Remembering Sally Gross

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We express our regret and sadness over the passing away of our friend and colleague, Sally Gross.

Sally was found on 14th February 2014 in her apartment, the last known communication having been on Tuesday 11th February. Sally had been ill for some time, and contacted her longstanding friend, Mani Mitchell, in January knowing that she did not have long to live, but alerting her to the difficulties of her situation. Short of funds, unable to care for herself and cover her medical bills, Sally faced impending homelessness. Appeals were made through the intersex community, including a fund-raising project, the latter of which came to fruition too late for Sally to benefit from, unfortunately. However, early individual donations to Sally’s account did mean that she was able to stay in her home, and continue communicating with her friends and family up to the end, and not die on the street, which is what she feared would happen.

Over the last fifteen years of her life, Sally Gross became an intersex advocate and mentor. She was the founder of Intersex South Africa (ISSA), an autonomous intersex association which we and Sally considered an affiliate with OII. The denial of fundamental human rights to intersex people was the last in a series of injustices Sally worked to highlight and address; hers was a life punctuated by campaigns against injustice – against apartheid in South Africa, for the plight of Palestinians under the state of Israel, and intersex issues.

Born intersex on 22 August 1953, Sally was classified male at birth, despite being sexually ambiguous, and named Selwyn. Although aware of her anomalies throughout her life, she was only formally diagnosed with an intersex trait at age 40, and subsequently reclassified as female.

Sally fled South Africa in 1977, on the advice of colleagues in the African National Congress, moving from there through Botswana and on to Israel where her parents had settled, and where she was eventually granted citizenship. Sally later moved to the UK, where she entered the Dominican Order and was ordained a priest at Blackfriars, Oxford. She gained a Masters degree at Oxford, and became a Philosophy Don, teaching moral theology and ethics. In 1987, as Selwyn, Sally was a member of the ANC, and was a member of the delegation headed by Thabo Mbeki to Senegal as part of the process that led to the dismantling of Apartheid; when the ban on the ANC was lifted in 1990 she was invited back to South Africa by the Dominicans, to teach. Her return to South Africa was complicated by a loss of citizenship during the apartheid era, although she was granted citizenship again in 1991.

A deeply spiritual person throughout her life, Sally’s intersex status was only formally diagnosed when she sought to transition from male to female. She made her transition in Eastbourne in England between 1992 and 1995.

All through this period, Sally felt no different about her vocation to religious life, yet church authorities insisted that she could no longer remain within the Dominican Order, and as a woman she could not serve as a priest. Sally had hoped that being intersex, and as a woman, she could be transferred to a mixed congregation or a congregation of women. She was given leave of absence from the community, during which time she was stripped of clerical status and had her religious vows annulled. She was laicised against her will and denied fellowship with other Catholics. Sally eventually found a place within the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. She later entered into a deeper understanding of Buddhism, and this became increasingly important to her towards the end of her life.

Her intersex status, and reassignment as female, led to further problems when she returned to South Africa and sought for her passport to be renewed with a new gender identifier in 1996-7. Sally became active in the pursuit of human rights for intersex people. In 2000, Sally secured the first known mention of intersex in national law, with the inclusion of “intersex” within the definition of “sex” in the anti-discrimination law of the Republic of South Africa. Since then, she helped to draft legislation on the Alteration of Sex Descriptors, and the Promotion of Equality. Sally helped establish Intersex South Africa, an associate organisation of OII. More recently she participated in the first International Intersex Forum, in Brussels, 2011, and she was active in a number of online support and advocacy groups.

Although Sally appears to have died alone, she was in touch with people through Facebook right up to the end, and some of us spoke with her online in the days before she passed away. In a sense, the intersex community became her congregation, where she continued to live out her vocation, and where she was surrounded by people she loved right to the end. We were very lucky to have known her. Even towards the end, Sally was more concerned about others than herself, but she was very grateful for all the work being done by those trying to find ways to help and support her during her last days.

For so many of us in this community, who knew her in the flesh or online, it is very sad that she has passed away like this; she was a gentle and yet powerful person, one of life’s great souls, a very spiritual person, someone who did not judge, looked for the best in people, and was always more interested in others than herself. Such people are rare, and a privilege to know in any capacity. We were blessed to have had her as part of this community, and she is a treasure who will be sorely missed.