For Chastity Bono, being Sonny and Cher's only child meant living in the public eye. She made a heralded debut as an adorable, blonde-curled 2-year-old on her parents' TV show in the 1970s; her dramatic coming out as a lesbian in the 1990s and subsequent gay activism pulled her further into the spotlight. But the latest development in this Hollywood daughter's life is sure to grab more attention than anything that preceded it. Chastity, 42, has become Chaz. His new book, Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man (Dutton) gives the sometimes shocking details of a very unexpected life. There is one detail, though, he will not discuss: whether he had "bottom surgery." "I've decided to keep my privates private," he writes. TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs reached the deep-voiced Chaz at his Los Angeles home, from which he discussed his new transgendered life and how he got there.
This is kind of a second coming out for you. You came out early as a lesbian, although not to the public.
I came out around 25 publicly.
Early teens. It was a mistake. I confused gender identity with sexual orientation. Your gender identity is about who you are, how you feel, the sex that you feel yourself to be. Sexual orientation is who you're attracted to. So when I was about 13 or 14, I realized I was attracted to women and then made the assumption that I was a lesbian, and didn't realize that that wasn't the case. It was the fact that I was a man and a heterosexual man. The issue wasn't my sexual orientation, but rather my gender identity.
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Some people would ask, why didn't you feel complete as a lesbian? Why wasn't that a comfortable place to stay?
Because I'm not a woman.
In your book you write that your mother kicked you out of the house initially when you told her that you were gay. How has she reacted to your transition?
At this point I really feel like it's best to talk to her about that. I don't know. It's really hard to get inside of somebody else's head. I don't want to be in a position to do that.
You started the transition process two years ago, right?
Yeah. I started in March of '09.
Why do you think you were ready?
I just worked out the issues that were stopping me from doing it. Obviously maturity helped. I had been clean and sober for five years at that point, which also helps. I just finally got to a place in my life where I was able to put my needs above everybody else's and learn how to really take care of myself first.
What did you start to do when you decided to go through this transition?
As far as the physical part?
Did you go to see a psychologist? Did you go to a doctor?
I had been talking to therapists for a long time about this. Probably for eight years. For me, it was never a question of whether or not I was transgender. It was a question of what I'd be able to handle transitioning and having to do it in the public eye. One of the issues that was hard for me to overcome was the fear of that.
Is that still frightening now?
Not at all.
You're ready for media interest?
I wouldn't have done it until I was ready for that. I reached a point where I was completely comfortable and felt with utter certainty that this was the right thing for me to do, and no matter what came at me, I'd be able to handle it.
You write about when you started taking testosterone. Was that difficult for you?
Not really. I started to feel just right. I felt much more comfortable. And it felt like the chemistry in my body was right, the way it should have been.
And what impact does it have physically to be taking it?
It basically puts you through another puberty. You experience all those things that any boy becoming a man goes through. Voice deepening and hair growing and muscle growth and acne. Increased sex drive, assertiveness.
Before you started your transition, did you worry that maybe you were wrong, that you were in fact a lesbian and that you were not transgender?
I did not. Once I realized I was transgender, I never had a moment's doubt about that. I had felt uncomfortable as a women my whole life. So that wasn't the issue. It was about finding the strength to transition and how that would affect my life.
I think the most dramatic part of the book was when you talk about having your breasts removed. What was that like?
It was the greatest day, probably of my life. It was getting rid of something on my body that felt like it didn't belong there since they started to develop at, like, 11 or 12.
So you never doubted that after you did it?
God, no. I mean I'm so thrilled. Couldn't be happier about that. I think that's something that freaks women out, but if you're a man with breasts, you really don't want them.
What kind of reaction are you getting from people? From the public, from friends?
My family and friends have been really pretty amazing and supportive. It's really hard to gauge how the public feels. I've been very happy with the way the media has covered this. I feel like it's been very accurate and not sensational or anything.
You were a gay activist. Do you plan on being a trans activist?
Yes. That's why I'm doing all this stuff, to try and bring awareness to this issue.
So you have no regrets.
No, not at all.