The life of Sally 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 Sally Gross is not transexual, she is intersexed. This article by Stephen Coan tells her story and examines the issues raised by intersexuality in a gender-stereotyped society. (This article was first published in The Natal Witness in three parts from February 21-23, 2000.)
"Since the time I became conscious of myself as a very young child I had sense of something being awry in the area of gender, about my own bodiliness," says Sally Gross. "I didn't know exactly what it was, but there was a sense of things being awry, being different."
Gross now knows that her birth on August 22, 1953, in Wynberg, Cape Town, was cause not for celebration, but alarm. Her mother was told there was something wrong and that her first born child was likely to die of dehydration. "Now a new born infant doesn't die of dehydration unless you don't feed it," the still very much alive Gross points out. "My suspicion is that back then in 1953, the reaction was 'Oh my God! What do we do, let's let nature take its course.' But then someone relented."
Why such a reaction? "Anatomically my body is exceedingly ambiguous, and was clearly so when I was born," says Gross. Despite this ambiguity the infant Gross was classified as male and brought up as a boy, named Selwyn. In hindsight, according to medical protocols adopted in the mid-fifties Gross would have been classified as female at birth.
Today as a matter of routine, such "ambiguities" are "corrected" at birth. In Gross's case there was no attempt at what she calls "surgically enforced cosmetic conformity" but she was subjected to another form of surgery. "I was born Jewish and there was an attempt to circumcise me - scar tissue and something my father said to me about difficulties with the circumcision attest to an awkwardness about that."
The walls of Sally Gross's flat in Rosebank, Cape Town, attest to her Jewish heritage. They are lined with books: imposing volumes of philosophy and theology, many in Hebrew. They are also evidence of her background as a lecturer in philosophy, when as a Dominican priest, Sally was Father Selwyn Gross and taught at Blackfriars, Oxford, and St Joseph's Theological Institute, Cedara, just outside Pietermaritzburg.
The journey from Selwyn to Sally has taken Gross to the outer limits of human identity, both physically and psychologically and incorporated every dimension of her life: political, social and religious. Her experience has implications for all of us, and our institutions, both secular and religious, because our society insists on the existence of only two sexes, male and female.
Gross is a living challenge to this dualistic view of gender because she is not transexual, she is intersexed. There is no neat definition of this state, one attempt defines it as "atypical congenital physical sexual differentiation." But intersex is really an umbrella term, which covers an enormous range of physical sexual permutations. Those people born very obviously intersexed are thought to be one in 2000 - a fairly conservative ballpark figure for the United States, according to Gross, who cites a study in the U.S. indicating the incidence of intersexuality, overall, may be nearly 2% of all live births.
Gross is quick to point out that there is a distinction to be made between biological sex - one's anatomy - and sexual orientation. Some intersexed people are attracted to men, others to women, some don't have any sexual orientiation at all. "Sexual orientation is not an intrinsic part of the intersex package," says Gross. "When it comes to intersexuality, one's bodiliness is such that it's often exceedingly difficult to answer the question: is this person male or is this person female?"
Gross has no sexual orientation. "This came as a surprise, as I expected things to happen when I got to my teens, but they didn't," says Gross, who eventually accepted she was one of nature's celibates. Not a condition which finds a ready home in orthodox Judaism. "One is expected to produce grandchildren. I did not believe at the time that Orthodox Judaism had religious symbols which could make sense of the way in which I was different, whatever it was."
An indication religious loyalties were shifting; a shift inextricably bound up with her physical sexual identity. Unlike her parents, who were not religious, Gross grew up a committed orthodox Jew and as a teenager went to England "to do intensive rabbinical studies at a yeshiva, a traditional rabbinical college"; later returning to South Africa to complete her secular education.
Increasingly Gross felt alienated from her Jewish heritage which seemingly failed to accomodate her "ambiguity". She was further alienated by the response of official South African Jewish institutions to apartheid. "There was a policy of tacitly going along with apartheid. People from the Jewish community who challenged apartheid found themselves marginalised: the Joe Slovos, the Ronnie Kasrils and so on."
