Updated: Mar 29, 2022
June is officially Pride Month, a time to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community. Jewish opinions on this community have historically been as varied as the colours of the rainbow flag. Currently, some of the more conservative stances are softening, and doors previously closed to this marginalized group are opening. In South Africa, Progressive Jewish rabbis have been allowed to officiate at same-sex marriages since 2007. Thanks to the efforts of activists and the courage of several Modern Orthodox, Conservative, and Progressive rabbis worldwide there are now more spaces within Judaism for those who may otherwise have remained alienated. This June we highlight three people, born Jewish and South African, who inspire Pride every month of the year.
“I am profoundly grateful that 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.”
Raised as a boy called Selwyn, Sally Gross became a crucial figure in the history of anti-apartheid and intersex activism in South Africa. Gross was born on 22 August 1953 in Wynberg, Cape Town to Jewish parents. At the time of her birth, it was protocol for doctors to perform surgery on babies with both male and female physical characteristics. However, in Sally’s case they did not operate. She was classified as male and spent the next 40 years as Selwyn. She felt uncomfortable with her gender identity from a young age and realized as a teenager that she was asexual.
Though she grew up choosing to be a committed Orthodox Jew, Sally became increasingly alienated from Judaism and felt that her celibacy would more easily find a home in Catholicism. She was baptized in 1976 and later, while still identifying as a man, became ordained as a Dominican priest. In addition to her religious questioning, Sally also harboured political and social leanings. Since her schooldays, she had been involved in the anti-apartheid struggle. An active member of the ANC, she fled South Africa in 1977, losing citizenship. She went first to Israel and then England. It was in England that she began an intense journey of self-discovery. After much counselling, she realised hers was not a transgender issue but one of intersex. At 40 years old Sally was reclassified as female. As females are not allowed to be Catholic priests, she was stripped of her clerical status and shut out of the Dominican community.
In 1991, after the unbanning of the ANC, Sally’s South African citizenship was restored. Following a protracted battle with Home Affairs Sally was eventually issued passport and identity documents as a female. The discrimination Sally faced during her lifetime led her to found Intersex South Africa, an autonomous intersex community organisation affiliated with Organisation Intersex International. She devoted herself to directing ISSA until she died at home in Cape Town on 14 February 2014.
In Sally’s own words, “…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."
Sir Antony Sher
“As a gay Jewish white South African, I belong to quite a lot of minority groups. You constantly have to question who you are, what you are, and whether you have the courage to be who you are.”
Actor, author and playwright Sir Antony Sher KBE is one of South Africa’s most famous exports. Now a British citizen, Sir Antony is a two-time Laurence Olivier Award winner and four-time nominee. He has had a prolific career on stage and film, with roles ranging from Shakespearean greats to modern classics. He has performed in plays by such writers as Molière, Chekhov, Brecht, Arthur Miller, Mike Leigh, and Harvey Fierstein. One of his best-known film roles is that of Sir Benjamin Disraeli in the film Mrs Brown.
Sir Antony was born on 14 June 1949 in Sea Point, Cape Town, and went to Sea Point High School. He left South Africa for London in 1968 and studied at the Webber Douglas School for Dramatic Art. He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1982, beginning his outstanding career on stage, as an actor and director, later branching out into film and TV. Sir Antony has also written several highly acclaimed memoirs, novels and plays and is a talented artist.
About his early days in England, Sir Antony has said: "… I didn't see any Jewish leading men in the classical theatre, so I thought it best to conceal my Jewishness. Also … I didn't want to be known as a white South African. Then there was my sexuality. The theatre was full of gay people, but none of them were out … so I thought I'd better hide that as well. Each of these things went into the closet until my entire identity was in the closet.”
In time Sir Antony was able to say, “I love the mixture that’s in me. It makes me me. And that’s why it’s such a shame that people waste energy in denying who they are.”
In 2000, Sir Antony was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Five years later, he and his partner, director Gregory Doran, became one of the first gay couples to enter into a civil partnership in the UK.
"When I think about the songs that I grew up listening to that made me feel ... gay, it was mostly straight women: Cher, Madonna, Miley, Robyn, Lady Gaga. Those are my gay icons, which is a bit strange. I would have loved to have had more queer music growing up. That would have been nice."
Troye Sivan Mellet is an international phenomenon: a hugely successful singer, songwriter, film actor and YouTube personality. Born in Johannesburg in 1995, Troye grew up in Perth, Australia. Though not religious, he was raised in a traditional Jewish family.
Troye started his singing career on YouTube after winning televised talent competitions in Perth. He signed with a record company in 2013 and soon after began releasing international hit songs and albums. He has performed in concert in Australia and internationally, appeared on top American TV shows such Saturday Night Live, and worked with other music stars including Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift. Troye has also acted in both stage and film productions, most notably X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the Spud trilogy and Boy Erased.
As a teenage YouTube vlogger, Troye uploaded regular videos and garnered a huge following. In recognition, Time listed him as one of the "25 Most Influential Teens of 2014". To date, he has over 7.3 million subscribers and over 1.3 billion total views.
Troye came out to the public as gay when he was 18, though his family had known for a few years. His sensual music videos often portray LGBTQ relationships, which Troye feels are important for him to express, since they were so scarcely found in the media when he was growing up.
The same year as his nominations for “Revelation”, an article in the New York Times summed up Troye’s impact: “With every TV appearance and video release, Mr. Sivan is barreling ahead, his identity worn proudly but easily. Are you ready, America? He’s Troye Sivan! He’s here, he’s queer and he’s used to it.”