Chaz Bono: From Girl to Boy to Man in 'Becoming Chaz'

"Becoming Chaz" chronicles Cher's son's journey from girl to boy to man.

January 24, 2011, 10:21 PM

PARK CITY, Utah<br/> Jan. 25, 2011&#151; -- There's boyhood and there's manhood, but the part in the middle, most males don't relish. Not Chaz Bono.

In "Becoming Chaz," the raw portrait of Cher's son's journey from Chastity to Chaz, Bono gleefully embraces the awkward aspects of coming of age. Body hair makes him beam. He takes pride in his breastless chest. It's easy to picture him rubbing his face every morning, yearning for more prickly stubble.

Watching "Becoming Chaz" is like watching a boy go through puberty -- except this isn't just any boy, and this coming of age story isn't the kind that's taught in health class.

"Becoming Chaz" premiered to a packed theater Sunday at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Bono, 41, made headlines in 2009 when he announced his intentions to switch from female to male through hormonal and surgical procedures. Many people didn't know what that meant. A lot of people still don't know what that means. This documentary, which filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato launched when Bono was six months into his transition, aims to change that.

From condemning his feminine features ("I'll be really happy to get rid of these," he declares before going under the knife to remove his breasts) to loathing footage of him from the "Sonny & Cher" years ("I looked retarded on that show"), to his childhood desire to be just like his dad, Sonny Bono (they dressed up in matching houndstooth suits), it's clear that Bono hated being a woman. His aversion to his second X chromosome is underlined by the lengths to which he goes to erase his femininity. There's the tangible -- injecting himself with testosterone, binding his breasts so tight he has trouble breathing; and there's the not -- alienating himself from his mother, forcing his partner to question their relationship.

Speaking of that partner: Throw away any notion that transgender equals dateless. While Bono admits, "There was that fear -- who's going to love someone like me?" his partner, Jennifer Elia, is a beautiful brunette, smart and secure in her convictions, willing to spar with Bono when need be and hold him close when that's the more appropriate course of action. But she's human -- like Bono, she battles substance abuse: He was addicted to pain killers, she, to alcohol. (At a rough point in Bono's transition, she starts drinking again.)

Elia's concerns are both apt and cute: musing about Bono's breast removal, she worries, "What if the nipples didn't stick?" Following Sunday's screening, Bono called Elia the film's true star. Indeed, Chastity may not have become Chaz were it not for her.

There's another star in the picture, of course. No one seems more uncomfortable with Bono's change than Cher. The two appear together in one scene at the end of the movie, after the credits start rolling. But the majority of Cher's input comes via a single-camera interview in which she often refers to her son as a woman.

"I said, you know, can't you just do it quietly? That wasn't her plan," she says. "If I don't recognize her, what will happen? ... I worry about the drugs she has to take in order to keep this."

Cher mourns that she'll never again hear Bono's feminine voice. She submits to the reality that she'll have to start calling him "he" eventually. While Bono's stepmother, Mary Bono Mack, attended the Sundance premiere of "Becoming Chaz," Cher did not. asked her publicist why; she did not immediately respond.

But the general response to "Becoming Chaz" has been overwhelming. Oprah Winfrey bought the rights to distribute the film on her OWN cable channel. At Sunday's screening, Rosie O'Donnell, who's hosting an OWN talk show, gave it her stamp of approval. Howard Bragman, who serves as both Bono's publicist and "Becoming Chaz's" associate producer, said OWN plans to broadcast "Becoming Chaz" in May.

GLAAD, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, praised "Becoming Chaz." "At a time when visibility of the transgender community remains so low in our country, when transgender people are losing jobs and facing violence, it's extremely important that Americans hear stories that help increase understanding and support," GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios said in a statement to "Chaz's courage to share his story helps countless people understand what it means to be transgender and that everyone deserves respect and equality."

"Becoming Chaz" is an admirable, educational endeavor, to be sure. But toward the end of the film, Bono breaks down the documentary's allure in terms to which anyone who's ever been in love can relate.

"Under the best of circumstances, relationships are tough," he says. "You throw in substance abuse and a sex change, it gets more complicated."

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