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
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