Born on August 22, 1953 in Wynberg, Cape Town, Sally Gross is one of the most challenging and important figures in our country’s history.
Gross was born intersex and classified male at birth. She was raised as a boy named Selwyn. Despite it being protocol, there was no attempt to “correct” Gross’s sex at birth, a choice that highlighted the struggles and discrimination faced by Gross as an intersex individual, instigating a lifetime of activism and an essential inquiry into the treatment of the intersex community in South Africa.
Gross was increasingly politically active. Her anti-apartheid stance led her away from South Africa. She attended the University of Haifa for 2 years before returning to South Africa to fight the Apartheid regime. She began studying law at The University of Cape Town (UCT), becoming an active player in left-wing politics on campus and off, becoming a member of the ANC.
Gross was raised in an orthodox Jewish home, though felt increasingly alienated from her faith as she grew up. This lead to her embracing Roman Catholicism and in early 1976, she was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. She formed connections with the Dominicans, a Catholic preaching order.
In the same year, the Soweto Riots took place. In response, Gross wrote a draft programme which included an armed struggle clause as well as a clause on co-operation with the then banned African National Congress (ANC). After a copy of this draft went missing, Gross was urged to flee the country for fear of her life. In May 1977, she left South Africa as a political refugee. This resulted in the loss of her South African citizenship.
While in exile, Gross further connected with the Dominicans. In 1981, she was accepted for the novitiate in Oxford, England. She was ordained in 1987, and proceeded to teach at Blackfriars, Oxford. She was then assigned as sub-prior to the Cambridge priory. During this time, Gross still identified as male, making her rise in the ranks of the church possible. Gross remained an active member of the ANC and the ANC delegation, then headed by Thabo Mbeki. Following the unbanning of the ANC in 1990, the Dominicans in South Africa invited Gross to return to her home country. She did so to teach for six months of each year from 1991 to 1992 at St Joseph's, Cedara. In 1991, her South African citizenship was restored.
Gross had always felt uncomfortable with her gender. In 1992, she realized that if her relationship with the church was to continue, it was essential to address this conflict. Initially approaching this sense from a transgender paradigm, she worked together with a counselor who suggested that Gross may have been born intersex. This was confirmed following a testosterone test. Gross was granted a year of leave from the Church during this time.
What followed was a time of immense self-discovery, which led Gross to the South Coast of England where she began her life as Sally.
Following Gross’s choice to identify as female, she faced a number of problems regarding her future as an ordained Catholic priest. This role is not permitted to woman. Following her acceptance of her intersex identity, Gross was stripped of her clerical status by the Church and had her religious vows annulled. She was completely shut out of the community.
The Church was not the only system within which Gross faced difficulties on the grounds of her gender identity. When Gross fled South Africa, she was classified male by the Department of Home Affairs. When her citizenship and South African passport were reinstated, she had begun identifying as female.
Home Affairs was unable to issue her with suitable identity documents which recognized Gross’s intersex status. Their refusal rendered her practically nonexistent in accordance to the law. Gross consulted the South African Constitution and Bill of Rights, taking her case up with a prominent human rights lawyer.
Eventually, it was decided that Gross’s birth registration information be changed to classify her as female, on the grounds of incorrect gender assignment at birth. The on-going saga between Gross and Home Affairs raised disturbing questions about South Africa’s gender-stereotyped society.
Following her experiences, Gross became a vocal advocate and activist for intersex rights, advocating that the protocol of performing “corrective” surgery upon the birth of an intersex child be eradicated.
Gross worked closely with intersex activists to raise awareness, remove stigma and ultimately transform South Africa’s gender normative social mindset. To quote Gross, “…we are a rainbow nation, and that rainbow quality, that diversity, is to be seen as a strength rather than as a weakness. And perhaps intersexuality shows also that we are a rainbow species: there is more diversity in physical types than people find it easy to concede."
In 2010, Gross founded the organization “Intersex South Africa” (ISSA), which she directed up until her death. Gross died alone on February 14, 2014. Up to her last minute, Gross fought for her community. She had been forced to appeal to friends to assist her financially as her health deteriorated. She had exhausted her own resources by making contributions ISSA.
Coan, S. “The Journey from Selwyn to Sally”, The Natal Witness, 21-23 February 2000. Available at https://www.news24.com/Archives/Witness/The-journey-from-Selwyn-to-Sally-20150430 online. Accessed 17/07/19.
Isaacson, M. “Sally Gross: The fight for gender equality loses a giant”, The Daily Maverick, 25th February 2014. Available at https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2014-02-25-sally-gross-the-fight-for-gender-equality-loses-a-giant/ online. Accessed 17/07/19.