It takes mere seconds to warm to Sharon-Rose Khumalo. The former beauty queen waves away my apology for having a croaky Covid voice. “That makes two of us! I have strep throat from all the travelling” she says. It’s her smile that sets her apart from the other impossibly beautiful finalists in footage from Miss South Africa in 2016; while they pout and pose, Khumalo stands there with a friendly beam.
It felt important to be herself in front of the cameras at Miss South Africa. “To be authentic. You’re basically in the beauty Olympics. It’s very easy to fall into this trap of being prim and proper. But I wanted to do it on my own terms.” For instance, she says, she left her hair natural and un-straightened: “I competed in my own hair. I needed to show me. Even if I didn’t win, that was a risk I was willing to take.”
Khumalo, 32, didn’t win Miss South Africa, but she did become a bit of a celebrity. So it made headlines two months later when she went public on social media with something she’d only ever told family, close friends and boyfriends: she is intersex.
She’d found out a few years earlier, aged 21, when she went to the doctor after waiting years to get her period. She expected to be told to put on weight. Instead, Khumalo discovered she had the genetic condition androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS): her body has XY chromosomes but is unable to respond to male sex hormones, so her genitals developed as female. In a 2016 blogpost after Miss South Africa, she spelt out what the condition is: “[It] resulted in me being physically female, but genetically male. I’ll spare you the long biology and genetics lecture.” At the time she wrote this, she was majoring in genetics and biochemistry at a leading university – so she was well qualified to deliver that lecture.
Khumalo appears alongside Dimakatso Sebidi, a male-presenting intersex activist who is also from South Africa, in a powerful documentary, Who I Am Not, which is screening this week at BFI Flare, the London LGBTQIA+ film festival.
Intersex is an umbrella term for a diversity of bodies and identities. Intersex people are born with genetic, hormonal or physical sex characteristics that do not conform to medical norms of male or female bodies. Depending on which research is being cited, the number of people born with intersex traits could be as high as nearly two per cent – roughly the same percentage of those born with red hair.
I ask Khumalo why she went public. “I was quite scared of someone else telling my story,” she says. She was shocked too by how little visibility and awareness there was around intersex issues. “I was hearing conversations – not strangers or internet trolls but friends and family – and realising how misinformed people are.” One day, she had lunch with two friends who were chatting about not knowing what the “I” in LGBTQI stands for. Not that she blamed them: “I mean, you don’t know that you don’t know something until you actually know that you don’t know, right?” she says.
More than anything, she decided to tell the world because she didn’t want another intersex person to feel as lonely as she had. “As much as support from family and friends was great, no one could really relate to exactly what I was going through.”
Khumalo grew up in Pretoria, raised by her mother, a nurse. When she was 14, her mum married her stepdad (“I call him my dad. He’s pretty much the best father ever”) and their upwardly mobile family moved from the townships to the suburbs. Khumalo was a skinny kid, a late bloomer. When her friends started getting their periods, her mum told her not to worry: “all you need is a bit of fat on your body.”
When Kumalo finally went to the doctor, he told her he couldn’t see a uterus or ovaries. She looked at the ultrasound feeling dumbfounded. “The biggest shock was: Oh my goodness, I don’t have a uterus. OK, so now I can’t carry kids of my own.” More tests revealed AIS.
It was devastating. She felt like one of the case studies she’d read in textbooks at university. At first, she only told her close family and friends. The news she was hearing – testosterone, XY chromosomes – shook her identity as a woman. With hindsight, Khumalo can see that one of her reasons for joining the pageantry world was that: “I needed so much to validate my womanhood, and I think part of being recognised as one of the most beautiful women in South Africa was a big motivation in that.” Don’t get her wrong though, she also loved the glitz and glamour. “The all-access life,” she says laughing. “Everywhere you walk into it’s VIP!”
Her plan had always been to have babies by 25. Khumalo’s struggle to come to terms with not having children with whom she has a genetic link is handled with enormous sensitivity in the documentary. Anyone who has had problems conceiving will feel a pang of recognition in scenes where Khumalo is hanging out with a close friend and her newborn baby.
When it comes to dating, Khumalo is upfront with men. “This is my situation,” she tells them. “I totally understand if you can’t handle it. I will respect you so much more if you say it.”
We watch one of those conversations in the film – we see her on a first date with a guy she has been chatting to on social media. After a fun time ice-skating they chat over coffee about their lives. “I want a big family,” he says. “I can’t have kids,” Khumalo replies. Within two minutes, he makes his excuses and bolts.
She says she prefers this honesty. The last thing she wants is a man who thinks he is a knight in shining armour: “Someone saying they can do something when they can’t.” Fertility isn’t the only thing that can destroy a relationship, she adds. “But being Black and being from South Africa, culturally the importance of being married and the importance of having children is so huge that it really becomes an issue.”
Khumalo collaborated for almost five years with the director Tünde Skovrán on Who I Am Not, and their closeness shines through the documentary, which is personal and intimate. Khumalo says she felt in safe hands, and Skovrán has talked about prioritising the mental health of her two subjects – including by making therapists available.
Their lives show the range of intersex variations. While there was no way of knowing that Khumalo was intersex until puberty, Sebidi was born with ambiguous genitalia and spent their first six years in hospital. Like many intersex people, Sebidi had their genitals operated on as a child without their consent – to be more typically female – and now lives with the physical and psychological harm caused by that “normalising” surgery.
Looking back, Khumalo is relieved that she found out about her condition when she was in her 20s rather than her teens. “I had developed some resilience by then. I don’t know how it would’ve turned out had I found out earlier.” She shakes her head. “Because as traumatic and hard as it was, I had a stronger character.”
Today, her life is good. Khumalo is the brand manager for a pharmaceutical company with a side hustle as an interiors influencer. She is exactly where she wanted to be when she went public as intersex in 2016: a role model of a happy and successful person born outside traditional male and female categories.
Has she made peace with not becoming a biological mother? “It’s not something that goes away completely. The older I get, the more I find that out.” She was at a baby shower recently. “You sit there as the one friend who doesn’t have a child …” She pauses, smiling. “For me, I came to the point where I said: ‘I don’t think I want kids.’ But still, it doesn’t stop me from being a little sad sometimes that I won’t be able to have that experience.
“Part of me being honest about it is that I’m OK with not always being happy about it. It’s being content in the life that I have and the life that I most importantly make for myself.”