< Go Back
Caught between genders
04 Sep 2009

IN a recent Weekend Witness Sally Gross, the founder of Intersex South Africa, reflected on her own experience in the light of the controversy surrounding Caster Semenya and the “gender verification testing” resulting from her gold-winning performance at the World Championships in Athletics in Berlin.

The life of Gross challenges many of our preconceptions about who we are, especially in a society that accepts only two genders, male and female. Born Jewish, Gross later became a Christian and a Dominican priest. This was possible because she was classified male at birth. But Gross is not transexual, she is intersexe­d.

Gross grew up in Cape Town as an orthodox Jew and did rabbinical studies. She converted to Roman Catholicism in 1976. Following the Soweto uprising in the same year, she became politically active and eventually went into exile. In England, she joined the Dominicans, a Catholic religious order, and after ordination in 1987 taught moral theology and ethics at Blackfriars, Oxford.

Gross was a member of the ANC delegation that met with other South Africans in Dakar, Senegal, in 1987. In 1990, after the unbanning of the ANC, Gross went to teach at St Joseph’s in Cedara.

In 1992, Gross began to explore isssues around her gender and found she was intersexed. This led to her expulsion from the Catholic priesthood. “I was ostracised, stripped of status and even identity, and forbidden to exercise my vocation.” Gross would later find a religious home as a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers).

Gross also encountered problems when she applied for a South African passport. At one point the authorities decided they couldn’t issue a document under any gender. “I had ceased in law to exist as a person,” she recalle­d.

Gross was interviewed by The Witness in 2000 and the resulting three articles, as well as relating her personal story, also examined the issues raised by intersexuality in a gender-stereotyped society. (These are available as a single article on here)

Gross now brings her story up to date speaking about her changing religious and spiritual outlook, her attempts to heal the wounds of the past, her deterioating health and her involvement in drafting amendments for the Alteration of Sex Descriptions Bill and the Promotion of Equality Act.

What is intersexuality?

INTERSEXUALITY in humans refers to intermediate or atypical combinations of physical features that usually distinguish male from female.

This is usually understood to be congenital, involving chromosome, morphologic, genital and/or gonadal anomalies, such as diversion from stereotypical XX=female or XY=male presentations, sex reversal (XY=female, XX=male), genital ambiguity or sex developmental differences.

Intersexuality is the term adopted by medicine during the 20th century applied to human beings whose biological sex cannot be classified as either male or female.

— ex Wikipedia



RELIGION still looms large in my life narrative. My Christian commitment and faith died slowly and painfully of the probably calculated denial of the nourishment of fellowship it needed. Like many Quakers, I’m universalistic, not Christian. Since my mobility has deteriorated, making walking and even sitting for an hour in a meeting problematic, and since my body needs a weekly “sleep in”, my attendance at Sunday morning Quaker meetings has lapsed. Occasional short meetings for worship at my house, sitting silently together in comfortable chairs, are a joy.

Buddhist meditation practice, especially mindful breathing, is important to me. The most profound experience of my life was at a week-long Buddhist meditation retreat when I was in the Order. For a while, my mind was free of hindrances. Its inherent luminosity emerged and time seemed to stop in an extraordinary epiphany of bliss and sheer grace. Sitting cross-legged is now beyond me and sitting up is problematic, so I tend to meditate in a recliner chair.

The teachings of the Buddha speak powerfully to me. This is not really new. As a student in my Order, I was probably the only Jewish Dominican friar to be secretary of a university Buddhist society. I don’t view Buddhism as religion: it’s more a philosophy of life.

In and through all of this, I’m Jewish. This is cultural rather than religious, although Rabbinical literature is dear to me, and does not entail uncritical support for the actions of Israeli governments.

“Why is there anything at all rather than nothing?” This question underpinned my belief in God. The mystery-shaped answer was “God”. Around two years ago, I realised that I no longer believe that the question has meaning. It pushes beyond the bounds of sense for finite creatures. Thus I’m an atheist, somewhat to my own surprise, but this doesn’t change the tenor of my life.

Rejection by my Order and the Roman Curia still hurts and I still miss religious life. Some years ago, I sent a formal letter to the Roman Curia to protest at the dishonesty with which I was handled. I felt bound to express some outrage while seeking closure. Unsurprisingly, there was no response.

In the film The Mission, a character, having sinned grievously, drags a heavy bundle containing the armour and sword of his violent past with him everywhere as a penance. In some ways, the continued crippling impact of ostracism by the Order and church was like that.

Moved by this image, I e-mailed Malcolm McMahon, the Dominican who drove the process which shattered my life, who is now a Bishop. I explained that I sought closure. While his actions had been ill-judged, it was water under the bridge, I had no wish to diabolise him and offered him my friendship. To his great credit, he replied soon afterwards. He saw me as a friend, but felt he’d acted in the Order’s and church’s best interests. What I’d done was courageous, but he believed it wrong. I’m not sure what he contends I’ve done, but am grateful to him for responding so quickly and honestly.

Recently, I managed to make contact with Timothy Radcliffe, master of the Order during my ordeal. He responded warmly, expressing the hope that we might meet some day.

I still work for the Regional Land Claims Commission in the Western Cape, as a research and policy advisor. The commission’s work is almost finished and what lies ahead is uncertain.

That my body is failing looms large. Diminished mobility makes public transport inaccessible, while eye problems prevent driving. The expense of getting to and from work is unsustainable, so getting out and about is beyond my means. This is isolating. It isn’t due to intersex. Highly pressured work and the deep wounds from the past have taken a toll. Several lifetimes’ worth of experience are packed into 56 years, and perhaps my health problems reflect this. My body is like a car which bears the marks of heavy and productive use.

Since 2000, I’ve drafted amendments on intersex for the Alteration of Sex Descriptions Bill and the Promotion of Equality Act, and these have been lobbied into law. Getting intersex into the Promotion of Equality Act is the weightier of the two. Lobbying persuaded the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) that intersex is a serious human rights issue. This yielded an SAHRC workshop three years ago which looked at the imposition of genital surgery on intersexed infants and children, and the possible need for legislation.

Through Engender, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) on whose board I serve, funds were raised to set Intersex South Africa up formally as an Engender project with a full-time coordinator. My role is advisory. It has a website and has been served by two co-ordinators who developed literature and ran workshops, although it is without a co-ordinator right now.

Much needs to be done to educate the public about intersex. People need to learn that it is part of the fabric of human diversity and not a threat, a rights issue and not pathology. Teachers and curricula need content about it. Medical students need input from a medical ethics and human rights perspective. Religious leaders need to be educated about it to educate others. Research about the prevalence of intersex in South Africa, and about attitudes and practices, is needed. We need legislation to limit and regulate non-consensual genital surgery on the intersexed and legislation must be screened with implications for the intersexed in mind.

The past three years have convinced me that, while NGO involvement is helpful, it is not sufficient. The government needs to act as a catalyst. A modest directorate with a director, a deputy director and one or two administrative assistants-cum-project officers, within the department for Women, Persons with Disabilities and Children, and with a mandate to engage with other departments regarding the rights and needs of the intersexed, could achieve a great deal at minimal cost. My knowledge, experience, skills and commitment would be best deployed in such a context while my body still permits it.

See www.intersex.org.za

Search: Past Issues