Chastity Bono, the golden-haired daughter of singing supercouple Sonny Bono and Cher, first won America's hearts at age 2 when she appeared on her parents' smash hit variety show, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.
As the only child of the iconic couple, Chastity grew up in the shadow of her parents' fame. Their picture-perfect TV image was shattered when Sonny and Cher divorced. Fans were crushed and Chastity's world was turned upside down.
At 18, Chastity privately revealed to her parents what she had known for years—she was a lesbian. Worried what the revelation would do to her budding music career, Chastity kept the truth hidden from the public eye. While the tabloids swirled with rumors about her sexuality, Chastity didn't come out publicly until she was 26 years old.
Then, Chastity suffered two devastating losses. In 1994, her long-time girlfriend passed away. In 1998, Sonny died in a freak skiing accident. Chastity then became addicted to prescription pills, taking so many she went into liver failure. She's been sober since 2004.
Still, no one knew Chastity was hiding another agonizing secret. In 2009, 40-year-old Chastity released a stunning statement: She was becoming a man. In May 2010, Chastity legally and physically became Chaz.
Chastity's transition is documented in the film Becoming Chaz. For nearly 16 months, cameras followed Chastity as she physically and mentally transitioned from being a woman to becoming a man. "I don't have the luxury of doing things privately," Chaz says now. "So I thought, 'Let me do the opposite and try to really help people and bring understanding and shed light on this issue that so many people just can't seem to wrap their head around."
As a child, Chaz says he never felt comfortable in his own body. "When I was really little, it was very clear to me that I felt like a boy, and my friends were all boys," he says.
Chaz says puberty was an extremely difficult time for him. "It felt as if my body was, like, literally betraying me because I went from a very athletic, straight-up-and-down little kid to a very curvaceous woman, and it was just horrifying to me," he says. "You have this image of yourself, and all of a sudden, your body just does exactly the opposite of how you feel."
Chaz says he was also a tomboy as a child, something his father accepted more readily. "I wanted to be just like him, so any parent is going to love that," he says. "It was easy for him because I was like a son, and so I wanted to do all the things that he wanted to do, and we played sports and roughhoused in the pool and all of that."
Chaz says there was more of a conflict with his mother. "I completely understand why it must have been difficult. You have this expectation of your baby girl and how that's going to be, and I didn't act anything like she probably imagined," he says. "It always felt like a series of negotiations with us, with me trying to figure out how to feel as comfortable as possible without making her too upset."
In 1995, Chastity came out to the world as a lesbian. "When I was 13 and I'm starting to go through puberty and I'm starting to have feelings of attractions to other women, I just made the obvious connection that I must be a lesbian," he says. "And that identity worked for a little while. It made me feel better."
Still, Chaz says there was a nagging feeling that he never quite fit in. "I went through periods of happiness, but life was just always so much more difficult," he says. "The truth is, in a lot of ways I didn't realize the extent of how difficult it was until I had something else to compare it to."
Chaz says he had a moment of awakening while watching the movie Boys Don't Cry, about a young woman trying to live as a man. "I think it kind of awoke our culture in a sense," he says. "Probably two years after that was when I started to really figure this out and really examine it."
Chaz says he realized he wasn't a lesbian after all. "I always had this idea that, 'Sure, I wished I was a boy and felt more like a boy and all of that.' But I wasn't, so I would deal with it. And I for some reason thought there were other lesbians that felt that way and that was just part of that community," he says. "Then I started to realize, no, that isn't what a lesbian is at all. That's what being transgender is."
Still, Chaz says he wasn't ready to act. "I was too afraid to do anything about it," he says. "And that was really when a lot of the difficulty for me began."
For 10 years, Chaz says he didn't have the courage to start living his life as a transgender man. In those years, he struggled with the deaths of his partner and his father, and a painkiller addiction. "Getting sober was like the first step towards anything because you can't do anything when you're in that state," he says.
Chaz says he then started to go to therapy and learned he needed to focus on himself. "It was growing up and getting the clarity that my needs need to come first," he says. "Everybody else in my life are adults, and they will handle their emotional process around this, and I'm just responsible for myself."
Chaz says one of his biggest fears about transitioning was his mother's reaction. "I had talked to her a couple times that I was having these feelings and experiencing this, and I didn't know what was going to happen," he says. "Then in July of 2008 was when everything turned around for me and I knew I'm doing this."
He told Cher first. "I said, 'I need to come over and talk to you,'" he says. "I just said, 'I've been struggling with these issues around my gender identity for a long time, and I've made the decision that I'm going to transition and this is something I have to do.' And she was unbelievably cool."
About a month after Chaz began receiving testosterone injections, he says his mother started pulling away. "When my voice started to change, I think, is when it really hit her," he says.
Chaz and Cher attended a counseling session, which Chaz says ended badly. "I just realized that she was really having a hard time with all of this," he says. "The hard thing for my mom, I think, is that because she's a public figure and because she has this personality of kind of being so cool about stuff and progressive, people forget that she's a parent."
In Becoming Chaz, Cher talks about how she really feels about Chaz's decision. She admits it's not easy to let go of her little girl. "It's hard because when she was young, she was just like the cutest girl, and I made clothes for her," Cher says. "She was just my little girl. And then later I thought, 'She's just a real tomboy.'"
Still, Cher looked inside herself to realize how important this transition was for Chaz. "This is the thing that makes me know how important it is: I like being a woman so much. If I woke up tomorrow and I felt like I feel, and I looked down and I was in a different body? I would be, like, 'Get me out of here.'"
