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Chaz Bono helps students SpringOut! for LGBT awareness (+VIDEO)

A literal golden child of Hollywood royalty, Chaz Bono spent his middle school years “living my life from the neck up,” being viciously bullied because he was different.

And that was when he was still Chastity Bono, the adorable blonde blue-jeaned daughter of entertainers Sonny and Cher, more than 30 years before he changed his name, his gender and his life.

“I knew at 4 or 5 (years old) that something was different. I remember wondering what had happened to me,” the human rights advocate told a near-full house at MTSU’s Tucker Theatre Tuesday night. “Did I have an accident? Did I hit my head? Did something happen to make me feel differently? I had to try to make the best of it.

Author and LGBT rights advocate Chaz Bono makes a point during his keynote address for MTSU’s SpringOut! week on April 9 in Tucker Theatre. He encouraged the almost-full house to seek out advice and support from trusted loved ones and experts when they face a life-changing challenge but to always remain true to themselves. (MTSU photo by Andy Heidt)

“Being a cute little tomboy was OK, so I was lucky there,” Bono continued, explaining that the onset of puberty, when his body began taking a womanly shape instead of the manly physique he wanted, was a real mental challenge.

“Adolescence was very difficult for me. When I got to middle school, I got a lot of teasing and bullying. I started living my life from the neck up because my body didn’t reflect me and the way I wanted to be treated.”

Bono’s visit was part of SpringOut! 2013, MTSU’s annual weeklong campus pride event for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and their friends and supporters on campus and in the Middle Tennessee community.

MT Lambda, a student organization established in 1988 at MTSU, started SpringOut! in 2003 to bring the campus together via education and entertainment.

The rest of this week’s events include a transgender awareness information table from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday, April 10, on the Keathley University Center Knoll; a free public panel discussion focusing on religion and LGBTQ issues on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the KUC Theater; and a “NO H8″ photo booth on Thursday, April 11, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the KUC Knoll.

More details are available at MT Lambda’s website, www.mtsu.edu/~mtlambda, or by clicking on the event poster below.

MT Lambda also presented its first LGBTQ Advocacy Award to MTSU biology professor Wayne Rosing before Bono’s talk.

“He (Rosing) stood up and defended us when we were just getting started, at a time when it was very dangerous,” explained Josh Rigsby, MT Lambda president, reminding the audience of a few of the negative responses the organization faced in its infancy 22-plus years ago.

“Dr. Rosing stood up and spoke out. Today people click ‘like’ on a Facebook post and think ‘Oh my God, I did something.’ Dr. Rosing openly, publicly took a stand when you would be ridiculed, mocked, threatened, risked losing your job or even being killed.”

The student organization asked Bono to campus for the same reasons, Rigsby said. “MT Lambda chose to invite Chaz Bono to highlight the difficult living conditions for transgender people in Tennessee,” he said.

“Chaz’s appearance highlights the positive and inclusive climate at MTSU and brings awareness to the fact that even within the confines of Tennessee’s legislative difficulties, it is still possible to create a welcoming and supportive environment that is focused on equality.”

Bono, 44, the only child of entertainers Sonny and Cher, was born female. Then known as Chastity, Bono came out at age 18 to both parents as a lesbian. He publicly announced his sexual orientation in 1995 in a magazine and later wrote two books about his life, “Family Outing: A Guide to the Coming Out Process for Gays, Lesbians, and Their Families” and “The End of the Innocence.”

By 2010, Bono had undergone a female-to-male gender transition and legally changed his name to Chaz.

A documentary about his transition, “Becoming Chaz,” premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and later aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network, earning three Emmy nominations. A third book, “Transition: Becoming Who I Was Always Meant to Be,” was published in 2010. He also appeared as a contestant on the fall 2011 season of “Dancing with the Stars.”

Click on this flier for a printable version.

Clad in a sleek gray suit and sounding a bit like his late dad during the elder Bono’s years in politics, Chaz Bono told the MTSU audience that high school was an “incredible experience” because he attended a performing arts academy in New York City where students were more accepting of each other.

He discovered an even greater love of theater there while venturing into life as an admittedly uncomfortable lesbian. Portraying a male role for the first time in a high school production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was an awakening: “That was the first character I really related to,” Bono said.

But his post-high school music career, where he still struggled with makeup, clothing, hairstyles and all the paraphernalia of femininity, was “the most uncomfortable period of my life.”

Outed unexpectedly in 1990 by a tabloid, Bono said he “ran right back into the closet and slammed the door” because of the invasion of his privacy and the awareness that being publicly gay would hamper his burgeoning career. He left music and went to work for The Advocate, a national LGBT magazine, finally deciding to out himself in the publication’s cover story and then moving into gay rights awareness and advocacy.

He became more aware of what he needed to do about his own life, too.

“It took me almost a decade from the time I realized I was transgender to the time I finally made my transition,” Bono said. “From the first shot of testosterone I took, it felt as though a weight was lifted off my shoulders. As time went on, I started to feel more and more like ‘me.’ Really living a full, complete life for me started at 40.”

His LGBT rights work has been aided by people’s familiarity with him since his childhood, he said. “Because I grew up on TV, and my parents were Hollywood’s sweethearts, I’ve had an opportunity for people to be more familiar with me, maybe more comfortable.”

He also encouraged the audience during an enthusiastic Q-and-A session to do their best to ignore hatred, stand by friends and loved ones who are struggling and to ask for help if they’re facing gender and sexuality challenges.

“You can always find people to say mean things,” Bono said, laughingly recalling a man who’s tried to wage a Twitter war with him and keeps wanting to fight. “I want to tell him, ‘dude, I do mixed martial arts. Come on over,’ but I don’t. It’s a waste and it’s not safe.

“And I would never advocate for a kid to come out if there’s a risk of any danger or of being put out of the house, or if you’re in college and your family is paying for your education. Sometimes it’s best to wait and make a plan to come out when it’s safe.”

One young woman asked Bono if he’s noticed more acceptance because he’d moved from life as a gay woman into a “more acceptable class, as a straight white guy.”

Bono paused for a moment, then said, “Well, I’m a trans guy. I think some people put that below ‘lesbian.’ But … strangers are a lot nicer to me than some of those who knew me before.”

Explaining that his discomfort with his female body translated into awkward behavior that confused people, Bono continued that now, after his transition, “I’m a guy. I’m a guy who looks like a guy and acts like a guy. Other than being born female, I’m pretty much any guy.”

You can watch a brief video of Bono’s remarks below.

— Gina E. Fann (gina.fann@mtsu.edu)

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