Counterpointing this growing disillusionment with institutional Judaism was a fascination with the figure of Jesus. "I had long had a great sadness that we as Jews could not own at least the human and prophetic figure of Jesus. This was someone who compelled respect."
Gross was drawn towards Roman Catholicism, impressed by the spirit of openness in the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council, and the willingness of some Catholic clergy to challenge apartheid. Jesus and Catholic Christianity also provided Gross with a way of coping with her sense of something being awry in the area of gender. "The image of the cross seemed to be an icon of all manner of confusion and suffering. The Holocaust was there, the horror of apartheid was there, and my own personal confusion and pain - which I could never publicly admit - was there as well. And in the resurrection was a symbol that this was transcended. And at the back of my mind, there would have been an awareness that in Christianity there are strands of tradition in which celibacy is valued and turned to positive use."
Gross was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church in early 1976. "Then Soweto happened". Gross pondered on her response. "Was I to get on my knees and pray for Christian fellowship, or was I to seek a Gestetner to put out seditious pamphlets." Gross prayed long and hard, and the answer was "Gestetner!"
Political involvement was nothing new, Gross had been politically active since schooldays and, at one point, "wanting away from apartheid" lived in Israel for two years. However Israel wasn't the democratic paradise she envisaged. After brief involvement in political activities in Israel while studying at the University of Haifa Gross decided if she was to fight apartheid "I would rather do it where I was born." Gross returned to study law at the University of Cape Town and became active in left-wing politics on and off-campus.
"I wrote a draft programme which included an armed struggle clause - I had seen children being shot at on the streets of Cape Town - and it included a clause on co-operation with the ANC." When a copy of the document disappeared under mysterious circumstances Gross was instructed to flee the country by her comrades. "I skipped the country in May '77."
Gross first went to Botswana then to Israel, where her parents had settled, and where, after being denied status for around a year, she eventually became an Israeli citizen. Having already made contact in South Africa with the Dominicans, a Catholic preaching order, Gross picked up the pieces overseas and in 1981 was accepted for the novitiate by the English Dominicans in Oxford, England. Following ordination in 1987 Gross taught moral theology and ethics at Blackfriars, Oxford, as well as giving philosophy tutorials at various other Oxford university colleges. She was then assigned to the Cambridge priory where she became sub-prior.
At the same time Gross was an active member of the ANC and served as a member of the ANC delegation, headed by Thabo Mbeki, which met with other South Africans at Dakar, Senegal, in 1987. In 1990 after the unbanning of the ANC Gross was invited visit to South Africa by the Dominicans. Despite initial difficulties connected with her presumed loss of South African citizenship due to having been a refugee from South Africa, she finally came to teach for six months of each year in 1991 and 1992 at St Joseph's, Cedara, and her citizenship was restored in 1991.
With South Africa's problems resolved, the time seemed ripe for Gross to address the tensions in her own life. "There were clearly two areas of tension: there was the issue of my Jewish/Christian identity and the issue of bodiliness and gender, though I thought that was secondary." When it became clear there was an expectation she would teach here on a permanent basis Gross realised "I owed it to myself, to the order and to the church not to let plans for me founder on unresolved conflicts."
"The decision to confront the issue of my bodiliness was a decision to confront what I feared the most, and what I had tried to run from in many different ways," says Gross. At Cedara in 1992 she did an "audit" of her life. "It became clear that the issue of gender - gender-identity - was much more prominent as a driving force in my life than I had realised and it was something I had to confront if it wasn't to pull my life to bits."
"At that stage I rather naively thought I'd see someone with some expertise in this area and after a couple of sessions I could get on with the rest of my priestly life, full stop." Gross laughs. "It wasn't as simple as that."
Getting on with the rest of her life meant returning to the beginning, to those first feelings of things being awry and different when it came to gender. "One way I had worked with all this as a child was thinking I was actually female underneath it all - as a child this had been a very real question. But it wasn't a case of a girl being trapped in a boy's body, more a sense of my gender not fitting."
Though there was much about Gross at odds with a transexual paradigm, that condition certainly provided an entry point for further enquiry. "I certainly wasn't contemplating gender assignment surgery, I wanted to speak to someone who understood my condition and would be able to say what's at issue, what one must do, and how to handle it. That's all I wanted."
