Chaz Bono's reintroduction to America post-transition, through talk show interviews and most especially his appearance as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, marks more than a mere chapter in his life and career. With any luck, it will eventually prove to be a milestone in the advancement of transgender people and progress in transgender rights. Perhaps by virtue of being born into fame, he is really the first transsexual to break beyond the barrier of being known only for their transgenderness and being seen, perhaps even being allowed to be seen, as more than just a transsexual. He is breaking through the barrier of the glaring sensationalism of having changed sex and is being able to present a real, complete human being to the world.
There have of course been other transgender people in the public eye over the years, such as April Ashley, Renée Richards, Susan Stanton and Amanda Simpson. However, they never moved beyond being short-lived news stories, and they were much more talked about and little talked to, with the specific topic of discussion never straying far from their transgenderness. Until transgender people can begin to be seen as truly human, each of us unique, each of different character, each possessing different skills and talents, each having our own hopes and dreams, and each pursuing our own, unique happiness in no way limited to issues surrounding our gender, we will never rise above the stereotypes and caricatures that hold us back. That cannot be achieved through mere education on the subject. That won't change as long as the only thing discussed in connection to us is our transitions and perception of gender. Things will only begin to change when we are seen at a subconscious level by populous masses as full and complete people. Those kinds of changes in perception only happen when you get to know someone as a personal. Only when you experience a whole individual do you begin to comprehend that stereotyped people are in fact whole people.
There are a couple of different basic approaches to achieving this. One is to have the majority of Americans know at least one of us personally, and the other is to have one of us that everyone knows. The former is impractical. There are too few of us, and too many of us who hide to avoid discrimination and conceal our gender history, and we are too held down by discrimination to reach every socio-economic strata in society. The best way to move beyond crawling out of discrimination and begin walking away is to have a genuine celebrity known to most people as a complete person with their minority group membership status a minor quality of their being. Today, women like Ellen DeGeneres, Rachel Maddow and Suze Orman, by simply doing their jobs, are changing attitudes toward gays and lesbians by showing that they can be liked as individuals, be admired for their talents, and be someone people would like to know personally, without regard to their sexual orientation or committed intimate relationships.
I submit that the emergence of a legitimate celebrity from a marginalized minority who is famous for reasons apart from membership in that group is a vital part of creating social progress. Much like Louis Armstrong in the 1920s and '30s for African Americans, or perhaps Elton John in the 1970s for gay people, simply having a crossover celebrity be accepted for their talents by they greater majority puts a human face on an entire minority that previously had their humanity obscured behind stereotypes and caricatures. There is great reason to hope that Chaz Bono can fill that roll for the transgender community.
This also creates an historic point of reference that can be used as a basis of comparison to the progress of other groups. It was about 35 years from the time Louis Armstrong became popular with white audiences until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It's been 35 years since Elton John came out as bisexual, and we are only now seeing gays and lesbians being allowed to assist in defending our country. Based on that, this seemingly innocuous event of Chaz Bono dancing on a TV show means that transgender people are probably looking at another 35 years of struggle at least before they see truly substantive progress in their equality being codified in law.
The true test for Chaz will be whether he can continue to build his career to a place where he can be seen regularly before a broad American audience in a capacity that has nothing to do with his being a transgender man. If he can do that, he will truly be a pivotal figure in transgender history.