Wednesday, October 5, 2011

She's a he's a The importance of gender and our discomfort with those who don't fit in the binary

This season of ABC's hit reality-contest show Dancing With the Stars ("DWTS") welcomed one of the only famous transgender people in America, Chaz Bono. DWTS, for those who don't own televisions or are completely out of the loop, is a television contest show in which celebrities are paired with professional dancers, who teach them complex ballroom dance choreographies. Each week, callers from across America vote one of the celebrities off, resulting in a winner at the end of the season. Unsurprisingly, when DWTS announced that Mr. Bono would be joining its cast, there was an outcry from many who said that his presence would tarnish the show's wholesome, family-oriented mission.  Before the current season of DWTS, many families chose to continue watching the show despite the risque costumes and numerous celebrities with criminal records (Lil' Kim, Kelly Osbourne, Tom Delay, and Steve-O, to name a few), but the minute that a morally upstanding individual--who happened to be a transitioned female-to-male transgender--joined the show, many voiced outrage that ABC had gone a bit too far in inviting controversial figures.

Indeed, according to ABC,, a Conservative Christian group, came out very strongly against Mr. Bono's inclusion on the show, telling  ABC's "Inside Edition," "This is going to be very confusing for children," and encouraging all of its members to write letters to all of the show's sponsors urging them to drop their support. Additionally, many viewers left comments to the announcement on ABC's website, which are captured by

  • You have to literally forsake God, His Word, and common sense to call homosexuality good, normal and acceptable. Chaz is a contestant because of her radical decision; there is no other good reason. There is another gay contestant this season, which makes it obvious that ABC is making a statement…

  • Sorry to burst your bubble but God does not get a kick out of homosexuality nor the transgendered. As a matter of fact he destroyed two cities because of homosexuaity…

  • I think I am done watching Dancing with the stars. None of these people are stars and I sure don’t want to watch and overweight transgendered person try to make a statement for his lifestyle choice. I want entertainment not social statements …
  • It is disgraceful for ABC to take advantage of ‘former’ stars’ mentally ill children. Having a confused person paraded out for everyone to laugh at is not entertaining. It’s just sad and vulgar.
  • How sad we continue to drink the Holllywood Koolade...I'm thinking the Good Ole Days really were good...It's not just's all of TV now. How awful for our kids .
  • It's not hard to figure out why the Muslims in the Middle East hate us! Figure it out...they never bothered us for centuries until our morals went bad. No way. We have always looked forward to DWTS but this year it will be banned from all televisions in the house. How do I explain Chaz Bono to my 7 year old daughter? Um well she says she's a he but he looks like a he only he has she parts. Ridiculous. Way to ruin a good family show.
  • 1. Chastity Bono is not a star; she is the child of two stars. 2. ABC is giving its seal of approval to body mutilation for those with gender identity disorder. 3. It is not bigoted to state facts. 4. It is very Christian and loving to show a person her error, so that she may either correct it or at least not wallow in her sin. Chastity Bono should live a chaste life. 5. Not accepting social anarchy does not make one hateful. 6. The word "hate" has been co-opted by those who wish to paint others who simply disagree with them in a bad light. It is no longer used in its proper sense, as in "despise."

Source: ABC News.  Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, common themes running throughout the negative comments are Mr. Bono's presence and its effects on children, interfering with religious beliefs, "Liberal Hollywood" forcing its views down other peoples' throats, and the fact that Bono's presence is indicative that he intends to force his choices and beliefs on DWTS's viewers. Which begs my question: why? Why is an otherwise upstanding person, with no criminal record or any other record of being even impolite, the center of such a whirlwind of hate-mongering and bigotry? Why does the presence of one person on a dance contest television show create such hype, even though someone like entertainer Lil' Kim, convicted of three counts of conspiracy and one count of perjury, get much less flack?

Could it be, in part, because of gender-based power dynamics, highlighted by feminist legal scholars such as Catharine MacKinnon? Perhaps it also makes people uncomfortable because people who do not experience Gender Identity Disorder do not understand why a person might feel uncomfortable being labeled as one gender rather than the other. Additionally, some might even posit that the advances made by first- and second-wave feminists have created the idea that because men and women are equal, extreme psychological discomfort with one's gender is not a serious enough issue to result in a physical transformation of one's (gendered) body.

