The sudden adulthood of Chastity Bono.
From the moment she was outed by the tabloids in 1990, Chastity Bono has been a controversial figure. Her outing and headlong retreat into the closet helped fuel a national debate about journalistic ethics. Her eventual decision to come out on the cover of this magazine made her an instant gay celebrity. Her subsequent writing for The Advocate, especially her remarkable interviews with her parents, made her a force to be reckoned with in gay journalism.
She later turned to professional activism, first for the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based gay political group, then as entertainment media director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Yet she remained dogged by criticism--that she was merely a celebrity activist, that she was insufficiently radical, that she lacked the intellectual heft for her positions.
Her tenure at GLAAD raised that organization to its highest level of visibility and raised Chastity to the highest levels of gay leadership. Then, in an instant, it all came tumbling down.
She was quoted by Daily Variety as saying that Ellen--the first TV show with both an openly lesbian star and lead character--was in danger of cancellation in part because it was "too gay." Activists and nonactivists erupted in anger, Ellen DeGeneres herself cried foul, and GLAAD was faced with a huge PR problem.
GLAAD maintained that Chastity had been quoted "out, of context." But when she abruptly left the organization, there was a widespread sense that she had been booted out for her comments.
Chastity has never told her full side of that episode. Now, with the publication of her new book, Family Outing, a coming-out guide for both gay people and their families, and other writing projects in the works, we sat down in her comfortable West Hollywood, Calif., home to talk about the Ellen controversy, her departure from GLAAD, and the death of her father.
Chastity was surprisingly candid, far more articulate than her detractors give her credit for, and, as you will see, prepared to wade once again into controversy.
Let's talk about the famous interview. What really happened?
First we talked about all the reasons why Ellen was so important and why GLAAD was trying to do everything we could to keep it on the air. Then the reporter asked me why the show was failing. I believed it was about the ratings because I felt that ABC would have never let Ellen come out to begin with if they had a problem with it. So I said it was about the ratings. He asked me why the ratings might have dropped. I said that I didn't think ABC was putting much money into advertising and that I thought the disclaimer they put in front of the show was really terrible and that Drew Carey was not necessarily the right lead-in show. Then I said I thought perhaps the subject matter had become a bit too gay-specific for Middle America. He said, "Oh, my God, that's so interesting that somebody from GLAAD would say that the problem could be the gay subject matter."
Then I talked about things that were common knowledge: that when Ellen originally talked to ABC about the character's coming-out, she was going to take it slow the next season, and she totally reversed and went in the other direction. That was the gist of it. The next thing I knew, I was on the front page of Variety saying, "Ellen is too gay." It is just not what happened.
But I stand by what I said. I think that she probably went a little too fast. It kind of got to be bombarding. A lot of gay people got bored with it. And certainly straight people in Middle America thought, This isn't a show for me. I'm not gay.
I think the show reflected the coming-out process, especially when you come out so late in life. You finally realize all the injustices of the world, and you want to do something. I think Ellen used the show as a means of doing that. Having never been an activist before, she didn't understand that you have to take baby steps.
You're saying that by attempting to use her show as a sort of activist vehicle, she turned off large numbers of Middle Americans?
Right. And a large number of gay people too. I had a lot of gay people come up to me and say, "I think you're absolutely right, and I stopped watching the show. Our whole life isn't gay. That's part of it, but it doesn't consume every minute." A lot of gay people were feeling that.
If you think it was a mistake, was it Ellen's mistake or her producers' and writers'?
I think Ellen was responsible. She's talked about it. She said that she wanted to make a statement with the show.
Originally you were an adviser and consultant on the show. You were even in one of the episodes. If you had been a consultant that last year, would you have advised her that the show was going too far?
I thought about it. I really worked with this show, and I really cared about it. It was probably one of my biggest priorities. I loved it. So when I started to see what was happening to it, it was a fear of mine. But you can't talk to artists about their work when they're so committed and it's so personal. I talked to other leaders in the gay and lesbian community because I knew that she wouldn't have listened if it was coming from one person. But I was the idiot who said the emperor was naked.
So you never tried to say that to Ellen privately?
