‘Dancing’ into view and, hopefully, acceptance

From Newsday’s Opinion section

ABC-TV’s inclusion of Chaz Bono brings transgender people mainstream attention

When the producers of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” announced last week that Chaz Bono would be one of this season’s contestants, the reaction was swift, if predictable.

Organizations such as GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, called it a “tremendous step forward” in bringing awareness of the transgender community to the public. But many conservative groups were up in arms. The One Million Moms Campaign, for example, condemned ABC, referring to the decision to cast the show’s first transgender person as the promotion of “a destructive lifestyle” and advising viewers to email the network to let them know “we will not tolerate these subjects being forced into our homes.”

“These subjects,” as the group so derisively calls them, are people whose gender now is different from the sex they were at birth. Bono was born as a girl to Sonny Bono and Cher in 1969, and underwent gender-reassignment surgery in 2009.

Most of us have never met — at least not knowingly — a person who has changed genders, and that lack of exposure is one reason that bias is so pervasive. While New York State’s passage of the same-sex marriage bill suggests that gay, lesbian and bisexual people are becoming more accepted in our (let’s be honest) still-homophobic culture, those who don’t fit into our cultural definitions of male and female still make most of us pretty uneasy. It’s one of the first things we ask about pregnancies: “Do you know what you’re having?” We consider gender, male or female, to be one of the most fundamental elements of who people are.

Yes, we’ve come a long way in our gender attitudes when it comes to equal rights for women (though we still have far to go). But, even today, when women can run for president and men can be nurses, we still have fixed ideas about how each gender is supposed to behave. Boys must act like boys, and girls like girls, with all the masculine and feminine concepts we associate with those roles.

But not all people fall into the rigid definitions we’ve created. Moreover, a transgender person no more chooses his or her gender identity than anyone, straight or gay, chooses his or her sexual orientation. As David Kilmnick, chief executive of the Long Island GLBT Community Center, puts it, “It’s not about choosing a ‘lifestyle.’ ”

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey, released in February, suggests that discomfort with those who transgress gender norms leads to a host of injustices. Respondents who identified themselves as transgender were nearly four times more likely to live in extreme poverty and twice as likely to be unemployed. Half reported experiencing mistreatment in the workplace, and 25 percent were fired because of their gender identity or expression. Housing discrimination was also common.

In 2002, New York State passed the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But that bill did not address transgender people. For the last four years, the State Assembly has passed the Gender Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would make it illegal to discriminate based on a person’s gender identity or expression, but that bill has failed to make it to the Senate floor.

Bono put a familiar face to transgender people, and his casting in “Dancing” is bringing the concept into the public discourse as nothing has before. Whether you’re waltzing or doing the tango, that’s a positive step. Hopefully it will make more people aware that it’s time to pass legislation to protect these individuals. And to let go of the biases that make some feel it’s acceptable to discriminate against the Chaz Bonos of the world.