Due in part to my fascination with sexual orientation, gender identity, and their interplay with the law, I cannot help but also notice how deeply ingrained sex, or gender, markers have become within the law. Many marriage statutes, and many of the laws affected by the Defense of Marriage Act, turn on one's legal gender with relation to the legal gender of the people with whom one legally associates, particularly in marriage but also in any close family setting. And yet, gender markers can be found on many identification papers that have nothing to do with legal status. For example, I recently learned that the Philadelphia metropolitan transportation association (SEPTA) regularly issues monthly bus passes with "M" or "F" stickers on them, in order to "prevent fraud." It seems clear that gender non-conforming individuals with bus passes could easily be policed and prosecuted if the bus drivers do not believe their presented gender matches the sticker on their bus pass.

Gender is so wrapped up in identity that in order to completely transition as a transgender person, one must go through a legal process to acquire a court order to change gender markers on all relevant documents.  Interestingly, even if one's gender markers are all legally changed, one still might run into bars on legal rights with respect to marriage, family rights, and inheritance because of one's birth gender. See, e.g., Littleton v. Prange. 9 S.W.3d 223 (Tex. Civ. App. 1999), cert. denied 531 U.S. 872, 121 S.Ct. 174, 148 L.Ed.2d 119 (2000).

Also of concern to me is the idea that transitioning genders somehow indicates that someone is morally depraved or a sexual deviant. Gender and sexual attraction certainly do have some links. But many fail to understand that one's genitals and gender markers oftentimes have many more legal implications than just the kind of person one is attracted to--none of which have anything to do with a likelihood of sexual depravity.

And, what about Chaz Bono, who was born to mega-celebrities Sonny and Cher Bono, and whose sexual orientation and gender identity and subsequent transition have thrust him onto center-stage as a spokesperson for transgender issues across the country? Chaz never had a choice about whether these deeply personal issues affecting his core identity would be something about which virtually all of those around him would know, regardless of whether he chose to share them. Whether or not he wanted it, Mr. Bono will hopefully make history. LGBT activist Erica Keppler wrote today in The Huffington Post
With any luck, it will eventually prove to be a milestone in the advancement of transgender people and progress in transgender rights. Perhaps by virtue of being born into fame, he is really the first transsexual to break beyond the barrier of being known only for their transgenderness and being seen, perhaps even being allowed to be seen, as more than just a transsexual. He is breaking through the barrier of the glaring sensationalism of having changed sex and is being able to present a real, complete human being to the world.
With any luck, brave spokespersons like Chaz Bono can further help this country begin to disengage from centuries of sex discrimination and gender power politics. And, perhaps one day gender markers will be unnecessary to determine any legal issue before the court, and will therefore be eliminated from public documents and legal disputes. Until then, we must all work to overcome the burdens we were born with in the form of sex organs and secondary sex hormones. Despite the negative outbursts, Chaz Bono's support from many has been a refreshing reminder that not all hope is lost.


Megan said...

Wow. It does not surprise me that the comments around Mr. Bono are so negative, but it saddens me. And it saddens me that the rhetoric is always so child-centric--the poor children who will be so confused. In reality, it is precisely children who should be exposed to difference, and that includes all sorts of differences. There is a constant struggle for schools today to provide adequate and effective anti-bullying education, because frankly, bullying has simply gotten out of control. Just last year, a 13-year old boy in San Francisco committed suicide after being harassed for being gay. San Francisco Unified School District, along with some other Bay Area school districts, developed a "family awareness" curriculum in response to the tragedy. The curriculum was introduced at the elementary school level and its intent was to expose children at an early age to different types of relationships (mom/mom, dad/dad, mom/dad). The curriculum also had a gender spectrum piece, which took care not to bring up the idea of sex or sexuality. The curriculum was immediately challenged, however, by the Pacific Justice Institute (right-wing organization) as constituting sex education, which is heavily regulated. My response to this all is that exposure, and especially early exposure, is essential to combat hatred which too often leads to tragedy. Having Mr. Bono on Dancing with the Stars is a step in the right direction and I am happy that ABC did not decide to scrap the contract based on these negative Nancy's.

AMS said...


Like Megan, I am so happy that ABC chose to keep their contract with Chaz Bono despite the controversy. Yet, the outcry you highlight--especially when juxtaposed with DWTS celebrities possessing criminal records--reveals much about what the general American public likely considers "moral" or "immoral." It may also indicate what that same general public is willing to forgive in its celebrities.

Crime, especially amongst celebrities, is not atypical. In fact, between all the crime-driven television programming, movies, video games, etc., Americans seem to enjoy the concept of a rebellious celebrity criminal. Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Lil' Kim serve as great examples of criminal female celebrities who continue to capture the American audience despite their transgressions.

