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Simple read, sizable message

Chastity Bono opens up about coming out

Web posted on: Wednesday, October 14, 1998 12:23:34 PM EDT

For CNN Interactive
By Donna Freydkin

ATLANTA (CNN) -- When Chastity Bono's homosexuality was divulged to the world by a tabloid in 1990, she felt publicly crucified and called the outing "terrifying." Eight years later, with her book "Family Outing," she set out to make the coming out process a healthier, less agonizing one for other gay youth and their families.

The book "really is for everybody," says Bono, which she describes as a simple read with a substantial message. "My experience has been that the best way to gain the courage to come out is by all of us sharing with each other our coming-out stories. That's the kind of book I wanted to put together."

Her own public outing was substantially more traumatic and served as a major catalyst for the book. While in her early 20s and trying to build a reporting career, Bono says she was not yet at the point in her own coming-out process "where I was comfortable enough to have the whole world know." Only out to her family and close friends, she found that being "splattered all over the checkout line" thrust her into an unsought and undesired limelight. And she denied her gayness to the media.

"It retarded my coming-out process. It pretty much ground it to a halt for a few years," she recalls.

Finally, in April 1995, after a series of off-the-record meetings with The Advocate, a national gay magazine, Chastity came out as a lesbian on its cover. She calls her public embrace of her homosexuality the "last step" in completing her own coming out.

A coming-out guide

Her book represents her desire to help others do the same. A fusion of her own drawn-out coming out experience as well as those of other young people, "Family Outing" is an articulate account of the anguish of young gay and lesbian people, and how commitment and courage led them and those around them to accepting homosexuality and acknowledging homophobia.

"This idea kind of popped into my head: Wouldn't it be great if there was a book that gay and lesbian people could read and gain the tools and strength they need to come out and then be able to hand that same book to whoever they've just come out to and it would have the same information for those people as well," says the 29-year-old Bono.

In person, Bono is a blonde blend of mother Cher's piercing facial lines and father Sonny Bono's tawny complexion and rounded features. But the child of two such remarkable parents is, well, decidedly ordinary. Dressed in khaki pants and a baggy polo shirt, Bono looks distinctly different from the twinkling toddler who cuddled with her parents at the end of their highly rated 1970s variety show.

Low key and mellow, Bono sprinkles her conversation with gay buzzwords and calls for political activism. Yet, she remains focused on what she calls her ultimate goal: providing both gay people and those around them with a road map for coming to terms with and accepting their sexual orientation.

Cher went 'ballistic'

Already chosen by book-tube diva Oprah Winfrey as one of the September selections of her book club, "Family Outing" is generating a great deal of interest, in part because the child of two very idiosyncratic showbiz personalities never had it easy being herself.

Ironically enough, Bono's mother Cher, despite her flamboyance and shock-value, was most resistant to her daughter's sexual orientation. While dad Sonny, whom she told first, was extremely supportive and loving. Bono recalls her mother "going ballistic for a couple of days, but she came around quickly and we started to deal with it."

"For (my mother), it was very much of a parental thing," says Bono. "She would have liked a little girl who would have liked to play dress-up in her closet. I was not one of them. I think she had certain expectations, hopes and dreams of what her child's life would be, and she wanted it to be as smooth and easy as possible."

Nevertheless, when Sonny Bono became a Republican congressman from California, differing political views severed the bond between father and daughter. When he died in a skiing accident in January, Chastity had not seen or spoken to her father in over a year.

Older and wiser, Bono says she is making sure that politics no longer fracture family relationships, especially with stepmother Mary, who took over Sonny Bono's House seat after his death and who sits on the House Judicial Committee.

"We talk politics a lot in my family, but I don't want to make the same mistake I made with my father," Bono says of her relationship with her stepmother. "I try to keep the two very separate. Politics is one thing, family is another thing, especially within a political family. I'm not going to let politics get in the way of another family relationship."

Bono doesn't rule out running for public office herself, but said with a laugh that she wouldn't be in the GOP like Sonny and Mary Bono.

Being in the closet 'scary, awful'

Bono urges activists and media to recognize a fine balance between the need for gay role models and the obligation to respect celebrities' privacy. Drawing on her own harsh example, Bono stresses that those who are forcibly and unwillingly outed are more hesitant to embrace the gay community and their own homosexuality.

"The people that have been outed are not necessarily the ones that come out as role models. I think what we've seen is that when someone is outed ... it makes them retreat to the closet for a time," she says. "I think as a community we've seen what the difference is and the value in people who make the decision to come out on their own because they don't want to be hiding anymore."

"There was a time when all of us were closeted and we remember what a scary, awful place that is... We should try to help people come out in a reassuring, gentle way."

As for her own coming out, Bono says she wouldn't change a thing.

"My coming-out process was the way it was. It wasn't perfect by any means, but I sure learned a lot from it," she says.

"And if it was a piece of cake, this would have been a really boring book."


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