Chaz says when the reality of becoming a man hit Cher, they didn't speak for months. "I was so nervous. Like I hadn't seen her and hadn't seen her, and I was putting it off," Cher says. "And my boyfriend finally said, 'This is crazy. Just do it. You've got to do it.' And I said, 'But I'm so terrified. What will happen? If I don't recognize her, what will happen?'"
Cher says at some point, she will start referring to Chaz as 'him.' "It just doesn't seem comfortable to me yet. Or actually, I just can't remember, you know? And I guess I'll just start forcing myself," she says. "But at some point, I'm sure that will make her happier."
In a way, Chaz says, Cher has to grieve for her daughter. "This is an incredibly difficult process for parents," he says. "The truth is that a lot of parents never speak to their transgender kids again. That's not the case in my family. There's no doubt about her love for me."
Today, Chaz says his mother is coming to accept his new identity. "She sent me a text this morning, and it was really nice. She's always called me Da. And when I started to [transition], she said, 'I've got to call you Da. I can't not call you that,'" he says. "But actually she wrote in her text today 'Chaz.' And that was huge. She's moving in the right direction. It's just a process."
Chaz says his mother has seen the documentary and liked it. "I think that part of it is making her really happy. Because, of course, that's all parents really want their kids to be is happy," Chaz says. "I'm proud of her for dealing with this and really making an effort. And that means a lot to me."
From injections to surgery, Chaz's longtime girlfriend, Jenny, was by his side the entire transition. Jenny says she learned early in their relationship that Chaz was thinking of transitioning. "Actually I was told through an ex of his that he was, in fact, trans and wanted to be a man, which was presented in sort of a challenging way," she says. "So I said, 'Well, I better ask.' And I did. And he said to me, 'Yes, this is true.'"
Originally, Chaz told Jenny that he didn't plan on transitioning immediately but sometime in the future. "He said to me, 'I'm not going to do anything about it right now. I'm comfortable living as masculinely as possible. But I do not want to grow old as a woman, and I couldn't imagine doing that. So at some point, I will probably transition.'"
Chaz says the idea of growing old as a woman repulsed him. "It was just a horrible thought," he says.
Then, three years into their relationship, Chaz says he and Jenny got into a fight that changed everything. "All the emotion and all the feelings that I had been repressing for so long literally came out in a primal scream of something that's never happened to me before. There were no words. I was just screaming and pounding the walls. I was like an insane person, and I think it hit both of us at that moment that I need to do this. This is what is inside. This is the pain and the anger and everything that's inside of me, and this is not healthy."
One of the most satisfying parts of the surgery for Chaz was seeing his breasts removed, he says. "From the time they grew, they just felt completely wrong on my body, and I hated them," he says. "I did everything to de-emphasize them and take the attention away. They just made me incredibly uncomfortable. When they were gone, I felt physically like how I always thought I was supposed to feel."
This physical change was the first step toward a complete change in Chaz's mind and body. "I started to just feel more outgoing, more confident. Life just became so much easier," he says. "I was completely more alive."
When Chaz first transitioned, Jenny says the relationship was great. "Then there was a period where I felt he was going through a hypermasculine moment," she says. "His reactions as a man were now different than his reactions as a woman."
Today, Jenny says Chaz is more in touch with than Chastity. "He was, and is, more in touch with his emotions. When he was in a female body, he buried his emotions," she says. "So anger, happiness, sadness, he actually felt."
Despite all his changes, Jenny says she never considered breaking up with Chaz. "It did get difficult at one point last summer," she says. "It was never in my mind that we would ever break up."
Chaz says it felt as if he and Jenny had to relearn how to communicate with one another. "Things had changed," Chaz says. "Me saying the same thing that I would have before with a deeper voice and more of a presence suddenly didn't mean the same thing to her."
Even without the surgery, Jenny says that sex with Chaz as a man is different than sex with Chaz the woman. "It's better," she says. "Mentally and emotionally he is more alive."
Chaz and his aunt Georganne, Cher's sister, are extremely close. Still, when Chaz told Georganne he was considering surgery, she was skeptical. "I did not understand, which was very unusual for us because we had been so close through his whole life," Georganne says. "I think for Chaz it was probably unusual for me not to just be automatically supportive. It was just something I didn't understand at the time."
Georganne says she was able to truly accept her new nephew after seeing Becoming Chaz. "I was really afraid," she says. "My husband made me go [see the movie]. He was just like, 'Don't be silly. This is Chaz. This is the soul that you know.'"
The minute she saw Chaz for the first time, Georganne says she knew their relationship would be fine. "It was my Chaz, and the soul of the person came through, and that was that," she says.
Georganne says she believes Chaz has a good understanding of how his mother—her sister—must be feeling. "I'm not a parent, so I can't speak to that, but I would suppose, as a mom, that's a process that's got to be difficult."
Though Chaz had the breast surgery, he has no immediate plans to have genital surgery. "I find that this is a topic that everybody else is a lot more interested in than I am," he says. "I feel really good. I feel like a man now, and I'm really happy."
Chaz says that having a penis is not what being a man means to him. "For me, it was about how I was perceived in the world, that I felt one way but everybody else treated me like something else," he says. "I wanted all of this to match how I felt inside."
Chaz says he is happier now than he ever was, and more at peace with himself. "Now it's just everything is so easy and effortless. I feel like I'm on the same playing field as everybody else," he says. "I am a very happy individual."
Chaz says the changes he has undergone over the past few years have been about more than just transitioning. "This is about overcoming your fears," he says. "Triumphing and doing whatever it takes to be your authentic self."