The Sally Gross story: a dedication

Originally written as an introduction to ‘Some Day, Get Over The Rainbow’, a MediaWise Guide to reporting about Bisexual, Gay, Intersex, Lesbian and Transexual people and issues

Having failed to obtain promised backing from the University of the West of England, MediaWise ran out of funding to publish its guide for media professionals way back in 2015. It was to have been dedicated to Sally Gross, the founder of Intersex South Africa who died in February 2014 before she could write the preface to the handbook.

Described on <> as ‘a radical and revolutionary South African activist’, Sally was revered internationally for her pioneering work. She first approached MediaWise in the summer of 1996 after a prurient and inaccurate newspaper story had appeared about her in a national Sunday (PRIEST IN SEX SWAP, The People, 4/8/1996)

Her own story was an extraordinary one. Born on 22 August 1953 in Cape Town to Jewish parents in apartheid South Africa, Sally’s gender was indeterminate at birth. As was often the case at the time, doctors ascribed a male gender to the intersex infant.

Brought up as a boy, as a teenager Shlomo, or Selwyn, as he was later known got involved in clandestine anti-apartheid activities. He left to study in Israel but returned preoccupied with politics and spirituality. He joined the ANC and converted to Catholicism, and spent three years in exile in Botswana and Israel where he took out citizenship having been stripped of his S.African passport. Inspired by radical Dominicans he joined the order in 1981 and studied for the priesthood in the UK. In July 1987, after attending the Dakar Declaration conference with the ANC, he was ordained as Fr Selwyn Gross OP. 

A keen proponent of interfaith dialogue, his deep booming voice belied an inner torment during his time at Blackfriars in Oxford. Five years later, after seeking advice about his ‘hermaphroditism’, Selwyn began to discuss with his Prior how best to proceed. Transferred to Cambridge, in 1993 he was told he must leave the Dominicans. It transpired that his ‘condition’ was virtually inoperable and he should more properly have been allocated the female gender at birth. Advised to undergo hormone therapy Selwyn, now 40, began to live a new life as a woman. The Israeli Ministry of the Interior corrected her birth details from Shlomo to Shlomit in February 1994, by which time she had been issued a UK passport as Sally Gross.

Sally Gross by Gabrielle Le Roux, 2013

The press had yet to pick up on the fact that the Catholic Church had ordained a women. Fearful of the publicity this might generate, and unaware that the Dominicans had asked the Pope to rescind her status as a priest, Sally immersed herself in work, but when her research contract finished she became dependent upon benefits. 

None of this appeared in The People story, of course. It was riddled with factual inaccuracies, some of which endangered Sally’s right to claim benefits, and drove her to contemplate suicide. 

With help from MediaWise, she tried to set the record straight through the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). In a correspondence that dragged on for nine months, she had to supply forensic details about her circumstances the press had no right to know. Yet in May 1997 the PCC ruled that The People had not breached the Editors’ Code of Conduct on accuracy or harassment and offered the paper a public interest defence the paper had not even claimed. To add insult to injury the PCC decided to publish no details of her complaint on the grounds that it ‘would not be helpful to Miss Gross’.

Sally challenged their ruling, but the PCC finally washed their hands of her a full year after the offending article first appeared.

Her ordeal was not yet over. Keen to promote better understanding, she joined a MediaWise ethics roadshow to university journalism courses. Speaking under ‘privileged’ conditions she explained intersex, described how damaging an inaccurate story can be, and pointed out that reporters bent on sleaze had missed out on what could have been a career-changing exclusive. Then one budding tabloid hack breached her confidentiality and sold information to the press.

Undeterred, and against our advice Sally supplied The People with an account of her ‘journey’. This time all they ran was a short piece critical of her treatment by the Catholic Church as part of a sensational spread about a ‘sex tourist’ paedophile vicar whose legal costs were to be met by the Anglican Church after he had been arrested in flagrante with a young boy.

Sally was devastated by this latest betrayal, and made plans to quit the country. Back in South Africa she became an internationally acknowledged advocate for openness about intersex, and a respected human rights activist. She can be seen here 

“Be proud of what you are. Don’t be afraid of what you are. Accept yourself and others too will accept you. Our world is changing. We together, if we struggle and if we stand firm, can change it. It gets better.”

In celebrating her life, we do not forget all those who have been vilified by the press for ‘being different’ and those countless others who have been shunned, harmed or even slain on account of their sexuality. We hope this handbook for journalists of now and the future will make a difference, and help the general public to appreciate the diversity of human experience and identity – so that one day we shall all get over that rainbow…   

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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