No. I never did. Ellen is a hard person to get to know. I've worked with her, and we had a good working relationship, but it never really got past that.
From what you're saying to me now, it doesn't sound like Variety took you out of context.
Well, the way they took it drastically out of context was the way the interview read. The whole article sounded like it was me attacking Ellen for being too gay. And it just wasn't the case. I gave the reasons why we needed to save the show, why it was so important. And as a sidebar I gave that as one of the reasons the ratings had dropped.
I knew I was in trouble as soon as I said it. But the words "Ellen is too gay" never came out of my mouth, ever. That's just a stupid statement to make. It was really like, "Some of the content might be too gay-specific for the larger society at this point," because it was the very first one; it was so groundbreaking. You really have to take things at a comfortable pace. It wasn't a criticism of the show. I loved the show; if I were producing it, I just would have taken the shows you saw over that season and stretched them out over two seasons.
It seems to me that people were not critical of you because they thought that you went out to attack the show but because of what you said--which you seem to be saying again here: that Ellen went too far too fast and that it would have been better if she had been "less gay" in her first season.
Well, I don't want to say "less gay." I want to say, Just go a little slower. I don't think her character should have been not gay. She came out as a gay woman, and she should have absolutely been gay. But there are ways to have different subplots, ways to do it.
And I'm sorry that upsets so many people, because it was certainly hurtful to me having so many people upset by that. It's just my opinion; it's not gospel. And I have a right to it. If somebody disagrees with me, that's fine; it shouldn't negate everything I've done for this community. That was really hard. It was a huge thing, and it amazed me how quickly people would turn on me for that. Even if I had said it as bluntly as Variety did--which I didn't--it was just an opinion. It's amazing how we eat our own sometimes in this community.
What has the effect of it been on you personally?
I think I feel better about it now, but I was really upset for a long time and really hung up on it. It hurt my feelings that people were so quick to judge. Lea DeLaria really went after me.
What did she say?
Oh, that I had the IQ of a sea sponge and "Chastity Bono can bite my ass," which is probably the most repulsive thought I can think of. There's no danger of that happening.
And then, of course, there was Ellen. I called her and explained what happened, and I tried to reassure her how much loyalty I had to her show. She listened, but as soon as she started doing press, I was the enemy. That was really hard, because I still have so much admiration for what she did. It's hard to have one of your heroes turn on you in such a harsh way. In June I saw the documentary The Real Ellen Story, and once again she was talking in a negative manner about me. I put a call into her and talked to her assistant and said, "Let's just sit down and talk about this. I'll buy you a beer, and let's sit down and get past this." I wasn't her enemy; I was an ally of the show. She just couldn't see that. She's not at that point. I don't know if she will ever be.
Were there other responses from people in the industry?
Yeah. In terms of my job as GLAAD's entertainment media director, it was really a positive thing. One of the executives at ABC said, "Finally, a rational, reasonable gay person." I wasn't going to hold the party line. I was going to say what I felt. I had always approached my job that way. When I took the job with GLAAD, they'd been such a reactive watchdog organization. I remember saying, "If I'm in a meeting with somebody and I get some work done on some movie, something positive, and there's still things in the movie that we might not like but I've gotten them to change 50% of it, we can't go slam them when the film comes out." Otherwise, my job would be impossible. So there might have been things that gay people looked at and thought, Why didn't we go after them on that? But some really major changes had been made.
But do you understand why Ellen is very angry?
I absolutely understand where she's coming from, and I feel terrible. But I wasn't the cause of it. That's what's frustrating to me. I got letters saying, "You're the reason the show got canceled." What? I wish I had that kind of power in the industry. I completely empathize with what Ellen must be going through. But ! can't help taking her attacks somewhat personally because, well, they are personal.
A lot of gay people, me included, said to ourselves, My God, for the first time here's a show that's actually allowing me to see my life reflected on television and also allowing people who don't want to know anything about me but want to get a good laugh to watch something that's funny and in the process get educated.
Absolutely! But I felt that way. I watched every single episode. I made it a policy at GLAAD that everybody had to watch Ellen. It wasn't a personal thing. It was a fear of how other people would take it.
