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social sciences

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Chase, Cheryl (b. 1956)  
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After seeing another therapist who was likewise unhelpful, Chase contemplated suicide and imagined cutting her throat in the office of the doctor who had performed the clitorectomy.

Chase, then 35, returned to the United States to talk to her mother about the circumstances of her surgery. Her mother, however, was not forthcoming. She insisted that she had had nothing to do with the decision about the operation, which in any event, she declared, had not been painful and had had no effect on her daughter's life--despite abundant evidence to the contrary. As an afterthought, though, she mentioned that following the operation, Chase, who had previously been quite verbal, "forgot" all the words that she knew and did not speak again for six months.

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Chase's mother--now deceased, as is her father--ended contact with her after the emotionally difficult conversation.

Chase decided that she needed to learn more about intersexuality, and so she moved back to the United States, settling again in San Francisco. She began consulting doctors considered experts in the field but found that "they were shockingly ignorant."

Chase began telling her story to anyone who would listen, and in a year she found six other intersexed people. Her activism truly began shortly thereafter, in 1993, when, after reading some of the works of Anne Fausto-Sterling, a professor of biology and gender studies at Brown University, she wrote a letter to the editors of The Sciences magazine, inviting intersexed people to write to Cheryl Chase of the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA).

Until that time Chase had been known as Cheryl Sullivan, but she took on a new name as well as a new endeavor.

When Chase wrote her letter to the editors, she was the sole member of ISNA, but she soon began receiving correspondence from people throughout the country who had had genital surgery as children. They were grateful for her initiative because most of them had felt isolated, not knowing that there were any others like them. By the year 2000, ISNA had a mailing list of approximately 1,500.

In the early 1990s, the issue of clitorectomies being performed on girls in Africa was receiving considerable press attention worldwide. Chase hoped that American feminists would take up the cause of intersexed people in the United States, and she met with Soraya Mire, a Somali filmmaker and herself a victim of genital mutilation, who promised to introduce her to feminist writer Alice Walker. Walker, however, refused a meeting and, stated Chase in 2000, "has never acknowledged that clitorectomy continues in the U.S."

As an intersexed person acknowledging that she had been subjected to genital surgery, Chase gave the community a face. By her activism, she also gave them a voice.

She used that voice to press for recognition that "intersex is a psychosocial problem" and that "intersexed people need professional mental health support, peer support, and an attitude that isn't shameful."

Since Chase had lived with the experience of silence, deceit, and secrecy, she knew only too well the shame that many intersexed people felt, but, she stated, "one of the things that I understood on that night when I contemplated suicide was that, as hard as it was for me to accept the body that I was born with, it was impossible for that body to have been shameful. It was my knowledge of the history of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement that brought me to understand that the shame was socially imposed, not intrinsic to my anatomy."

Chase has embraced the use of the term as a sexual identity, saying, "The value of the word 'queer' is that it talks about a difference that's stigmatized or transgressive without defining exactly what the difference is. . . . When intersexed people say 'my body's OK like this' and 'my identity is OK like this,' those are queer things to do and to think."

To foster communication among intersexed people, Chase established a web site for ISNA in 1995 and also applied for association with the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD). The application was denied because doctors on the board of directors of NORD concluded that ISNA's demand that genital surgery only be performed at the request of a well-informed patient--and thus never on a child--amounted to "experimental treatment."

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