When people talk about transgender men and women, the focus is usually on their genitals.
But that’s not what it’s really about, says Chaz Bono, the only child of pop duo Sonny and Cher.
Many people remember Chaz as Chastity, the blonde-haired, chubby-cheeked little girl who appeared on her parents’ 1970s television show, The Sonny And Cher Show.
Growing up as the child of celebrities is never easy, but it’s even harder when you’re in the process of deciding to undergo the transition from woman to man.
“I probably would have done it years earlier if I didn’t have to do it publicly,” Bono told AAP.
“I never had the option … of transitioning and then being able to disclose to people.”
The 44-year-old’s journey has been well documented by the media, as well as in the two books Bono has written and the 2011 documentary Becoming Chaz.
That attention has been bittersweet for Bono, an ambassador and advocate for the trans community who is in Sydney for the Mardi Gras Festival.
On the one hand it’s a chance to educate the public.
But sometimes the message is skewed when news outlets skip the psychological and emotional part to focus on gender reassignment surgery.
“There’s more and more media coverage, but you have to be careful because the media tend to want to be sensationalist,” Bono says.
A recent example is the spat in the United States between CNN host Piers Morgan and transgender author Janet Mock.
Morgan came under fire for what the trans community described as his insensitive references to Mock’s physical characteristics.
They felt the host sensationalised his interview with Mock by tweeting: “How would you feel if you found out the woman you are dating was formerly a man?”
Mock responded with: “I was not `formerly a man’. Pls stop sensationalizing my life and misgendering trans women.”
Bono says he isn’t surprised by the backlash.
“In America, trans people are starting to get really frustrated with that.
“We’re at a point where we’ve had enough of the constant referral to gender reassignment surgery, the obsession with genitals, the obsession with what you were named before, the pictures of you before.”
He says he couldn’t avoid the comparisons between Chaz and Chastity because most of his early life happened in public, including coming out as a lesbian in 1995.
It wasn’t until mid 2009, at the age of 40, that he began the process of becoming a man.
He has no regrets, but at times wishes he had found happiness earlier.
“I did experience a kind of sadness at the fact that I was so late in my life doing this. (But) I really feel like it happened when it was supposed to happen and I’ve come to terms with that.”
Constant questions about whether transgendered people have a penis or a vagina are not helpful, he says.
“I did start off trying to educate about `bottom surgery’ and being more open about that.”
Bottom surgery refers to changes to the lower part of the body.
“Now it’s something that I just won’t speak about, because it does nothing and it really is nobody’s business,” says Bono.
The activist hopes his visit to Australia will shine a spotlight on other aspects of transgender stories.
“There’s not a lot of understanding about transgender people, and there aren’t really that many of us. It’s not like everybody has a transgendered person in their family or neighbourhood.”
That is why Bono is joining Australia’s Lieutenant Colonel Cate McGregor for a special talk, entitled Gender Trailblazers, as part of Sydney Mardi Gras.
McGregor is one of the country’s highest-profile transgender people, and a personal friend of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who this week introduced the ABC’s Australian Story feature on her life.
The army officer withdrew from service for several months during 2012 as she made the transition from her old identity as Malcolm McGregor. Chief of Army David Morrison had reportedly refused McGregor’s offer to resign as his speechwriter.
Bono says he hopes positive stories like these will help people understand why he and McGregor decided to make the transition.
“The majority of people don’t really understand what it means to be transgendered.
“The easiest way to describe it is your body is one thing, but internally, intellectually, in your head you feel like the opposite gender.”
He says people don’t necessarily understand the differences between physical sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.
Even his mother had a hard time accepting the change.
“My mother went through a kind of mourning period. It was difficult for her and we didn’t see each other for about the first year of my transition.
“Now our relationship is the best it’s ever been.”
Becoming Chaz has helped Bono find that elusive, missing piece of the puzzle, he says.
“I went from being a very uncomfortable person who somewhat struggled in life, who was never fully present … to suddenly being very comfortable, much more outgoing, much happier, much more confident.
“The people in my life, they could obviously see – `Oh, OK, this makes complete and total sense’.”