Culture

Sex, Gender And Dancing With Chaz Bono

Chaz Bono (R) and Jennifer Elia attend an awards ceremony in Los Angeles earlier this month. i i

Chaz Bono (R) and Jennifer Elia attend an awards ceremony in Los Angeles earlier this month. Noel Vasquez/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Noel Vasquez/Getty Images
Chaz Bono (R) and Jennifer Elia attend an awards ceremony in Los Angeles earlier this month.

Chaz Bono (R) and Jennifer Elia attend an awards ceremony in Los Angeles earlier this month.

Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

A person's sex is unambiguous. As a result of biology, we're born either male or female. A person's gender, by contrast, is a matter of social construction. If we're born female, we may choose to act in ways considered in our society to be masculine — or vice versa.

This dichotomy between sex and gender is often asserted as fact, and may seem like common sense. But it's flat wrong. A person's sex can be socially constructed.

Intersexuals (once referred to as "hermaphrodites") born in the U.S. during the 1950s provide a striking example. As reported by the scientist Anne Fausto-Sterling in her book Sexing the Body, babies born at that time with some mix of male and female sex organs were routinely altered by surgery within a day or two of their birth. Following the removal of the penis or clitoris, the baby was assigned either female or male status and raised by parents in ways concordant with that status.

Many of the parents, in keeping with advice from their doctors, said nothing about their children's intersexuality to people in their communities — or to the children themselves.

The practice of early, urgent, and secret surgical sex assignment in cases of intersexuality is no longer popular among physicians in this country. But sex is still socially constructed when people born male choose as adults to become female, or those born female choose to become male. The case of Chaz Bono tells us that enormous unease still exists in our society when individuals celebrate, rather than hide, that transformation.

Chaz Bono currently appears on the TV reality show Dancing With The Stars (DWTS). Bono isn't intersexual; he was born a girl, in 1969. Those of us of a certain age remember the debut of Chastity (Chaz's birth name) on his parents' variety TV program, the Sonny and Cher Show. Later in life, Chastity came out as a lesbian. At age 40, after sex-change surgery and testosterone injections, Chaz finally realized his long-held dream of living as a man.

Uproar has resulted from Chaz's appearances on DWTS. I learned this first from my Facebook feed, where a woman I know, a diehard fan of the show, declared that she wouldn't watch it until "she" (Chaz) was kicked off. Chaz's transformation from Chastity upset her greatly, and she's not alone. The psychiatrist Keith Ablow has warned parents not to allow their children to watch Chaz, for fear that their developing, and thus vulnerable, gender identity might be disrupted. For the record, no evidence exists to suggest that watching a transsexual dance on television causes children any harm.

Although the word "transgender" is sometimes used to describe Chaz, the term "transsexual" is more accurate. Transgender people are born as one sex and identify with, act, and/or dress as the other. They haven't had sex-reassignment surgery, although some may go on to have it in the future.

The primary issue is of course people, not terminology: People like Chaz Bono, who have a right to transcend biology and to become, physically and emotionally, the sex they know themselves to be. And the rest of us too, who react to Chaz Bono's dancing presence. We can transcend an evolved tendency to think in fixed binaries, and arrive together at an acceptance of constructed sex as well as of constructed gender.


Barbara J. King is a biological anthropologist at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, the writer of non-fiction science books, most recently Being With Animals, a guest contributor to 13.7 and a Twitter addict.

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