A counsellor running an organisation which focused on transexuality thought there might be an issue of intersex and urged Gross to have her levels of testosterone tested, which she felt were likely to be suggestive of intersexuality. These tests showed that Gross's testosterone levels were in the middle of normal female range and less than an eighth off the bottom of male range. "The counsellor was absolutely spot on but nevertheless sought to regiment this in terms of transsexuality and a change of gender."
This use of transsexuality as a model was reinforced by a consultant who specialised in the treatment of transsexuality, and who strongly advised a period of "real life test" in female gender role. The suggestion was that Gross had to grasp this nettle as part of a process of discernment and treatment.
Gross asked for a year's leave of absence from the Dominicans to "discern and explore what to do." Her major religious superior in England was reluctant at first but then gave grudging permission to embark upon a "real-life test" hedged with various constraints. Gross had to move somewhere where she was not known and was forbidden to tell anyone of her condition who did not already know. "I had to lose contact with my brethren, most of my friends and even my parents." She was further forbidden contact her fellow religious by telephone or letter; she was denied employment references and forbidden to function as a priest, to write or give talks, though she could approach the sacraments. She was also denied moral and material support as a matter of principle.
One senior Dominican priest to whom Gross wrote before approaching the head of the English Dominicans, responded more creatively. "He said that he saw this as precisely something which was priestly - maybe that in my bodiliness, God was working out a preaching of that passage in Paul: 'in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female,' but all of them, all assimilated here."
Gross moved to Eastbourne on the south coast of England and from the outset adopted female role. "I remember the first time I went shopping at a supermarket coming back with a tension headache feeling 'God! I can't cope'. Here I was, presenting a cheque book and a cheque guarantee card which gave my title as Mister. That was easily changed soon, but I no longer knew how to read people's reactions and responses. I sat in the flatlet I'd found and thought, well this is a learning process, though I don't have the experience to know how to respond, the only way I can get that experience is just by going out and doing it. Not to play act, just to go out and be myself. This was the only way to learn - and the tension disappeared. It felt more comfortable."
A comfort that confirmed past experience. "As an adult, when I went to places where I was not known I was often taken to be a woman," she recalls. "It was though I was trying to pass as male but not quite making it. I came across as fairly androgynous. A friend once commented that there was a kind of 'fuzzy-edgedness' about me."
In Eastbourne, Gross's doctor showed her the detailed results of her testosterone test, which she had not previously been shown. He was clearly intrigued by them, and noted that this was something with which Gross had been born. Evidence of congenitality, as it emerged, appeared to compound the embarrassment and her felony in the eyes of her major religious superior. "After all I was legitimately a woman who, albeit unwittingly, had been ordained a Catholic priest."
Given the Catholic Church's position on women priests, Gross had realised from the outset her future as a priest was problematic. "But being a religious is a completely different matter, particular in an order in which there are congregations of women and there are some mixed communities as well. Had there been a willingness to find a way of accommodating my religious vocation, a way could have been found without too great a difficulty, though it would have taken a lot of courage."
Instead the religious authorities played a cat-and-mouse game with Gross that looks to have been calculated to make her break under pressure. "It was though they hoped I would do the honourable thing." Instead of falling on her sword, Gross toughed it out, but she makes no secret of her personal pain. "It was the biggest trauma of my life, one that was surely life-threatening and dragged on for a long time."
A year after she had been given leave from community, a Papal Rescript stripped Gross of clerical status and annulled her religious vows, again not without an element of subterfuge. Rumours had been circulating in Catholic circles that Gross had reverted to ultra-orthodox Judaism. This seemed to suggest that a dismissal was being prepared on the grounds she had "notoriously defected from the faith", cause for immediate dismissal and excommunication without right of appeal. Gross pre-empted such a hostile dismissal on such false grounds by agreeing to cooperate in a laicisation process. It proved a one-way co-operation. Gross was laicised on the basis of a notional petition for dispensation from priestly celibacy, but celibacy had never been the issue. "I am one of nature's celibates. It was not my petition, it was contrary to what I'd said."
