Trans issues have just started to become part of a mainstream vocabulary. Oprah featured pregnant man Thomas Beatie on her show last year and Barbara Walters seems to be obsessed with helping trans kids. But the only celebrity to come out as trans so far has been Chaz Bono, the child of Sonny Bono and Cher.
Cher appeared on Letterman last week, talking about the geriatrics with oxygen tanks who attend her Vegas show, how many men she’s dated and calling Letterman names in the ’80s. But her most sincere moment came when she discussed dealing with her son’s transition. This comes just one week after her discussion on the topic in Vanity Fair hit the web.
Cher clearly did not have much exposure to transgender individuals before Chaz started the discussion with her over a decade ago; but she seems to understand the difference between sexuality and gender identity, even if she does not articulate it particularly well. She fluctuates between referring to Chaz as "he" and "she" but is aware that this is problematic and does her best to remember to call Chaz "he." As a mother she is very supportive and indicates that, to Chaz, that fact is infinitely more important than using the correct pronoun.
Letterman, however, sounds increasingly doddering. He is pretty clueless as to how to start the discussion around trans issues. He admits himself that he is “…ignorant about many things…” to which Cher replies, “I know,” prompting audience chortles. This part of the conversation heads into confusing terminology territory for everyone, as Letterman tries to clarify that Chaz was a lesbian and Cher explains that he was and that he is but “…it’s not the same.” They try to reconcile this conundrum by saying he’s a male lesbian but then reject the term as not making any sense.
I find this particularly interesting because it brings into focus that we construct our romantic and sexual language not merely by whom we are attracted to, but by whom we are attracted to in relation to who we are. Someone who engages romantically with women has a different label whether they are a man or a woman. So when your own identity changes, or is malleable, the language to describe your relationships becomes equally fuzzy.
In this way, the Cher/Letterman combo, most likely unbeknownst to them, has highlighted a problem with the way we characterize sex and gender. Letterman asks, “If a person is a homosexual, what’s the difference that compels them to make a surgical change?” Cher answers that it’s not the same thing, although she doesn’t go into the idea that you can be gay, straight or bisexual as a trans or cisgendered person. She does, however, go into the feelings of gender dysphoria even in children who are prepubescent.
If this conversation had continued I believe they could have gotten to a place where they really wrestled with the idea of what it means to be male or female and even the possibility that many people feel a mixture of both. They got dangerously close to the idea of gender queer, which is huge in such a mainstream context. We don’t yet really have the language to express this bi/poly-gender identity like we do for bisexuality but the time has come to start exploring the creation of such language.
Through all this seriousness, however, and the praise of Chaz’s courage, the interview ended on a humorous note. In response to a poster in which Bill Maher, in reference to Chaz’s transition, says, “If this was your mother you would, too," Cher replied "F–k him."
Touché, Cher, touché.