Serena Freewomyn

Honoring Intersex Activist Cheryl Chase

Filed By Serena Freewomyn | March 13, 2008 1:28 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, The Movement
Tags: Cheryl Chase, intersex

Imagine you're a parent and your child is born with "ambiguous" genitals and the doctors tell you that you have to make a choice. Your child must undergo surgery to "correct" the genitals so that you can check off male or female on the birth certificate and take the baby home. What would you do?

This is what happened to Cheryl Chase's parents when she was born in 1956. Her parents initially named her Brian and raised her as a boy, but at 18 months old they discovered she had ovaries and a uterus and a clitoridectomy was performed. Her parents changed her name, moved to a new town and started raising her as a girl.

At age 10, Cheryl discovered what happened to her and she finally gained access to her medical records when she was 21. She was shocked by what she found. She had a nervous breakdown in her mid-30's, which prompted her to start researching intersexuality. She found out that she was not alone.

"When I realized that clinicians are treating people today no better than they treated me, I wanted to stop it," states Chase. In 1993, she founded ISNA, Intersex Society of North America, the first organization of its kind. Through ISNA, Chase is fighting: 1) To increase the visibility of intersexuality as a phenomenon 2) To oppose medically unnecessary, irreversible interventions like genital surgery and 3) To create a system of positive interventions to replace surgery and silence through peer support and mental health support.

"Intersexuality has a lot to teach us, not just in terms of gender expression and helping intersex people directly, but about how complex life is." (from Curve Magazine)

Cheryl Chase is the founder and current Executive Director of the Intersex Society of North America. In 1997 Ms. Chase produced Hermaphrodites Speak!, the first documentary in which intersex people speak openly about their personal experience.

According to ISNA's website:

"Intersex" is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn't seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types--for example, a girl may be born with a noticeably large clitoris, or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a notably small penis, or with a scrotum that is divided so that it has formed more like labia. Or a person may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of her cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY.

Though we speak of intersex as an inborn condition, intersex anatomy doesn't always show up at birth. Sometimes a person isn't found to have intersex anatomy until she or he reaches the age of puberty, or finds himself an infertile adult, or dies of old age and is autopsied. Some people live and die with intersex anatomy without anyone (including themselves) ever knowing.

I've heard many different statistics, but I'll go with ISNA's estimate that 1 in 1500 to 1 in 2000 children is born intersex, so it's a lot more common than you might think. You may have heard intersex people referred to as "hermaphrodites," but this term is considered offensive.

To learn more, check out these videos on Youtube:

An Interview with Cheryl Chase
A Mother's Efforts to Protect Her Son

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Cathy Renna Cathy Renna | March 14, 2008 7:34 AM

I met Cheryl at the creating change conference many years ago, and we struck up a professional and personal friendship - she is one of the smartest, most strategic activists I have ever met and has done am amazing job getting both the LGBT community and the medical establishment to think about intersex issues

while in college (and pre-med, long before I fell into activism as a career) I worked at a urologists office and was very familiar with the often weekly calls we got about a baby with ambiguous genitalia - this is much more common than anyone thought and Cheryl has helped educate to many - and reduced stigma for many intersex people

So glad you did this post Serena!!