“My mother wants to talk to you.” It was a sentence I hadn’t heard since I was a schoolyard bully. Only this time, the kid’s mom was Cher. Chastity Bono had poked her head in to my office at The Advocate where I was working as Editor in Chief. Bono joined our staff in the summer of 1995 as an occasional columnist and contributing writer. I had offered her the gig following a cover story about her that had appeared in April of that year. “Please talk to her,” the recently out lesbian said, flashing an infectious grin. “She wants to make sure you’ll take good care of me.” Chastity continued, as if reading from a prompter: “Mom is concerned that you’re a radical journalist and will sweep me up in a counterculture and make me a symbol of something.”
I asked, “Did you remind your mom that she was a radical artist, swept-up in a counterculture, and was made a symbol of something?” We both smiled broadly. “Of course I’ll talk to your mother.”
A few weeks passed. Chastity’s first column appeared in the magazine. One morning my assistant yelled from outside my office: “Cher’s on Line One!” He gasped, laughed, and squealed all at once. It sounded like he was choking. “Put her through!” I barked. He made another choking noise as he transferred her call. The phone on my desk began to ring and flash red.
The first thing of consequence Cher said to me was, “Please don’t write about this,” which I haven’t until now. Our chat was not brief. We discussed The Advocate’s mission statement. She said she’d read the magazine “over the years” and gave me her take on it, which wasn’t all that flattering. She questioned me regarding Chastity’s role at the publication. After answering, I rattled-off some acquaintances Cher and I had in common, thinking such associations might ease concerns: Bob Mackie (dresser), Bruce Vilanch (writer), David Geffen (ex-boyfriend), Herb Ritts (photographer), Bill Sammeth (ex-manager). Cher stopped me short of finishing my A-gay list. “I know who you know,” she said, in an octave below her normal speaking voice. Next came the point of the personal phone call: “If you do anything to Chaz that I don’t think is cool, I’ll come and get you.”
16 years later, Cher is seated near me inside a darkened soundstage at CBS in Hollywood. We are members of a studio audience about to watch her son perform on the mystifyingly successful TV show, Dancing with the Stars. Cher adjusts her Missoni-like black and orange poncho several times just as the show goes live. I look at her slight, constant smile, guessing she is hyper-aware that her son has been swept-up in a counterculture and has become a symbol of something.
After almost two hours of mediocre dance routines, Chaz is up. Dressed in a boxing robe and gloves, Chaz labors through a performance choreographed to “Gonna Fly Now” from the film Rocky. During the routine, Cher watches intently. Her fists are clenched. Her eyes are wide. She leans forward over a random Kardashian who’s seated in front of her. After running up a flight of stairs and triumphantly raising his hands over his head, Chaz wraps it up with a masculine flourish. Cher is on her feet now. Her tears start to come, streaming-down her face. Cher receives the judges’ feel-good reviews of her son’s footwork with elation. Chaz heads off the stage as the studio darkens for a commercial break. Under cover of the dimly-lit room, Cher begins to dry her tears with a tissue. People start to congratulate her. She’s truly smiling now, talking openly with those around her. She is all Mom; protective, loving, supportive, raw, egotistical. She is visibly proud of her son — not for what he did, but for who he is.
16 years earlier, immediately after Cher had threatened to come and get me, I remember the wind being sucked out of my lungs. She stayed silent on the other end of the receiver while I caught my breath. I said “You’re selling Chastity short. She won’t let anybody take advantage of her. She’s truly your kid.”
Cher blew by my glowing opinion of her daughter and said, “I want you to know where I stand on this. I am watching. And call me if you think I need to know something.” And then Chastity’s mother was gone. But her status as a fiercely protective mother of an LGBT child endures.