Eighth Day of Intersex: Sally Gross

On the Eighth Day of Intersex we draw your attention to a true heroine of intersex people, Sally Gross.

What is intersex?

Intersex people are people who, as individuals, have congenital genetic, hormonal and physical features that may be thought to be typical of both male and female at once. That is, we may be thought of as being male with female features, female with male features, or indeed we may have no clearly defined sexual features at all.

Today we pay tribute to a true intersex heroine

Sally Gross is a South African intersex activist.

Sally has the distinction of being the person who was responsible for the first intersex inclusion in anti-discrimination law and therefore the first national constitution in the world that is fully intersex inclusive.

Doubts that the law may not see the provisions in the constitution as intersex inclusive were put to rest with amendments to the Judicial Matters Amendments Act that were put forward by Sally:

Amendment of section 1 of Act 4 of 2000

16. Section 1 of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, 2000, is hereby amended—
(a) by the insertion in subsection (1) after the definition of “HIV/AIDS status” of the following definition:
“ ‘intersex’ means a congenital sexual differentiation which is atypical,
to whatever degree;”; and
(b) by the insertion in subsection (1) after the definition of “sector” of the
following definition:
sex’ includes intersex;”.

Source: http://www.info.gov.za/view/DownloadFileAction?id=67875

Sally has been a tireless worker for intersex rights and was amongst the first to see our struggle in terms of human rights rather than through the lens of disease and medicine.

In Sally’s own words…

RELIGION 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 House chair are 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 weeklong Buddhist meditation retreat when I was in the Order. For a while, the 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, his Dhamma, especially in the Pali, 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 the Buddha’s Dhamma as religion – it’s more a philosophy of life.

In and through all of this, I’m Jewish. This is cultural rather than religious, though 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 back 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.

More substantially, I reject much in scripture – the commandments to exterminate the Amalekites and the Canaanite nations, for example. Genocide is wrong, whether “divinely commanded” or not. Mad spirals of violence in Israel/Palestine and elsewhere, driven by “us-versus-them” attitudes with deep roots in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, suggest that the “Abrahamic faiths” tend to bear strange, toxic fruit.

Recently, a Buddhist friend introduced me to an acupuncturist-cum-rabbi. He wasn’t thrown by my life history and atheism, and I’m amazed at his openness. He noted that the Zohar, a seminal Jewish mystical text, distinguishes derekh, well-charted highway, from netiv, uncharted trail. A few are unsuited to the derekh, the path of conventional communal and religious life – a netiv is their destiny. The derekh was not for me; I’m on a unique netiv. Rabbinics, powerful Christian archetypes, the Dhamma and my Jewishness are all part of this.

Rejection by my Order and the Roman Curia still hurts, and I still miss religious life. Some years back, 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 that shattered my life, 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 diabolize him and I 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 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 that bears the marks of heavy and productive use.

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

Through Engender, an 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 coordinators who developed literature and ran numerous workshops, though it is without a coordinator right now.

Much needs to be done to educate the public about intersex. They 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 intersex, and legislation must be screened with implications for the intersex in mind.

The past three years have convinced me that, while NGO involvement is helpful, it is not sufficient. 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 intersex, 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.

Sally Gross,
Founder, Intersex South Africa (ISA).
See www.intersex.org.za

Gina Wilson
President, Organisation Intersex International Australia Limited (OII Australia)


Sally Gross

I’ve just seen the release OII issued, the text of which is an article I wrote in or around September 2009. Something which should have occurred to me earlier, but did not, is that a couple of things have changed. Intersex South Africa became completely independent of Engender as of the beginning of July 2010, I left the employment of the public service at the end of 2010 and have earned my living as Intersex South Africa’s Director since then, and also ceased to be a member of Engender’s Board. This was because it was important that Intersex South Africa differentiate itself organisationally from Engender. The website is out of date, but has been revamped and is being updated offline. Hopefully, that process will be completed soon.


Sally writes: “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.”

I can’t get this out of my mind. What Sally had “done”…? She had “done” nothing more than be born intersex. And for that, everything had to be taken away.

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