Film Review: “Every Body” — A Call for Intersexual Healing

By Peter Keough

Every Body complicates and clarifies the gender debate.

Intersex activists Sean Saifa Wall, Alicia Roth Weigel and River Gallo. Photo: Focus Features

Though at times diffuse, Julie Cohen’s  documentary Every Body (at the Boston Common, the Kendall, and in the suburbs) succeeds as an enlightening and engaging introduction into the little known and poorly understood phenomenon of intersexuality and the inhumane and outrageous treatment of those who identify as such. Though the subject is grave, Cohen’s approach can be lighthearted, sometimes jarringly so.

Nonetheless, it won me over at the start with a hilarious montage of gender reveal party stunts that includes cars blasting out pink and blue exhaust, a balloon bursting in a celebrant’s face, a rodeo bronco buster trailing flying colors, and a guy setting off a blue IED with a round from a sniper rifle. All fun and games until someone starts a wildfire or poisons animals with gender-appropriate dyes.

More insidiously, these events fail to accommodate the estimated 1.7% of births that are intersex, i.e., those born with the physical and/or genetic characteristics of both genders that occurs in a wide spectrum of combinations. Confronted with such a situation, doctors tend to resort to drastic measures, assigning the person to one gender or the other and subjecting them to often irreversible, usually non-consensual surgery and hormonal therapy.

Cohen focuses on three individuals, all of whom suffered hideous and dehumanizing ordeals imposed by those in the medical profession. Now they are dedicated, eloquent activists for intersex rights.

They include actor, artist, and filmmaker River Gallo (they/them), who was born without testicles but were designated a boy, treated with hormones, and fitted with prosthetic testes. Seen in a clip from a high school stage production they look painfully uncomfortable in their male body. Now, embracing an intersex, non-binary, queer identity, they radiate grace and confidence.

Ph.D. student and activist Sean Saifa Wall (he/him) was born with sexually ambiguous genitalia and male chromosomes but was deemed female. His internalized testes were removed at puberty and he was given estrogen treatment. But he never felt comfortable with the imposed gender, ultimately rejected it, and began to take testosterone injections. Now he feels at home in his body, aesthetically and sexually, and takes joy in it. Near the end of Every Body he triumphantly attends a gallery exhibit of intersexual art in Berlin that include stunning portraits of himself.

Political consultant Alicia Roth Weigel (she/they) of Austin recalls how male politicians would hit on her and muses, “I wonder how they would feel if they knew I was born with balls?” Like Wall, Weigel underwent a gonadectomy (castration, in effect) in infancy and kept quiet about her intersex condition until the Texas Senate considered passing a bill restricting public restrooms and locker rooms to those of the appropriate “biological sex.” She decided to testify against the bill, and while doing so informed the legislators that her very existence refuted the premise that people fall into two clearly defined gender categories. She advised them to take a basic biology class. The law did not pass and the YouTube video of her testimony got 20 million views.

Much of the confusion and cruelty involved in the medical response to the intersex condition can be attributed to the late Johns Hopkins psychologist, Dr. John Money, regarded as a pioneer in the study of sexuality and gender. In a black-and-white archival clip of him lecturing, he explains how the concepts of male and female are social constructs and not biologically determined.

He saw an opportunity in 1966 to prove that theory when he came across the case of David Reimer, a boy who had his penis burned off in a botched circumcision. Money convinced Reimer’s parents that it would be advisable to castrate the boy, change his name to Brenda, treat him with hormones, and raise him as a girl. For years this procedure was deemed a success and was considered confirmation of Money’s theories about gender.

In fact, though, Reimer did not respond well to this treatment. In a harrowing  1999 interview on Dateline NBC he describes his outrageous suffering. His experience is a devastating refutation not only of Money and his theories but of the still dominant medical position on intersexuality and its treatment.

Cohen justifiably devotes a sizable portion of the film to the case, even though Reimer was not born intersexual. At times the coverage becomes digressive. And the material is not integrated by having us watch the film’s intersex subjects watch the video of Reimer telling his heartbreaking tale and focusing on their emotional responses. Similarly, the use of whimsically apt pop songs on the soundtrack such as “Pretty Woman,” “Be My Baby,” and “Born to Run” verge on glibness and skew the tone.

Such quibbles aside, the film offers an essential primer on an overlooked, urgent, and poorly understood issue and provides a fresh, discerning point of view on some of the most fraught issues of our time.

Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).

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