A notorious medical case led director Julie Cohen (RBG) down the path to making her new documentary about the battle for intersex rights, Every Body, which premiered Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival and opens in theaters June 30. Cohen, a former Dateline producer, was given access to NBC archives to sniff out potential topics for documentaries, and in the process came upon the story of David Reimer. After a botched circumcision that burned his penis beyond ostensible repair as a baby, Reimer’s parents took him to see John Money, a psychologist/sexologist, who recommended sex reassignment surgery. Reimer was raised as “Brenda” and continued to be treated by Money, alongside his identical twin brother, Brian. David Reimer proved a fascinating case study for Money, regarding nature and nurture.
However, the results of his experiment were disastrous (and, according to Brian, involved sexual abuse), leading David Reimer to lash out and experience suicidal depression. He finally found out at age 14 the truth about the surgical intervention foisted upon him and resolved to live the rest of his life as David. For the rest of his life, Reimer struggled and eventually died by suicide in 2004 at age 38.
Money’s model was, at the time (and in many places it remains), standard treatment for intersex babies—that is, children born with both male and female sex characteristics. Among intersex people, there is a push back against these interventions that they had no say in (and that their parents in some cases have been pressured into). And so, about four years ago, Cohen started researching the intersex rights movement. Her reaction, as she shared in a Zoom conversation with Jezebel earlier this week, was: “Wow, this is amazing. How come nobody’s talking about this? Why don’t I see it more on the news?”
Cohen made Every Body to shine more of a spotlight on the movement with a rather straightforward objective: “to tell a story in a way that’s going to really draw someone in, will give people some new information, and just be digestible.” Within the context of the greater movement, Cohen’s film tells the stories of three intersex activists: political consultant Alicia Roth Weigel, Ph.D. student Sean Saifa Wall, and actor/screenwriter River Gallo. They are unflinchingly honest about their bodies (“I was born with balls!,” in addition to a vagina, says Weigel, who identifies as female). Cohen said she intentionally selected subjects who already had a degree of comfort speaking on camera. “I only want to make films about people who want to have films made about them,” explained the director.
Weigel, who came out as intersex in front of the Texas legislature in response to a proposed anti-trans bathroom bill, said she entered Every Body with some trepidation, having previously bowed out of a different intersex project, which “felt very exploitative.”
“I think as intersex people, we are used to being exploited,” Weigel explained in a separate Zoom with her fellow subjects. “And yet with Julie, it felt very different from the get go.” Weigel said the director proved early on that she believed her subjects and was legitimately interested in their cause.
Cohen chalked up her success in winning the trust of her subjects to just listening to them. Do so for a few minutes and you’ll get a sense of their urgency.
“We’ve been seen as a fringe movement for far too long,” said Weigel. “We’re actually two percent of the world’s population. That’s 150 million people around the world. That’s half the population of the United States. So we’re not actually a fringe movement. We’re just an underrepresented movement.”
“Intersex people being erased from social consciousness, this has been a project that’s been ongoing for like hundreds of years,” added Wall. “I think what this documentary does, what our activism does, it actually reclaims our place.”
Having studied the movement, Cohen offered insight on why she believes its people have been so underrepresented in culture and politics: “Part of it has been the shame and secrecy that surrounded intersex people, and that’s been a major component of their treatment. Rather than giving people supportive care, including psychological care, the main information beyond whatever was done to them surgically and physically and hormonally, the main piece of advice was: Either tell them to keep quiet about their own bodies or, even more alarmingly, don’t give them the information at all. So it’s hard to be out and proud if you don’t even understand what’s happening with your own body.”
Wall said the “godlike” status of doctors in our culture has allowed the nonconsensual management of intersex bodies to proliferate. “When it comes to intersex variations, there’s no oversight by the state,” he said. “I think what makes intersex activism so compelling is that we’re actually asking and demanding that doctors be held accountable for their actions.”
In the film, Weigel contends that, “our very existence proves that there is no pure male and female.” The binary is shattered by their biology, a point that forms the premise of Anne Fausto-Sterling’s brilliant book from 2000, Sexing the Body.
“Intersex is an umbrella term in and of itself,” Weigel elaborated. “It encompasses a wide variety of the natural diversity that occurs within human beings… Everyone has sex characteristics. Some non-intersex women have big breasts, some have small breasts. Some non-intersex men grow facial hair and some don’t. There is a huge variety in the way that human beings show up in the world, and I think our existence helps point out really succinctly and distinctly how these boxes that we use to artificially categorize human existence don’t actually exist. The boxes don’t exist. We do.”
This situation of having powerful people on one side insisting on the existence of a binary and subjugated/erased people on the other begging to differ with their own life experience will be familiar to anyone who has been involved in or observed the trans rights movement. Though intersex rights and trans rights are their own distinct movements with their specific concerns and nuances, the Every Body subjects discussed key intersections of the movements.
“This is about bodily autonomy,” said Wall, who was raised as female but now uses he/him pronouns. “Intersex children get surgeries that they don’t want, and trans people have to fight for surgeries that they do want.”
Gallo, who was raised male and identifies as nonbinary, trans femme, and intersex, says that they fear using airport restrooms. “I have to literally plan stuff,” they said. “If I’m in a bathroom and I hear that there’s a mother and her child, I’ll stay in the stall until they leave because I don’t want to come out and her to freak out on me if she’s like some like, alt-right weirdo. And so to that point, I know that I have to be much gentler with myself.”
“The sooner that we recognize as a collective humanity and those who face some form of oppression, that the effort to suppress free and equal access to abortion is the same as the effort to sexually assault and traffic human beings is the same effort to prevent trans and intersex health care… It’s all the right to control our bodies because when they can control our bodies, they control us and they keep us down and they keep them, the small, distinct minority, in a place that they frankly don’t deserve,” added Weigel. “I think the sooner that we recognize that these are actually not all different fights, they’re all the exact same fight, when you look at it in its most simplistic terms, the sooner we’ll be able to work together and overthrow them.”
There was a palpable hope among all of Every Body’s subjects that the documentary will be instrumental in their battle. Gallo called the film “revolutionary and groundbreaking.”
“It feels like this documentary is...going to propel our messaging and not only on a political level, but an emotional level and actually change people’s hearts and minds about what we’re doing as intersex people,” they added.
“When people watch this, I want people to actually think and reflect on their bodies and on the bodies of people that they’ve been with to be like, ‘What’s all this male and female?’” said Wall. “It’s made up, right?”