So you're really talking about pragmatism.
Exactly. Yes. It's being strategic and pragmatic and not being emotional. As a professional activist, you can't take everything personally. You have to look at the bigger picture.
It sounds like the old tension between assimilationists and radicals.
I absolutely believe in assimilation. I don't believe I'm any different from straight people. My wants and needs are the same as theirs. I don't look at sexual orientation as that big of a deal. It's just an orientation.
Why do you actually think the show got canceled?
I'll still stick with the three answers that I gave originally: ABC did not put enough money into advert]sing, the disclaimer had a lot to do with it, and I think that Ellen and the show's content had a lot to do with it.
I don't think ABC was the big, bad homophobic monster that Ellen wanted to portray them as. And I also don't think that they were perfect. Putting the disclaimer up there was awful. But a lot of different things played a hand in it. You can't point to one person and say, "That's the bad guy."
Do you think the cancellation has damaged the prospects of other openly gay characters on TV?
I would have been very concerned about that, but luckily, there's a show coming up this season called Will & Grace that's got an openly gay male lead character. The network [NBC] is really behind it, so I think it has a shot. That makes me feel better. I would've been concerned had that not happened.
What about the impact on openly gay or lesbian lead actors or actresses? Will people be emboldened to come out because Ellen did or more reluctant?
I don't know. And it wasn't just Ellen and the show. It was Ellen and Anne [Heche] in their private and public lives. There was so much press, and it became such a big deal. I don't know how I would feel if I were a closeted sitcom star, if I would want to take that leap or not.
What do you think the future holds for Ellen?
I have no idea. If I were her, I would take a little time off and do another sitcom, but do it with HBO where she really could do the kind of creative stuff that she wanted to. I think she's an incredibly talented person, a truly funny, talented person.
If we turned the clock back to the day of the interview and you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
I don't know. My only regret--and the only thing that I really did wrong--was that I represented not only myself but the larger organization [GLAAD], and being as candid as I was might have been irresponsible. That's the only thing that might have been a mistake. If I had it to do over again, I probably would have bit my tongue a while longer. But eventually I probably would have said it. I said something that so many people felt--gay and straight. But I was the one who said it. It was an interesting lesson for me.
What was the lesson?
It was an interesting lesson in how honesty is a double-edged sword. Sometimes people love you for it, and sometimes it buries you. Look at my mom's career. She made the decision to do Moonstruck, and she won the Academy Award. Then she made the decision to sell hair-care products because it was really good money, and it turned out to be a really bad decision. But she's still the same person who won the Academy Award for Moonstruck. People can just turn on you so quickly. That's what was so interesting. It was as though everything I had done up to that point turned into: "You're just this asshole who hates Ellen and is bad-mouthing the one gay show we have. How could you do that?"
Did your mother give you any advice?
Yeah, she said, "Don't quit. Don't resign."
There's a perception that you essentially left GLAAD because of this. Is that true?
I didn't want to be doing what I was doing at GLAAD forever. I cut down to part-time to finish my book and write a movie, and GLAAD basically asked me to leave based on the idea that they wanted somebody full-time. The strange thing was the timing. I figured I'd probably leave GLAAD in October to do my book-signing tour. The prematurity of it was a little strange. I offered to work until they found a replacement for me, and I was turned down. I thought that was strange. I felt that I and my assistant, Bill [Horn], were really starting to make headway on some projects. My departure ended all those projects and all those contacts, and that seemed strange to me the urgency with which they wanted me to be gone. I was kept on retainer for eight weeks, and Joan Garry [GLAAD's executive director] did not once call me to do anything. Everything that I was working on has come to a complete halt. That's interesting.
What do you mean, "interesting"?
Well, I just think that things don't necessarily add up to the reason that they wanted somebody full-time.
No. It sounds like they let you go because of Ellen.
I don't know if it was just the Ellen thing. I was hired by William Waybourn [Garry's predecessor], not Joan Garry. I was not an employee she chose.
Was there hostility there?
Urn, I don't know. That would be a question for Joan.
Did you sense it?