Even with lay status further prohibitions were placed on Gross, though without any canonical justification. "They effectively made it impossible for me to remain in communion." It was suggested that she could not participate in church groups or parish organisations, except by applying, on an occasion by occasion basis, for permission from the bishop, who would in turn need to consult Gross's former major superior. "It seemed to me that it made a mockery of the very notion of fellowship if you couldn't join in the life of the parish. The implication was you couldn't even have coffee after mass in the church hall."
"By this stage I no longer had the resilience to tough it out. The possible come-back from my former major religious superior would have been more than I could have coped with emotionally, and I took the advice of a local priest and others to withdraw from communion."
For a short while Gross attended an Anglican church. "But this was in a diocese vehemently opposed to the ordination of women. I found it increasingly uncomfortable and eventually attended a Quaker meeting and found it spoke to my condition."
Now living in Cape Town, where she works for the Regional Land Claims commission and is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), the former Father Selwyn, now Sally, admits to missing the priesthood. "At some level I think I'll always see myself as a priest and a religious. I hanker for religious life and I hanker for the ministry."
Though the Catholic Church appears to have been either unwilling or unable to face the implications of Gross's intersex status she doesn't condemn the church as a whole "but the few people who have exercised power in this situation, and have done so in terms other than I would have wished or expected."
"I had expected that the attitude of the church would have been loving; I thought there would have been support. I did not believe that at a time when I needed friendship and contact more than any other time in my life, these, specifically, were denied me."
While living in Eastbourne and still bound by vows of obedience to her religious superiors not to talk of her circumstances, Gross decided to tell her parents. "I felt it would be exceedingly hurtful for them to have found out second-hand, so I broke discipline and told them what had happened. Both were supportive. I don't think it was a terrible surprise really."
When Gross visited them in Israel some three years later, it was clear there were some things her parents were still not prepared to discuss, particularly events surrounding her birth. "I found that difficult," says Gross, "but felt, given their age and health, it was not prudent to push the matter. But whatever happened, I am profoundly grateful I was spared surgery and was brought up in a way which left me pretty unneurotic about my body, all things considered, and that, believe me, is quite an extraordinary achievement. And the one thing which I certainly never had any reason to doubt was my parents' love."
When she left South Africa in 1977 Sally was known as Selwyn Gross and classified as male. Some time after leaving, Gross became an Israeli citizen then, after joining the Dominican order in England, became British by naturalisation. She was deemed to have lost South African citizenship by virtue of having fled South Africa and obtained the citizenship of another country. In 1991, following the unbanning of the ANC, of which Gross was a member, her entitlement to a South African passport was restored, and she was granted one. "It described me as male and was due to expire in November 1996. But as I was living as female and all my other documentation stated that I was female I sought to explore the possibility of changing details in the passport. I was told this would not be an insuperable problem."
However the South African authorities seemed thrown by her request and thus began a saga prolonged to the point that Gross's passport expired, stranding her in England. Documents were lost then found. Birth records went walkabout. When they returned, it dawned on her for the first time it was odd that she had never had a birth certificate. "Usually a birth certificate is issued when you are born, but I didn't have one." In retrospect it's clear this reflected the ambiguity of her gender at birth.
Ultimately Home Affairs decided, in view of the medical evidence, that it was beyond their authority to issue Gross with any identifying documentation under any gender description at all. "Which suggested, by implication, that I could not get confirmation that I had been born. I had ceased in law to exist as a person."
Gross's file was then referred to the Department of Health for adjudication. "In the meantime I could not set foot in the country of my birth."
It was suggested informally that the matter could be resolved if she submitted to genital "disambiguation" surgery. "I considered this an immoral suggestion - to undergo dangerous and unnecessary surgery as a condition for having a legal identity. I made it clear I would take legal action if this was put to me formally."
After assessing her situation in the light of the South African Constitution and Bill of Rights Gross found that there was a case to be made and that a prominent human rights lawyer was likely to be interested in taking it up. This possibility eventually helped concentrate official minds. The health department duly ordered Gross's birth register details to be changed, evidently on the grounds the original classification of her sex at birth had been shown by physical evidence to have been mistaken.
Gross got her passport and, for the first time, a birth certificate. "It states that I'm born female," says Gross. "But the experience of finding myself denied personality and humanity in law was the biggest challenge of my identity I have ever encountered."
