Life Updates: Starting Graduate School and Experimenting with Gender Identity and Expression

About a week ago I started graduate school and it is already proving to be a hectic ride with full time Teacher Assistant responsibilities on top of my studies. I may not have as much time to blog as I did before, but I am certainly finding more opportunities to explore my gender identity and reinvent myself.

Just this weekend I went to a local Pride festival and, sensing I was having one of my more nonbinary days coming on, decided to experiment with my name and pronouns. When I picked up a name tag at one of the booths at the beginning of the festival, instead of writing my birth name and assigned pronouns like I usually would, I wrote Quincy and ze/hir/hirs. It felt strange at first, but I actually liked being called Quincy and using ze/hir/hirs pronouns in that particular setting surrounded by a whole host of my fellow nonbinary, genderqueer, and gender nonconforming siblings. It was awesome!

While I was there I also purchased my first bowtie. It was rainbow for the occasion and I wore all through the evening. When I returned home and finally saw myself in the mirror wearing my purple “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shit, sporting rainbow face paint, and dawning a matching rainbow bow-tie I really understood for the first time what many in trans communities call gender euphoria. I felt empowered. I felt seen. I felt liberated. I felt happy in my expression in a way I hadn’t before that’s hard to describe. I felt all of this just because of a bowtie. It is amazing what such small changes in self-expression can do for a person psychologically. Now I can’t wait to see what comes next!

Advertisements

Book Review–Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us by Kate Bornstein

What’s your gender? When did you decide it? How much say do you have in your gender? Is there is anything about your gender or gender role that gets in your way? What would happen if you transgressed those roles? These are the sorts of questions Kate Bornstein asks as a self-described nonbinary transfeminine diesel femme dyke in hir part coming-of-age, part mind bending manifesto on gender and sexuality, Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us.

Published in 1994, Gender Outlaw was years ahead of its time. Now, a little over twenty years later, it is a recognized classic in the world of gender and queer theory that continues to expose new readers to a daring world of gender anarchy, rebellion, fluidity, and creativity; a world where gender ambiguity can and should be explored and everything everyone is supposed to just know about gender is brought into question. This world of gender outlaws comes alive through Bornstein’s fun, quirky, personal style with a combination of cultural criticism, autobiography, and dramatic writing.

As a cultural critic Bornstein tackles many common assumptions about sex, gender, and sexuality from the idea sex and gender are the same and gender and sexuality are interdependent traits. The main assertions Bornstein makes include gender is a cultural rather a cultural phenomenon distinct from biological sex and it does not determine sexual orientation. If it did what that make someone who is attracted to someone who is nonbinary?

Bornstein enhances hir cultural criticism with autobiographical content that gives readers a window (or, perhaps, a mirror) into the experiences of someone who does not live outside of the gender binary most of the population takes for granted. As someone who is neither a man or a woman, has experienced a gender transition from male to female, and is a trans elder Bornstein through means of autobiography manages to make hir theories speak to lived experience and come alive.

Also eaders who are interested in queer theater will appreciate the inclusion of Bornstein’s play, Hidden: A Gender, and its creative exploration of gender ambiguity and fluidity. By the end many readers and audiences will be left with new questions to examine and new gender possibilities to see.

While Gender Outlaw may not be for  the feint of heart, I would recommend it to anyone who wishes to gain a better understanding of gender and sexuality. Some, in the process of exploration, may find the issues of gender, sexuality, and desire Bornstein addresses speak to them more than they expected.

Intersex People in History: Who is Cheryl Chase (Bo Laurent)?

While intersex people have existed for as long as humanity has existed, we are often left out of the historical narrative. This series of posts seeks to address this gap in showcases important figures in intersex history. To begin let’s focus on the pivotal leaders of the early intersex rights movement, Bo Laurent, better known by her pseudonym Cheryl Chase.

Cheryl Chase (August 14, 1956) is an American intersex activist who is best known as the founder of the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA). At birth Chase was assigned a male sex and given the name Brian. At the age of eighteen months it was discovered she had ovaries and a uterus. A clitoridectomy was performed, her parents obtained a new birth certificate, changed the child’s name to Bonnie Sullivan, moved to a new town, and began raising their child as a girl all under the advise of medical professionals. Chase did not discover what had been done to her until the age of ten and did not gain access to her medical records until the age of twenty-one. What she found shocked her. At the age of thirty Chase had a nervous break-down that prompted her to research intersexuality. This time what she found left her feeling less alone and determined to spare others from what she had experienced.