[Hesitates] Not directly. I didn't have any animosity toward Joan, and I thought that she was a good choice to replace William. I never had any animosity toward her, but I never had the kind of relationship that I had with Judy [Wieder, Advocate editor in chief] or Elizabeth [Birch, HRC executive director]. My relationships with Elizabeth and Judy were mentor relationships. Judy helped me come out and taught me how to write and changed my life forever. And Elizabeth did the same thing and taught me about what it is to be an activist and how to be strategic and smart, not angry and rabid. I did not have that kind of relationship with Joan. Joan was simply the person that I had to report to.
People have argued that your celebrity would tend to diminish the attention given to an executive director. Do you think that that might have played a role?
I know that publicity was a very important thing she wanted to get, and until she came, ! was pretty much the primary spokesperson. That changed greatly when she came. So I would rather let people draw their own conclusions.
It sounds like you did not leave GLAAD at a good time either for you or for the organization.
Well, actually, I'm thrilled not to be working for GLAAD. [Laughs] I feel free again, and I'm looking forward to this book tour and starting my next book. But I think it was a strange decision for them to make. Think of the publicity they would've gotten if I was still working for them when my book came out. These are things that don't really make sense to me.
You said in your Advocate coming-out interview that when you got a record deal, some people resented it because you were the daughter of Sonny and Cher. Same with your writer's position at The Advocate and your appointment to GLAAD. Some people have complained that the movement is becoming more about celebrity than about who has spent time in the trenches.
That has always been people's first response to me. When I got the job at The Advocate, mail came in about that. But after I did certain articles, people came up to me overwhelmed by them, especially the one I did with my mother. All of a sudden I became very credible as a writer. People might have had the same idea when I took the job with GLAAD, but all of a sudden I'm consulting on shows like Ellen and meeting with producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and getting producers of The Jackal to recut the film. That stuff isn't because of my name. It's human nature to have a negative feeling about nepotism. But I've grown up with it my whole life. I know how far it takes you. It opens doors, but that's all it does. If you don't have the goods, then you don't have them. I feel that I have proved my ability time and again.
Years ago, when you were outed, you felt this strong sense of alienation from the community, and you were incredibly angry at gay people for a year or two. Are you having any of those feelings again?
No. I love the gay and lesbian community. I'm a part of it, and I wouldn't do the work that I do if I didn't love it. ! think that any of us who are in this industry can get frustrated by our community, but there are reasons for that. It's because we are targeted so much. It's bound to have an effect. I do think that gay and lesbian people are harsh on things. I've seen Elizabeth Birch get shredded, and I believe that it is because she is probably the most powerful leader we have. But I don't know if it's a gay thing or just a human thing. People love an underdog, and if you get too big, people want to take you down a notch. But I don't feel any animosity like I felt when I was outed. That was wrapped up so much in fear and shame about myself.
Do you see yourself someday as executive director of some organization?
No. I think the only thing I would like to do is run for public office. I'm a little too offbeat to be an executive director.
Speaking of politics, your father was quite supportive when you first came out, while your mother freaked out. Then, over time, your father developed a strained relationship with the gay community for what seemed like political reasons, while your mother became very supportive. How did you feel about that?
I felt sad about a lot of the things that my dad did. I never really talked to him about gay issues until I did my Advocate interview with him, and I felt badly about that interview. I thought it made him look bad, and as his child I didn't want to do that. I also felt badly that he was so clueless on our issues. When he cosponsored DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act, an antigay bill], I took it very personally. It put a tremendous amount of distance between us, and then he died before we were able to resolve it. Growing up, we were so close. I thought he was the greatest thing in the world. When you have such high expectations of somebody and they let you down, it hits you that much harder.
As far as my mom, it was the opposite. We did not have a great relationship growing up. I knew that she loved me, but it was strained. We were very different, and I didn't have very high hopes for ever having a close relationship with her. But when I finally came out, I stopped censoring what I talked about with her. I let her get to know me for the first time as a whole person. In doing that, I got to know her, and all of a sudden our differences didn't seem like such a big deal. It turned everything around, and now I'm just super close to her.
Did you battle with your father about gay issues?
No. We never battled. If we had, it probably would have been better. It just caused us to not talk.