That Gross encountered such a challenge is because she decided fully to explore the implications of her intersex status, and this had disturbing implications for a gender-sterotyped society.
The standard protocol for the determination of sex - as either male or female - of babies born with ambiguous external genitals was established as recently as the mid-1950s.
Gross points out that the way biological sex develops is complex, and cannot always be regimented into a straightforward classification of a person as either male or female. At least five variables come into play: external genitals, chromosomal patterns, dominant sex-hormones, the nature of the person's sex-glands and the internal structures of reproduction - these jointly result in the person's physical sexual type. "But none of these are absolutes," says Gross. "You get in-betweens, even within the single variables. All sorts of permutations occur. What's needed to yield unambiguous male or female is for all five of these variables to be completely congruent with one another and unambiguous in themselves. Nature and the mathematics of it all ensure that many other types of outcomes are in fact possible."
Currently, when an intersex person is born, the immediate response is to assign a sex, "reconstructing" the genitals to reflect that decision. "There is essentially a kind of a tape measure rule of thumb," says Gross. "If the phallic structure is more than 2.5 centimetres stretched length it is treated as a penis and there's no surgery. If it is less than 0.9 centimetres long it is treated as an acceptable clitoris and there's straightforward classification as female."
If the phallic structure is between those parameters, what is euphemistically termed "a clitoral recession" is performed to reduce what is treated as a clitoris to culturally acceptable proportions. "Such 'disambiguation' surgery is almost always feminising on the grounds, as one surgeon put it, that it's easier to dig a hole than to build a pole," says Gross. One or two other factors - such as chromosomal pattern - may be looked as at well, depending on local practice, but the surgical upshot tends to be the same.
Gross advocates no imposed surgical intervention at all unless clearly required for preservation of life or physical health. "What I and other intersex activists argue is that the lived experience of adults who had such essentially cosmetic surgery imposed shows it leads to physical and psychological problems later in life."
"An intersexed person may later make a free and fully informed choice to have genital surgery of some kind, perhaps to facilitate a change of gender-role. This is a different matter completely," says Gross. "What we oppose, and view as mutilation, is the imposition of such essentially cosmetic surgery without the personal choice of the patient, and which perhaps irrevocably closes certain significant future choices to that person."
Citing the American scholar Susan Kessler, Gross observes that such interventionist surgery at birth is carried out not because the failure of the body to conform "is threatening to the infant's life but because it is threatening to the infant's culture".
Gross is not advocating that an intersex infant be reared in some kind of third gender, in our kind of society at least. "That would be a legitimate choice for later by that person," says Gross, "but in a gender-stereotyped society, such as ours, there needs to be a best guess as to the optimal gender of rearing as male or female, and a consistency about that during the early formative years. That said, it must be realised that even the most conscientious best guess could prove to be the wrong one, and there must be an openness to a child's wish to change this."
The South African Consitution and Bill of Rights provides the basis for a recognition of the rights of intersexed people. "To use a rather hackneyed metaphor: 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."
At present in South Africa, as elsewhere, the issue of intersex is kept largely under wraps. "Very often parents are not told the truth exactly, if at all, and certainly the children are not told exactly or given half-truths at best. Consequently people grow up with the sense there is something shameful about their bodies, that there are dark secrets; and this is exceedingly erosive."
"It is something about which people keep very quiet. People who are intersexed have to struggle to get at the truth about themselves. That there are plenty of people kept in ignorance hurts me. I know how much I've had to struggle."
"It's much, much better to be in a position to present oneself as oneself and to be open. I feel much more comfortable being 'out', as it were, being known to be what I am, rather than living with a sense of struggling with 'What kind of thing am I?', and with sense of living out a lie."
For all that, her struggle is far from over. Gross works in close contact with intersex activists elsewhere to raise awareness about intersexuality among those who are intersexed and those who are not; to remove the stigma which attaches to it, to foster respect for difference, to break the isolation of intersexed people from one another, and to ensure that the way in which intersexuality is treated medically is changed irrevocably.
* This article was first published in The Natal Witness in three parts from February 21-23, 2000.