The in-betweeners

2012-02-11 00:00

THE issue of intersex is a “hidden” one, said Sally Gross, head of Intersex South Africa, at a workshop held at Ethembalethu in Pietermaritzburg. Gross was speaking to a group of interested people seeking information on intersex.

In South Africa, the topic has been synonymous with top athlete Caster Semenya, who shot to the headlines with her win, and then the controversy over her physical attributes.

Gross herself was born with ambiguous genitals and was classified as a male at birth.

She has since changed her gender orientation to that of female, but for more than 40 years she lived as a male. Her parents did not lead her to believe there was anything wrong with her, and she lead a very sheltered existence. She ascribed her lack of sex drive or interest in the opposite sex to her personality, and assumed she was asexual.

Gross was always spiritual, having studied rabbinical studies, and she was also a political activist during apartheid, and this ultimately led to her leaving the country and living in exile in Britain, where she became a Catholic priest in the Dominican Order. It was only in her forties that she began to explore her sexual identity, and then it was discovered that she was intersex.

This is a description for anyone who is born with both male and female physical characteristics.

The precise definition is: Intersex, in human and other animals, is the presence of intermediate or atypical combinations of physical features that usually distinguish female from male. This is usually understood to be congenital, involving chromosomal, morphologic, genital and/or gonadal anomalies. The child may have a diversion from typical XX-female or XY-male presentations, have genital ambiguity, or sexual developmental differences. An intersex individual may have biological characteristics of both the male and the female sexes.


For some intersex people, they are born and appear to be typical babies, but it is only at the onset of puberty that their differences become noticeable. Perhaps boys begin growing breasts, or girls do not menstruate. But for others, a surgical decision is taken by doctors at birth to assign them a sex which may have dreadful consequences down the line.

They may be assigned as girls, and then at puberty they really feel that they are boys, but their “undersized penises” have been amputated. Gross said that many intersexed children are usually feminised at birth because “it is easier to dig a hole than grow a pole”. She said that the whole concept of a male child having to grow up in a world that considers a male’s penis size to be the sum of his worth is part of the problem.

Gross has dedicated her life to informing people about the existence of intersex people, and to lobby against unwarranted surgical intervention on intersex babies. “We are not monsters. We are normal human beings. We can function exactly like everyone else, and the very reason you don’t know that there are so many of us around is because you can’t see us.”

Gross said that many intersex babies in rural villages are killed at birth by midwives, who tell the mothers the babies died of natural causes. In first world countries, mothers who are informed that their babies could have medical conditions related to intersex conditions are advised to abort.

Young parents who are presented with an intersex child are immediately advised by doctors about surgical options to “correct” the so-called abnormalities. Gross and her network of international supporters say that they are not “abnormal”.

“Some people have told me they are swept into hospitals, and are treated like zoo animals — poked and prodded, and examined like freaks.

“This is unacceptable in a world where we are striving for human rights. We are demanding to be treated like human beings.”

Gross believes that the ideal route would be for the medical fraternity to adopt a more humane approach to the issue of intersex, and to accept that early medical intervention is like “playing God”. She said: “We believe that no surgery should be done unless there is a medical necessity, or there is a co­morbidity associated with the intersexuality. Otherwise, a decision should be taken to decide which sex would best suit the child based on the child’s body type, chromosomes and genitals.

Then, at a later stage, when these children are older and wish to have surgery or wishes to change their own sexual identity, it is their own choice. They have not had an artificial sexual identity thrust on them. For Gross, she believes the lies and deceptions are extremely hurtful for intersex children, who are told “lies” in order to protect them from the truth.

Gross, who did not have any surgery, believes this was her saving grace. “Many of my intersex friends have been lied to, subjected to surgery and had their whole worlds turned inside out because they were not what their parents expected.”

Gross has not had the funding to tackle the issue in the Constitutional Court, but she has managed to pass a law stating that intersex people are considered equal under the Promotion of Equality Act. While battling her own ill-health issues, Gross said that while she can, it is her aim to educate people about the existence of intersex people and to stop them from living secret­ lives.


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