With the simultaneous publication of Transition, his memoir, and release of Becoming Chaz, his documentary, transgender activist Chaz Bono was seemingly everywhere last May, including on the cover of The Advocate. On Tuesday, when the announcement was made that Bono will appear on the next season of ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, it seemed like a win-win for everyone. The network will likely see a new audience for the 13th season of its hit dance competition series. More important, Bono will able to represent trans people on a bigger platform than ever and on a weekly basis. He has potential to shatter expectations and transcend labels.
But being the show's first transgender performer also comes with the inevitable backlash from conservative viewers. More than a thousand comments were posted on ABC’s message boards. Many of them were extremely negative and accused the network, which also cast Carson Kressley on DWTS, of promoting the LGBT agenda. Bono's mother Cher has tweeted her anger over the negativity, and his DWTS partner, Lacey Schwimmer, has spoken out against the haters as well. Bono, still happily partnered with Jennifer Elia, takes it all in stride. “It’s not surprising to me,” he says. Besides rehearsing and working out to get in shape for the series, he’s also filming Chaz & Jen, a follow-up to his multiple-Emmy-Award-nominated documentary.
Bono tells The Advocate how he feels about the controversy surrounding his casting, pressure he feels to represent trans people, and the spectacular impact he’s made during the past year.
The Advocate: How did your being cast on Dancing With the Stars come about? Did producers pursue you or vice versa?
Chaz Bono: They had mentioned it to Howard [Bragman, Bono’s publicist] last season when I was in the middle of promoting my doc and book. When I was finished with all of that we went back to them. We took a meeting with them, and I think I was the first person chosen to do it.
Having both you and Carson Kressley on a prime-time network program is obviously a huge step forward for the LGBT community.
It is. I keep saying it’s the queerest season of Dancing with the Stars ever.
Besides having to be a good dancer, you also have to represent. What kind of pressure are you feeling?
The more I hear people bitching and moaning about me being on the show, the more it makes me really want to do well. It’s the most motivating thing for me.
Were you surprised by how nasty some of the comments on ABC's site have been?
It’s not surprising to me. What I’ve seen from message boards in general, it brings out a lot of negative-minded people who have negative, bitter, hateful opinions.
Do you think this will be a problem when it comes to the public voting?
I don’t think so. It’s a show where people vote for you, not against me. The people complaining weren’t going to vote for me to begin with, you know?
You’ll be dancing with Lacey Schwimmer on the show. Did you have any say in who your partner will be?
No, but I’m really happy it’s Lacey. I’m thrilled it’s her. We get along great. She’s really fun and an excellent teacher. We clicked really fast. I think we’ll be entertaining because our chemistry is good, so vote for us.
How are you getting in shape in advance for the show?
I was working out before I signed on, but I’ve started doing Pilates three times a week, which is what the producers suggested. I added that to working with a trainer and doing weights and cardio.
What kind of dancing have you done previously?
When I was younger I took a dance class.
Will any of your family come to the show?
My sister is back east in school, so she probably won’t. Maybe my brother will. I think some of my family will be there for the first show, but I don’t know whom yet.
I know that everyone wants to know what your mother thinks of your appearing on the show. Do you ever wish you could do something without everyone asking about her opinion?
Yeah, of course. But I also realize that I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of the things I’ve been able to do if it wasn’t for my parents and them putting me on TV when I was a kid. It’s a double-edged sword.
How would you characterize the overall response to your book and documentary?
I’ve gotten really, really good feedback from people, not just the trans community. People told me that they didn’t really understand transgender people until they saw the documentary or read the book and saw interviews I did. They said it helped educate them and open their minds.
That must be gratifying for you. What did you hear from other trans people?
From the trans community I’ve heard really great things too. It’s been amazingly positive and gratifying. I’ve heard that trans people are being treated better at work since then. Parents are talking to kids again. I had a mom who told me that her son’s teacher came up to her to tell her that she finally understood. I’ve had people contact me and say they’ve been struggling for years and didn’t have the courage but seeing the documentary helped them along. It’s been amazing, and it’s really what I did all of it for. To really hear back from people in a real concrete way about how something you put out there helped them is just amazing.
Do people still slip up and use feminine pronouns?
Sometimes, yeah. Most of the people who slip up are people who’ve known me for a long time. And older people. My grandma can’t get it and that’s fine with me. She’s 85 years old and she can call me she. [Laughs] She’s the only one I don’t correct.
I used to slip when I referred to you, but since I met you I haven’t once. You’re so masculine and comfortable with yourself that I think of you as just another guy.
That’s cool. Very few people slip up. Other than family members and a few friends who’ve known me a long time will sometimes mess up. I think you’re right that when you’re around me it’s not hard to get that I’m a guy.
How do you anticipate reacting if someone on the show refers to you with a feminine pronoun?
I have no idea. It really depends on the context. If someone slips up and says, “She — oops, sorry— he,” I get it. Accidents happen. I’m not a Nazi about it. I know accidents happen. If someone does it in a malicious way or they’re not even willing to make an effort, then it pisses me off.
You were grand marshal at San Francisco Pride this summer. How was that experience?
It was fun. It’s such an iconic pride and it was nice to be a part of it. It was a really great time, actually.
How’s the new documentary coming along?
We’re almost finished. We shoot our last day on Friday. I think it’s going to be really good. It’s hard to tell with these things because so much of it is dependent on the editing. What we’ve done so far is really good. We did in a pretty short period of time. I think people will like it. It’s a bit different from the documentary, but it’s still me and Jen. It’s more like a reality show than a documentary.
Will your grandma be in it?
[Laughs] Yes, she will be in it.
What would you say has been the highlight of this year for you?
It’s been an amazing year. I’m so grateful to be working again and out there doing stuff. For years, knowing that I was transgender and being so afraid of it, I felt isolated from everything. I just wasn’t out in the world and life was hard. But now it’s opened up and I’m so grateful and I feel like I’m living a dream at this point.
Dancing With the Stars will begin its new season on ABC September 19.