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Becoming Pro Bono

It wasn't my intention to time this blog to GLAAD's Spirit Day, but things just worked out that way...

I would call “Dancing with the Stars” a guilty pleasure, except I feel no guilt over it. There’s something gleeful and innocent about a show that brings together people to compete not for money or prizes, but a mirrorball trophy.  Still, I was never a fanatical viewer; my participation depended on how invested I became in the contestants. I sort of tuned out during seasons like Nicole Scherzinger  (what fun is it when the obvious winner is a gorgeous, athletic woman who
previously belonged to a song and dance group). But then I would watch every episode of Jennifer Grey’s season with baited breath, rooting the “Dirty Dancing” star on.

Going into Season 13 (holy cow!), I didn’t really have much investment in any of the contestants. They had the typical archetypes filled: the older participant (Nancy Grace), the athlete (Mehta WorldPeace), the redeemed wild child (David Arquette)…and I was aware of some grumbling surrounding the casting of Chaz Bono, advocate/author/son of Cher/transgender man.  But because I am blessed to live in Los Angeles in the year 2011, I really didn’t think it was a serious controversy.

How wrong I was.  First, Monica Cole of the America Family Association made an announcement stating: "We will not be able to watch the show with Chaz on there. This is going to be very confusing for children and should not be included in their cast." Then, in one of those sweeping statements that would be funny were the person not actually serious, Fox News’ Dr. Keith Ablow said children could “turn transgender” from watching Bono on the show. His actual insipid quote: “It’s possible that if someone is celebrated and lifted to heroic proportions like that of a civil rights leader, that somebody who is somewhat uncomfortable with his or her gender might say, 'You know what, I’m going down that road.' ”

Click here for Lewis Black's wonderful take on the whole thing.

Sidenote: I am both amused and terrified by the fact this man has the word “Doctor” before his name and seems to be under the impression that transitioning is just that simple. From even my
limited knowledge, which amounts to Wikipedia and a few episodes of “Chicago Hope,” even I know that transitioning can be costly and time-consuming and is only carried out after this personal decision is carefully made..

Now that I’ve exposed my lack of knowledge, this is a good time to iterate that I have no political agenda behind Chaz Bono’s appearance on "DWTS." I’m a pretty generic liberal who believes in marriage for same-sex couples because I believe in equality and staying the hell out of other people’s business. When I tuned in, I really knew very little about Chaz, having missed his acclaimed documentary “Becoming Chaz” and not read his book “Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man.”

I did not expect to become a fan. I did not expect a gregarious, self-effacing, sweet and shy gentleman  to win me over so readily. Chaz Bono makes a convincing argument for following your heart. I have rarely seen someone on “reality” TV look so happy, peaceful, and free being himself. Carrie Ann Inaba was right to praise his “megawatt smile”—for the first time, I truly understand what the word “infectious” means. You can’t not break out in a grin watching this guy. What a refreshing change he was from the stylish hardbodies who often take over the competition (remember, not a fan of the Scherzinger season. Or Brooke Burke's. Or even Kristi Yamaguchi's.) There was more heart and soul in the brief tribute kiss he gave before dancing to his late father’s song than there was in all of Kristen Cavalleri’s technically flawless performances. Here was someone real, with no dance experience, starting from scratch. It’s the same reason I have to
admit I kind of enjoyed watching Bristol Palin previously.

No, Chaz is not the best dancer. Particularly after the first week, when a painful knee injury kept him in obvious pain.  I was sure he was a goner. But something remarkable happened; all that saber-rattling from groups and “experts” about the so-called dangers of having Chaz on the show gave way to an obvious wave of support for him. He keeps being voted back, even though he’s on the wrong end of the leaderboard. And he’s getting better—this week’s performance was his
best yet.

You can moan all you want about how the truly technical dancers are getting screwed in favor of someone the audience loves, but I remind you again this is all over a MIRRORBALL TROPHY. And there’s something to be said for performance vs. technique. Do I think Chaz will win it all? Nah, it’s already pretty obvious that, barring any shockers, it’s going to come down to Ricki Lake and JR Martinez (another breakout charmer). But the fact Chaz has stuck it out this long says a lot about just what our country is prepared to see on TV, and how no one should underestimate the viewing audience. I know crap like “Jersey Shore” is a hit, but so was “Lost.” Stop assuming we viewers can’t
handle seeing someone on TV who reflects the people we actually see in everyday life.

To that end, I love that "DWTS" continually refers to Chaz as their “first transgender competitor.” As it’s perfectly logical to assume there will be more.

--Jenelle Riley

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