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Chase, Cheryl (b. 1956)  
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Activist Cheryl Chase has given a voice to the intersexed and has led efforts to educate both medical professionals and parents of intersexed children so that medically unnecessary surgeries may be avoided and that intersexed people may have happier and healthier lives. Her efforts in this cause earned her the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission's Felipa de Souza Award in 2000.

When Chase was born on August 14, 1956, no one shouted, "It's a boy!" or "It's a girl!" The child had ambiguous genitalia, including what Chase describes as "a little nubbin." Doctors sedated Chase's mother for three days while deciding what to tell her. The belated verdict was that the child was a boy, who was christened Charlie Sullivan. (Chase adopted her current surname when she was in her thirties.)

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Exploratory surgery eighteen months later revealed that the child had both a uterus and ovotestes, an organ containing both ovarian and testicular tissue, and was, in the terminology of the time, a .

Doctors recommended a drastic solution: the "nubbin"--a large clitoris--should be completely removed surgically, and the parents should discard all photos of the youngster as a boy, secure a new birth certificate indicating that the child's sex was female, and move away from their hometown in New Jersey to a place where no one would know that their child, previously regarded as a son, was in fact a daughter.

"The doctors promised my parents if they did that, I'd grow up normal, happy, heterosexual, and give them grandchildren," stated Chase.

The Sullivans relied on the doctors' advice, and a clitorectomy was performed.

When Chase was ten years old, her parents told her that her clitoris had been removed, but, she stated in a 2000 interview, "they explained it all in terms that I had no understanding of" and emphasized that as a result of the surgery she was just fine. At the same time, however, they also underscored that she should tell no one about the operation.

The same year Chase's parents took her to a psychiatrist who never addressed the issue of her intersexuality but instead gave her "a plastic toy called 'The Visible Woman,' which had abdominal organs that you could replace with pregnant ones" in an apparent attempt "to prepare [her] for a future role as wife and mother."

At nineteen, Chase, who had been told by her child psychiatrist that she was "medically famous," resolved to discover the truth about her medical history and asked her gynecologist to obtain her records. He subsequently claimed that "the hospital had ignored his request and he couldn't understand why" and sent her on an errand of her own to the hospital records department of New York City, where employees refused to release her own records to her. Chase later learned that the records had been sent to her gynecologist not once, but twice.

"I think that he lied to me because he saw how distressed I already was," she stated. "He didn't want what was going to happen to me to happen in his office."

Chase next asked her childhood psychiatrist to obtain the records, but the woman was dismissive, saying, "You don't need them."

Chase moved to San Francisco two years later. When she requested help from her female gynecologist there, she finally found out the truth about her intersexed condition.

The news came as a shock to Chase, who "had understood [that she] was a lesbian from quite a young age." In San Francisco in the 1970s, she said, "lesbian separatism was popular, and men were supposed to be evil. In that context I wasn't about to explain to another lesbian that I didn't have a clitoris because I had been a boy for a year and a half!"

Chase returned east to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she earned a degree in mathematics. She next studied Japanese at Harvard University and then moved to Japan, where she founded a very successful high-tech company.

Despite her professional success, Chase felt extremely depressed, and so she volunteered for a telephone counseling service, hoping to find fulfillment by being of assistance to others. In the course of her training, she told her story to the organization's professional therapist, but, said Chase, she "couldn't even deal with the fact that I was a lesbian," let alone intersexed.

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A portrait of Cheryl Chase by Phyllis Christopher.
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