Chaz Bono Gives Voice To An Often 'Invisible' Community

Activists: People often don't notice female-to-male transitions like Bono's.

June 12, 2009, 4:28 PM

June 13, 2009 — -- Transgender men fighting for legal protections say Thursday's announcement by Chastity Bono, child of Cher and the late Sonny Bono, that she will be transitioning from female to a male as Chaz Bono is a welcome break from an all too common "invisible" paradox.

For reasons that are part biology and part society, transgender men say in some ways they have an easier time being accepted and recognized as masculine than transgender women have being perceived as feminine.

Yet at the same time, there has been a virtual black hole in public awareness of female-to-male transgender people.

"Testosterone is a powerful chemical," said Justin Tanis, a female-to-male transgender man and the community education and outreach manager for National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, D.C. "For people who are female-to-male, it really changes your body and it makes it easier for people to perceive you as male."

Doctors and transgender men say, unlike estrogen in a male body, testosterone can transform a female body -- even within a year -- to have facial hair, a deep voice, and other typical masculine features.

"Oftentimes, we see someone walking down the street with a beard and a deep voice," said Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center in California. "We assume they are male. Testosterone does that."

"As I come out to people, I'm used to getting very interesting looks," Davis said. "They do not look at me and think that I am transgender. Many of us fit in very seamlessly in the world and look like the guy next door."

In fact, Davis said many people he's met in public life had no idea that transgender men existed, yet, "they can cite many characters, or notable people, who were transgender women."

And while one of the main goals for those who wish to live in society as the opposite of their biological sex is to "pass," meaning to blend in and go unnoticed, activists must struggle to raise awareness of transgender people in order to earn legal protections and rights.

The Law Regarding Transgender Discrimination

"I would say, overall, transmen and transwomen face the same challenges," said Davis. "We find that the experience of discrimination is pretty consistent, especially employment and housing."

Activists like Davis and Tanis are pushing for a bill in Congress that would offer federal protections against transgender discrimination in the workplace.

Some states, including California, where Chaz Bono lives, already have such laws. However, a 2008 study of 646 transgender adults in California showed employment, housing and poverty troubles abound.

"We found that 70 percent had experienced some sort of discrimination at the workplace or otherwise," said Davis. "It found transgender people are two times more likely to be unemployed and two times more likely to live at the poverty line of $10,400 a year."

One in five of the respondents reported being homeless since they first identified as transgender. Yet, the respondents were two times more likely to have a bachelor's degree than the general California state population.

Davis is also fighting for health insurance coverage of transition treatment. Although both the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association published statements in 2008 recommending health insurers cover hormone injections, surgery or any other transition care, many private health insurance companies refuse to pay.

According to Davis, coverage of transition treatments goes beyond a money issue. Often, transgender people need written letters from doctors showing some sort of transition treatment or proof of full-blown surgical procedures in order to get the sex on driver's licenses and other legal documents changed.

"I do think that it's important to note that the decision to transition is very personal; for instance, not everyone takes hormones," said Davis. "What's really important to remember is that no matter which hormone you're on or what measures you take to transition, that it's impossible to do that privately."

Estimating the Number of Transgender People

Most researchers agree that it is hard to count numbers of transgender people. Many do not want to be identified and the definition of "transgender" can be problematic for some.

But at least one European study showed that the amount of people openly identifying themselves as transgender is on the rise.

"What we're seeing is more countries where this is beginning to be a significant issue among the population," said Stephen Whittle, professor of equalities law at Manchester Metropolitan University in the U.K. and president of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health.

"People do not like the way they have to perform their gender in daily life," Whittle said. "They're not comfortable. They don't like the things they have to wear and the things they have to do."

Physicist and electronic engineer Stephenne Rhodes, owner of Rhodes Research, said a number of European studies are pointing to increased documentation of transgender people. In a study she will be presenting at the upcoming meeting of The World Professional Association for Transgender Health, Rhodes estimates that the documentation of the transgender population will double every four to five years.

Rhodes added that while accepted statistics -- such as those from the American Psychological Association -- show that the number of transsexual men and women are 1 in 10,000 people and 1 in 3,000 people, respectively, experts agree those numbers are probably lower than they should be.

In fact, Rhodes believes that the ratio of transgender men and women is closer to one-to-one.

As the number of out and vocal transgender people rises, this will start to be a legal issue as they demand more rights, and economically as they demand insurance cover treatments like hormone therapy and plastic or reconstructive surgeries.

For now, Chaz Bono's representative has not specified the transition treatments Bono will undergo.

"We ask that the media respect Chaz's privacy during this long process as he will not be doing any interviews at this time," Howard Bragman said in a Thursday statement to the press.

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