Just Another Gender Transition Story

12/02/2009 10:02 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I've been trying over the past few weeks to decide why the story of Chaz Bono's gender transition is such a yawner for me. Shouldn't I think the news of the female-to-male transition of Sonny and Cher's only child is a big deal? After all, his story made the Nightly News with Brian Williams on NBC and other similar newscasts.

It's not a question of whether or not Chaz is a great spokesman. In his interview with Chris Cuomo on ABC's Good Morning America, Chaz was clear, concise and compelling. So why was I yawning?

It took the quiet of the Thanksgiving holiday to figure out what my problem was. My clarity came when I sat down to read a book of essays by transgender people, some about their gender transition and others about their gender questioning and/or exploration. I kept falling asleep as I tried to read the stories. The problem was clearly more than the effects of the tryptophan from the day's wonderful dinner.

What I realized is that, as a transgender woman, I've "heard it all before." Hundreds of stories like these. All with similar themes -- dealing with the stigma of being transgender, striving to gain acceptance of stunned family, friends and colleagues, and struggling to hold onto the job and home in the many parts of the country where it is still legal to discriminate against transgender people. The stories are not sensational to me anymore.

But hasn't every American heard at least one of these stories by now?

The answer, apparently, is "no." And as I thought about it more, that answer made sense. Gender transitions are complicated, and with so much news to read and watch, people don't take the time to follow a gender transition story unless it affects someone in their own lives. My own family, for example, is now quite adept at explaining what happened to me. Their neighbors -- not at all.

And then I thought about the number of times people had, just after meeting me and becoming aware of my transgender status, forwarded a gender transition story to me that was clearly only the second such story they had heard of beside mine.

And therein lies the reason that Chaz's transition from female-to-male IS a big deal. So many people know his parents' songs, and some knew Chaz's late father's efforts as a member of the U.S. Congress. As is the case with most celebrities, people know about their children, too, and want to know what is going on in their lives. And if a gender transition is part of a celebrity child's life, people will want to understand it.

I get it now. The day that the average American understands about being transgender, and the issues we face, will come only after we have had gender transitions of high profile people such as Chaz. Being transgender alone does not make you into a celebrity. Being a celebrity who is transgender -- well, that makes you even more of a celebrity, and increases understanding in the process.

Just think. Suppose it had been the case that the late great news anchor Walter Cronkite, often considered one of the most trusted figures in the United States, had been transgender, and suppose that he'd come out about his gender transition while still at the CBS news desk. Imagine how much further along we'd be today in understanding transgender people if we'd been witnesses to Uncle Walter's transition.