuff. It wasn’t all just thinking about this one issue your whole life.
B: I remember being in my bed when I was little. My mom would ask me “if you could have one superpower, what would it be?” And I’d say something random, like flying. But when I went in my bed, I’d say to myself, if I could have one superpower, it’d be that when I’m with my family, I would be a girl for them, but then when I’m by myself, I could change.
TSB: Oh man. That’s how I felt when I got divorced. I didn’t want to let my family down, but I couldn’t deny how I felt. I know how that feels. There was a New York Times article about gender variant kids, and they quoted a doctor in Oakland who said there are parents who are over-eager to get their kids on hormone blockers. Are you worried there could be mistakes?
C: Those are the unusual stories. Those stories are one in a million. Most people experience the opposite: they can’t get care, and have to look everywhere for a doctor who will treat them. That’s the story to tell.
B: My mom is like, what if you change your mind when you’re older and stuff? And I’m like, that’s like telling a boy what if he want to be a girl when he’s older. It’s just not going to happen. In eighth grade, she told me that I could change schools if I wanted to start life as a girl again, and I was like ... why would I ever want to do that?
C: I think people don’t get that. What if you regret it? Well, for me, I always knew what the right decision was. I was just so afraid that if I made that right decision, I would be rejected by everybody.
TSB: Ben knows we would never reject him for anything except maybe voting Republican. (That was a joke!) But it’s hard to think about him getting top surgery. I don’t make his medical decisions, but if he asked me if he should get a tattoo, I would tell him to wait.
C: But this is different from a tattoo. His life isn’t going to be made or not by getting a tattoo now. If he has to wait, it’s not a trauma. But having to walk around with breasts until he’s 18, that’s going to be really traumatic, right?
B: Every day for me. I was in the bathroom this morning just ... [shakes head].
TSB: Do you remember when me and your mom were trying to get you to wear a sports bra?
B: I hate those things.
TSB: We just thought make it all less noticeable.
C: Do you guys have a support group? I started one in LA called Transforming Family.
TSB: There is a support group here, but Ben didn’t connect with the kids he met in it.
B: They all had gay parents, which wasn’t my situation, and I just couldn’t get with the whole group.
TSB: I know you told me you just want to be treated like a boy. You don’t want to be special, or stand out, or have a security escort from class to class…
B: I don’t want that.
TSB: But I want him to feel safe. I want him to be safe.
C: You need to connect with TYFA, the Trans Youth Family Alliance, and Transforming Family. You’re not the only ones going through this.
At this point in the conversation, Ben and Chaz began talking about Ben’s experiences at high school, and I backed away to let them talk. Chaz is in high demand; he had just signed a long line of autographs, and had friends waiting to take him to lunch. He was tired. He was hungry. And he spent more than a half hour with Ben, who visibly relaxed during their conversation, became more at ease than I have ever seen him.
Since watching the documentary with Ben, I have watched him blossom. I feel like I have met the sparkly, friendly, social person that my husband described -- a kid who all but disappeared during the first few years of Ben’s transition. He’s maturing, and everyone around him can see it. I’m so proud of him, I could burst, and feel lucky to be part of this journey.
*Names have been changed to protect Ben's privacy.