Did he try to reach out?
No. And it's really interesting. My older sister, Christy, who's always trying to keep the family together, talked to him right before he died, and she said, "You really should call Chas." And he said, "Yeah, I'm gonna do that." What's really interesting from a spiritual side is that the famous medium James Van Praagh did a reading with my mother recently, and one of the things he said to her was that my dad said, "I wish I listened to Christy. I should have called Chas." This was something that my mom didn't know about. The only people that knew about that conversation were the three of us.
Do you think that your father's opinions about gay issues were really heartfelt or were based on his politics?
I think they were based on the feeling that he had to vote a certain way. There were many gay people in his life. Probably the congressman he was closest to socially was Barney Frank.
In your book you interview your mother but not your father.
The reason was that all the families that I interviewed are people who have gone through the whole process and had come out on the other side. And I didn't feel that my dad and I had.
In the end, do you think he was proud of you?
Yeah. I know he was. Even though we didn't see things politically the same way, I think he got a kick out the fact that I was interested in politics.
How do you feel about the fact that you won't have the opportunity to resolve things with your father?
At this point I feel OK about it. When he first died it was much harder, and I had to make my own peace with it. At first it was devastating. I felt terrible and guilty because I felt that I didn't do everything that I could to work on the relationship, although he was equally to blame. At his funeral service I was having this dialogue with my dad in my head, and I just kept saying, My God, we fucked up. We were so stupid. Why did we let this happen? It was hard. There was an open casket, and I'm not a big crier at all, but I broke down. One of the things my mom used to say was that my dad and I had the same hands, and I held his hand, and it was so cold. That made me feel terrible. At this point I feel that I've worked through it, and I feel more peace about it, but I still wish that it had gone a different way.
Have you thought about having a seance with Van Praagh yourself?.
Yes, I absolutely want to do it.
What do you think you and your father would say to each other? That we should have done it differently and that we really love each other.
Find more on this topic at www.advocate.com
RELATED ARTICLE: The beat goes on: chastity through the years
Chastity is brought onstage for the first time on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.
Chastity comes out to her father.
Chastity's band, Ceremony, is signed to a development deal by Geffen Records.
Chastity is outed by the tabloid Star,
Ceremony is dropped by Geffen Records,
Chastity comes out on the cover of The Advocate.
Chastity becomes a staff writer at The Advocate, interviewing, among others, both her parents.
Chastity becomes a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign (pictured below: Chastity, Margarethe Cammermeyer, and HRC executive director Elizabeth Birch),
Chastity is hired by William Waybourn as entertainment media director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation,
Charity is quoted By Daily Variety as saying that Ellen is "too gay."
Executive director Joan Garry issues a GLAAD press release announcing Chastity's departure.
RELATED ARTICLE: excerpts from the book
In our imaginations coming out was easy for Chastity Bono. Unlike ours, her parents were superstars--hip, cool, and ahead of their time. We assumed that Sonny and Cher could take the news of a gay child in stride.
We were mistaken. In her new book, Family Outing, Chastity introduces us to a family we all recognize: an indulgent dad, a concerned mom, a loving daughter. For them as for us, coming out was a family affair, and it didn't happen without heartache.
Family Outing is so valuable partly because both Chastity and Cher (who's extensively interviewed in the book) are willing to get real about the obstacles their family faced on the road to acceptance. In this excerpt mother and daughter talk uninhibitedly about their disagreements, their disputes, and their love for each other.
things between my mother and me were getting better, but I knew she was still leery of letting other people know about me. She wasn't open and honest with other people. Her needing to censor that I was gay from other people points to her struggle to fully accept my homosexuality. She was still questioning her skills as a parent. She says now that she thought that "part of it was that I failed as a parent, that happy, healthy people don't grow up to be homosexuals. I guess I thought that if you were gay, then I must be a failure. I felt like I must have done something."
My mother's exposure to gays didn't seem to help her with her discomfort when she first suspected I was gay. This is a clear testament to the power of stereotypes. When I ask my mom directly how she reconciled having such negative feelings about my being gay and yet having so many positive relationships with gay people, she says, "Well, they were not my children. It's a different thing that happens with your child--it's not the same. None of those people had successful home lives or successful relationships. I saw [my friend] John go from this one to that one and not have a real decent life. That was part of my fear and worthy for you."
