History is rarely made on reality TV, but it is this season on “Dancing with the Stars.”
Chaz Bono, the first transgender contestant, has shown the world the importance of family values — broadly understood.
“My whole family’s here,” he announced on the Oct. 10 show.
For Chaz Bono to claim such support is particularly poignant — and not just because Chaz’s mother is Cher, the goddess of pop herself. Most transgender people like Chaz endure heartbreaking family rejection.
Yet what America saw played out on national television — a teary mom enthusiastically applauding her child who happens to be transgender — has actually become increasingly common. According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 43 percent of transgender people manage to maintain family bonds.
The selection of Chaz to compete on the show created a firestorm: The American Family Association started a boycott, denouncing his presence as potentially harmful to children. But others came to his defense, perhaps most notably fellow contestant David Arquette. “I grew up seeing how cruel people could be to someone trying to be true to themselves,” Arquette tweeted, referencing his own transgender sibling, the actress Alexis Arquette.
And so “Dancing with the Stars” has become a sort of showcase for a more flexible version of family values. That such values might even transcend politics got a boost from yet another audience member rooting for Chaz: his stepmom, Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack of California, who was elected to fill Sonny Bono’s congressional seat after he died.
Whether or not family members accept a transgender family member has real consequences in the real world. Sixty-one percent of transgender people have experienced serious discrimination: They’ve been physically or sexually assaulted, lost a job, been evicted, had to drop out of school, experienced homelessness or some other calamitous event because of bias.
However, transgender people who are accepted by their families fare far better on nearly every measure. In other words, maintaining a relationship with someone transgender can help that person have a productive life. Which is really all Chaz is trying to do.
As the 13th season of “Dancing with the Stars” has progressed, the drama surrounding Chaz’s body has shifted to the reality of trying to learn to rumba, cha-cha and quick step when you’re 42, overweight and have bad knees. By the fourth week, when Chaz suited up to dance to the theme song from “Rocky,” he’d become the classic underdog. And many in the studio audience and watching at home joined his mom and stepmom in cheering.
“You make me want to root for you, just like Rocky Balboa did,” said contest judge Carrie Ann Inaba. That’s a victory for people who are transgender — and a victory for real family values.
Minneapolis writer Jacqueline White is writing a book about her marriage (visit mytransgenderhusband.com). For more information about the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, visit transequality.org. White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.