A look back at the intersex movement in Sonoma County

The Intersex Society of North America was “largely run out of Santa Rosa” before it closed in 2008.|

There were no Facebook groups or smartphone apps for the intersex community to find one another in the early 1990s. So Bo Laurent published a letter in a science magazine announcing the formation of the Intersex Society of North America.

She wrote in her 1993 letter under her former name, Cheryl Chase, about how physically and mentally destructive it was when doctors and parents used surgical and hormonal treatments to eliminate a child’s intersexuality — something she experienced first-hand as an intersex child.

“The capacity to inflict such monstrous ‘treatment’ on children, who cannot consent, is ultimately a clear expression of the hatred and fear of sexuality which predominate in our culture,” wrote Laurent, 65, who lived in San Francisco at the time and moved to Petaluma a few years later.

Not to be confused with those who identify as transgender, “intersex is an umbrella term for differences in sex traits or reproductive anatomy” which intersex people can be born with or develop in childhood, according to interACT, an intersex youth advocate organization founded in Sonoma County in 2006.

Corrective medical treatment — including irreversible genital surgery — on intersex children is constituted as a human rights violation, according to Amnesty International. Figures vary but experts say about 1.7% of the population are intersex.

Laurent’s letter kicked off a wave of intersex activism globally. The Intersex Society of North America, which she founded in 1993, aimed to build “a world free of shame, secrecy, and unwanted genital surgery.”

The movement led activists to protest medical meetings and share their intersex experience with media. In 1997 Laurent produced a documentary called “Hermaphrodites Speak!” where intersex people shared their feelings of isolation and resentment toward doctors for treatment they believe to be unnecessary and harmful.

“The Intersex Society was largely run out of Santa Rosa” before it closed in 2008, said Laurent, who settled outside of Santa Rosa in unincorporated Sonoma County.

Although it’s been nearly three decades since she founded the Intersex Society of North America, Laurent doesn’t feel that the medical community has significantly evolved on intersex issues. But there’s been some progress.

“It has become impossible for doctors to keep it secret when they do these things because if you go to the internet, you'll find people to talk with about it,” Laurent said of the genital surgeries done to intersex children.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, introduced legislation to ban intersex surgeries on children in January but it didn’t make it past committee.

interACT, founded locally by attorney Anne Tamar-Mattis, preserves the Intersex Society of North America website as an historical archive. Learn more about the intersex movement at isna.org and interactadvocates.org.

See the gallery above for photos of Bo Laurent’s intersex activism in Sonoma County and around the world.

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