Whereas many gay and lesbian celebrities seem to have achieved much acceptance in the American entertainment scene (e.g. Ellen Degeneres, Neil Patrick Harris, Cynthia Nixon, etc.) transgendered individuals are still new and different to many Americans. Furthermore, the female to male transition might even be more "different" than the male to female transition.

Ultimately, I believe that most Americans struggle with accepting that which is different. In a sense, it's human nature to resist that which one does not understand, but (and maybe I say this as someone with a higher education) we should know better. People should know that opening oneself to different ideas, concepts, and activities often leads to a more fulfilling existence. I know that's true of my personal experience and of the experience of those dear to me.

The question of how one will explain gender identities to their children sounds much like an excuse to me. These people, in my opinion, seem to prefer to hide the truth rather than to accept that some things and people fail to fit our stereotypical ideas of gender. Whether this hiding is due to a desire to "protect" children or just a general bias, I find it quite unfortunate.

As an ally, I hope that the brave and daring choices of television networks, entertainment writers, and LGBTQIA individuals (especially the BTQIAs like Bono) help to transition the "typical" American into a more accepting individual. In addition, I hope that as future lawyers we find ways to show the world that acceptance and tolerance is far more productive than resistance and denial.

tomindavis said...

Nice post again, Caitlyn. I especially liked your insights into how transgender plays out in the law, and is affected by it. It is also clear, as you note, that society has entrenched and widespread pockets of resistance to this kind of "abnormality." I was 100% not surprised to see those comments, worried about the kids, etc. Yet I also wonder what conclusions we can draw from those snippets of intolerant vitriol. The shrillest voices are always the first to be heard (which is why I adamantly avoid the groundlings spouting forth in ALLCAPS at the bottom of NYT articles!). And those loud, shrill voices represent the "moral majority," but as you hint and hope, that majority is likely getting smaller and smaller in prooportion to the LGBT minority it has forever swamped. It is a good thing that ABC stuck by its guns. In this new era, where increasingly, people, politicians, and businesses accept gay rights, this isn't such a big leap. But those disgusting voices will always make it harder for folks like Chaz, when they don't have high-powered ABC on their side.

AMA said...

I'm so glad you wrote about this! I was so upset about some of the responses to Chaz being on DWTS that I wrote to ABC to support their bold decision to keep Chaz on - and I do believe it was a bold one. I'm so saddened, but not at all shocked, to see some of the hateful (and fearful) responses to Chaz; it is abundantly clear that discomfort/intolerance/hate towards the trans community remains strong. What gets me the most, is how people always revert to excusing their bigotry with the excuse of "protecting the children" - wasn't this also an excuse with segregation and other racism or yore? Prejudice is learned, and it is parents who are setting a bad example. I remember my mom telling me when I was young that kids are a reflection of their parents. With all the tragic suicides of gay teens lately, it's hard to excuse parents teaching anything but tolerance and acceptance of difference, yet, like my mom would say, the biggest bullies have bullies for parents.

I admire Chaz for being an out transman and proud member of the queer community, especially since his life has always been in the spotlight. I truly hope that his appearance on DWTS will open people's eyes and show that trans people (or gender non-conformists in general) are not the monsters that they are too often made out to be. GO CHAZ!!

Girl Talk said...

I am familiar with the outrage that resulted from Chaz's participation with DWTS, and that outraged me. While I can't say I am surprised, I will say that I am sad and this further diminishes my faith in humanity.

Your statement that "the minute that a morally upstanding individual--who happened to be a transitioned female-to-male transgender..." made me think that while you and I consider him to be morally upstanding, it is exactly that which is in dispute in the minds of those outraged. Homosexuality or "deviant" gender identity is immoral in itself according to these people.

The comment that "there is another gay contestant this season, which makes it obvious that ABC is making a statement" made me think of what people refer to as the "gay agenda." Anything that even remotely has to do with gay people or anything that can be interpreted as homosexual is accused of pushing the "gay agenda." What is ABC's statement by including gay contestants? That they don't discriminate? How is that a bad statement? The "statement" would be far worse if they chose to ban gay contestants from the show - what message does THAT send to children? The message of intolerance.

The people who are concerned with their children being exposed to gay and transgender people shouldn't be parents. Brainwashing your kids to be intolerant of people different than themselves and discriminate is primitive and does not bode well for the future of humanity.