Transitioning genders is always challenging. But if you’re a public figure, a whole other level of complexity is added to the process. When Chaz Bono started living as a man, the weight of fame placed on him by his famous parents — Sonny and Cher — meant he had to do things a little differently.
Bono’s transition is documented unflinchingly in Becoming Chaz, which makes its Canadian premiere at the Hot Docs festival (April 28 to May 8). Created by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, the team behind The Eyes of Tammy Faye, TransGeneration and Rupaul’s Drag Race, the film follows Bono over the course of 18 months and features interviews with his doctor, his partner, Jenny, and numerous family members, including his very famous mother. Intermingled are scenes of Bono getting testosterone injections and top surgery.
Barbato and Bailey first met Bono back in the 1990s while shooting The Real Ellen Story, a documentary on DeGeneres that was made shortly after she came out. Bono, still living as Chastity, was then media director of GLAAD and was interviewed for the film. When he decided to transition, Bono approached the filmmakers about making the documentary.
Having been a celebrity practically since birth, Bono was well aware of the fact that his transition would have to be made in the public eye. Since he couldn’t do it in private, he wanted to at least have some control over how his story was relayed.
“He would have been hounded by the paparazzi and landed in every tabloid if he had tried to do it in secret,” Barbato says. “One way or another, his transition was going to be a public event. That made the decision to go through with it harder, but it also informed how he went about the process.”
Bono made regular appearances on his parents’ variety show as a child, a fact not lost on the filmmakers, who have included clips of him in frilly dresses with blonde pigtails, trading jokes on air with his mom and dad.
“Chastity Bono was such an iconic figure in America for people of a certain generation,” Barbato says. “That fact informed the whole aesthetic of the film.”
The expectation from the public that Cher would appear in the film was obvious to the directors from the beginning. But despite her status as a gay icon, audiences may be surprised to learn that she actually had difficulty accepting the transition, unable to refer to Chaz by his new name or male pronouns.
“Some people wouldn’t want to hear that this process was difficult for her,” Barbato says. “They want Cher to be Cher and just sing a song and rise above it. But in this film she isn’t playing Cher. She’s a mom struggling with her child’s decision to transition genders.”
“Over the course of shooting it, it became really apparent to us that it’s not her film,” he adds. “She’s a supporting character, and obviously we had to include her and examine her attitudes and feelings towards what he was going through. But ultimately this is Chaz’s story.”