In 1993 Chase founded ISNA in an effort to increase intersex visibility, oppose medically unnecessary and irreversible interventions like early genital surgeries like the one Chase herself was subjected to as a child, and improve intersex health care. The organization was the first of its kind in the United States and played a major role in launching the intersex rights movement.

Along with founding ISNA, Chase also produced Hermaphrodites Speak! in 1997. The piece broke new ground as the first documentary to feature intersex people speaking openly about their experiences. It has been shown in dozens of film festivals worldwide as well as in university classrooms, medical school grand rounds, and professional conferences in a variety of fields such as medicine, psychology, and history.

As a patient advocate Chase has delivered Grand Round presentations at Stanford University, UCSF, UCLA, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Michigan State University, University of Michigan, and others. Her presentation Sex Ambiguity: The Patient Centered Approach at the 2000 meeting of the Lawson Wilkins Pediatric Endocrine Society is considered to be a major patient-led breakthrough in medical reform.

As a scholar Chase’s work has been published in the Journal of Urology, Journal of Medical Ethics, and Pediatric Nursing. The historic 1999 Supreme Court of Columbia decision establishing human rights protections for intersex people relied heavily on Chase’s 10,000 word amicus.

Over the course of her career Chase’s work as an activist has been recognized the year 2000 Felipa de Souza Human Rights Award as well as in numerous publications. These publications include News Week, the New York Times, NPR’s Fresh Air, NBC’s Dateline, ethicist Alex Dreger’s Intersex in the Age of Ethics, social psychologist Suzanne Kessler’s Lessons from the Intersexed, and molecular biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body, and medical writer Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography.

More recently, in 2005 Chase participated in the Intersex Consensus Conference, which culminated in the 2006 Consensus Statement on Disorders. The statement mainly a change in language within the medical community from terms many within the intersex community considered to be misleading and offensive such as “sex reversal,” “hermaphroditism,” and “pseudo-hermaphroditism.” Chase and allies believed medical professionals needed new, less offensive nomenclature in their work with intersex patients. They also believed the new terminology needed to be palatable to said medical professionals. Eventually the term Disorders of Sex Development (DSD) was agreed upon and is used in virtually all medical settings today and even among many intersex people themselves.

This change in language sparked a major debate over terminology within intersex communities that continues to this day. Some reject DSD terminology in favor of intersex language on the grounds the term “disorder” is unnecessarily pathologizing and reasserts medical authority over intersex bodies. For example, it is much easier for medical professionals to justify treating a “disorder of sex development” with corrective surgery than to perform irreversible surgery on an intersex person whose body is simply different from the average. Others embrace DSD nomenclature as a pragmatic, less confusing, and less politicized alternative to terms like intersex. For instance, many medical professionals find the term intersex to be abrasive with political connotations and it is much easier to persuade them to listen while using DSD nomenclature instead.

Ultimately, this shift in language represented the start of a larger shift within the mainstream intersex rights movement from utilizing methods that collectively confronted the medical establishment to taking collaborative approaches to achieving social change. The mainstream intersex rights movement continued to move in this new direction when Chase left ISNA in 2008 to work on the Advisory Committee of Accord Alliance, an advocacy group that was formed to work in collaboration with medical professionals to promote comprehensive and integrated approaches to intersex care. It is also during this time that Chase changed her legal name, Bonnie Sullivan, and started going by the name Bo Laurent in all aspects of her life.

Today, roughly a decade after the closing of ISNA and the founding of Accord Alliance, there is extensive debate within intersex communities over activist strategies. Some have embraced organization Accord Alliance and their collaborative strategies while others continue to favor more radical approaches in their activism. It is likely both of these methods will be necessary for creating social change into the future. Yet, no matter what the mainstream intersex rights movement will look like in the decades to come, Bo Laurent will always have an indispensable place in intersex history.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis by the Georgiann Davis
  2. http://www.isna.org/about/chase
  3. http://bilerico.lgbtqnation.com/2008/03/womens_history_month_cheryl_chase.php
  4. http://www.sfgate.com/living/article/PROFILE-Cheryl-Chase-Medical-Activist-Boy-or-2815701.php