The unfortunate but important response to Chaz Bono’s casting on Dancing with the Stars

Since Chaz Bono was announced as one of the cast members on Dancing with the Stars 13, there’s been a lot of freaking out. That’s because Chaz used to be Chastity, and the T part of LGBT is the least-familiar and arguably least-accepted type of person among gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. And that’s why it’s important that he was cast and people are now talking about this, even if they’re doing so ignorantly or jokingly.

Cher has defended Chaz as a result of him being “viciously attacked” online, including on ABC’s own message boards. And this morning, Chaz’s partner, So You Think You Can Dance alum Lacey Schwimmer, told the Johnjay and Rich radio show, “The fact of the matter is, he’s a full man, in every shape or form. Everybody should just get over it and accept him and accept him as a human being … he’s so brave and its really good to be a part of it with him,” she said, according to Radar.

That Chaz is partnered with a female shouldn’t freak anyone out, because he’s male, but even that causes consternation. Does it really matter that he doesn’t have male genitalia? It’s not like we’ll ever see that, and no one would suggest that a man who lost his penis or testicles to cancer or an accident was suddenly female.

But as disappointing and even frightening as the responses can be, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this has prompted reaction, whether they’re from ignorant people or from people who should know better, like comedians going for the easy, lazy joke, because all of this is unfamiliar ground.

Lance Bass’ presence on Dancing with the Stars might have gotten the bigots all hot and bothered (literally), but it was ultimately not a huge deal, because from Lance Loud to Ellen DeGeneres to Richard Hatch, there have been other gay people on TV, and familiarity leads to acceptance. Because Dancing with the Stars is one of the most-popular programs on all of television, this is the most high-profile casting of a transgender person. (Top Model had Isis King and is bringing her back for the all-star season, but that’s nowhere near as much visibility as the ABC show provides.)

Besides that, it’s also uncomfortable to think about what actually makes someone male or female, and what that means. GLAAD has a good primer on being transgender, noting that it “is a term used to describe people whose gender identity differs from their assigned sex at birth. Transgender people may or may not decide to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically.”

As much as comedians and others would like to reduce sexuality to simple, easily boxed-off categories and behaviors–stereotypes, basically–it’s ridiculously complicated, and thinking about what it means for someone to be transgender exposes that. There’s so much that’s misunderstood and confusing, and there are all kinds of related issues, like intersexed people or kids born with ambiguous genitalia. There’s a great documentary about some of these issues: Middle Sexes: Redefining He and She.

Anyway, executive producer Conrad Green did a good job of defending his decision, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “We don’t have an agenda of any sorts. I think of the 120 celebrities we’ve put on the show, we’ve had, I think now, three transgender or gay contestants. If that’s a homosexual agenda, we’re not doing very well at it.”

If anything, his comment proves that they need more representation, not less. However long Chaz lasts, the casting alone has kick-started a conversation that I don’t think has ever really occurred on this scale, and shows that people come in all kinds of different forms. And that’s important.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.