I counter her stereotypes by pointing out that I can't think of anyone growing up, gay or straight, who had a stable relationship. I want her to acknowledge that she seems to be associating unstable relationships with gay people. She still insists on her knowledge of gay people: "Most of the people I knew, even though I loved them dearly, were way fucked up--especially the gay men. Their lifestyle just seemed so much more promiscuous, and as for lesbians, it's only been lately that the stereotype of lesbians seems to be changing. You don't have to be either a butch or a femme. Lesbians can look like any other woman, and I think that's really important. I don't really care whether it's right or wrong: people have an idea of who you are and what you are from what you look like. When you had your hair really short, didn't wear any makeup, and wore really masculine-style clothes, I just didn't think it was a good way to be a messenger of the church. I think it keeps people from accepting you." I was also going through a phase during which everything I wore had a pink triangle on it. She said to me once, "Why do you have to wear that shit? Why does it have to have a triangle on it?"
When I ask her today why she felt so much internal pressure to censor herself about me, she said, "I just really didn't talk about your being gay. It was still a secret, so it was still a negative thing. I wasn't comfortable and what I did was choose to ignore, and no one chose to confront me with it. When anyone would ask me about you, I would try to walk around the subject and give other descriptions or statistics about you, staying away from that one specific point, and hopefully people wouldn't talk about it."
Of course, once I was outed in the tabloids, she was no longer able to hide or pretend that I wasn't gay: the secret was out, despite my going back into the closet. Slowly but surely, my mother moved toward full acceptance. But like anyone going through a process, she had to do everything in her own time. She explains her process in this way: "At first I thought I was a failure as a parent; then I felt that you were going to be the failure and that you wouldn't be able to succeed and have a normal life."
My relationship with Heidi, during and 'after the tabloid debacle, was becoming unhealthy and a bit destructive, and my mother was worried about me. She took the status of my relationship as a sign that being gay wasn't good: If my relationship wasn't working, then I wasn't okay, and that meant being gay wasn't okay. My mother's criticism of my relationship with Heidi (and the others that followed) demonstrate her discomfort with my homosexuality and the power of the negative stereotypes of homosexuality in general.
She says, "At the beginning I liked Heidi; I thought she was great and really smart, which made me feel better about your being gay. But then I started to really dislike her. You didn't seem happy in the relationship, so it was harder for me to feel okay about the gay issue. I thought I was doing pretty well at accepting it, and then all of a sudden I wasn't doing well with it at all. It seemed to me that it was really unhealthy, and I blamed it on what your relationship was. I love Heidi now, but at the time I thought not only is my daughter gay, but she's made this horrible choice of a lover and now she's in this sick relationship. I didn't go beyond, it could be either sick homo or hetero--I was still blaming it on the homo."
But often the turning point for parents, what really allows them to separate their experience of their child from negative images of homosexuality, is when they see their child happy, healthy, and strong. As I began to feel better about myself after I came out of the closet and emerged with a stronger sense of myself, my mom responded and became much more accepting of my being gay. As she admits, "It made me feel better about you as a person, and so therefore anything you got involved in, you would be choosing that thing from a position of strength and not weakness, not neediness. From that place, you wouldn't make the wrong decision."
She began to let go of the negative stereotypes. As she explains, "The stereotypes are not there by accident; they are there because they happen a lot. And sometimes I still worry about you getting into relationships or situations that seem to be not so good for you, but now we can talk about it, and I can say to you, `Don't go there, don't fall into the things that are stereotypical or cliche; be the person you are and keep going and discovering who you are; it's not enough to say "I'm gay" and stop there.'"
From Family Outing by Chastity Bono and Billie Fitzpatrick. [C] 1998 by Chastity Bono and Billie Fitzpatrick. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Little, Brown and Company.
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|Title Annotation:||includes related excerpt from Bono's book 'Family Outing'|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||Oct 13, 1998|
|Previous Article:||Out we come.|
|Next Article:||Thru the years.|