Whose Body Is It Anyway

Neither man nor woman

· Updated on October 4, 2023

A few nights ago, I met a stranger, a gay man of color, at a bar and our conversation drifted to pronouns. He said that he was slightly agitated by how the queer culture he was so used to changed in ways that he didn’t quite understand. In his view, the explicit adoption of pronouns exemplifies that change, but he respects how people want to be seen and addressed. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “Even if it’s annoying.”

I explained to him that I’m intersex, and that pronouns matter to me because they’re one of the few vehicles I have for letting people know that underneath my beard, muscles, and husky voice, is a virilized woman who spent her entire life being convinced she was a man. As bureaucratic and land-acknowledgment-adjacent as sharing pronouns may be, for the small community of people whose lived experience resembles my own, pronouns represent an everyday custom that is at times annoying, humbling, humiliating, and empowering. 

While this isn’t my first time responding to the backlash against pronouns — language has power, I guess — it is among the first few times I have done it as an out and proud intersex person. Sadly, that transformation is also happening during a time when panic about gender-nonconforming people has become an everyday touch point in the media spectacle. 

If you’re unfamiliar with intersexuality, let me give you a brief introduction to our situation. There are few aspects of our current political hellscape that clarify how narrow-minded and fearful human beings are than the way our society treats intersex people. If the vile and baseless anti-trans legislation spreading across the United States baffles you, analyzing legislation like South Dakota’s HB 1057 and Florida’s SB 254 closely will reveal the true ideological confines our political theater has embraced. Though meant to erase and condemn transgender people, a closer look at many of these bills reveals that special rules are directed at intersex adults with even more disturbing regulations aimed at enshrining medically unnecessary and harmful surgeries—like clitorectomies—on intersex children. While some of the loudest anti-trans bigots are decrying the surgical mutilation of minors who identify as helicopters, these bills permit invasive and irreversible surgeries on days-old children under the assumption that they need to fit into a male-female gender binary. Moreover, these surgeries are often performed without consideration of the genetic and hormonal complications that are not visible at birth, let alone discernible through genitalia — which is why many people only discover they are intersex after having a medical emergency that does not match their perceived sex.  

During this rapid rise of bigoted, anti-scientific legislation, it’s fitting that cis filmmaker Julie Cohen released Every Body, her documentary providing a short history of the North American intersex movement. Centered on three intersex activists — Sean Safia Wall, Alicia Weigel, and River Gallo — Every Body pairs their stories with archival footage that illustrates how decades-old, baseless misconceptions about gender, sexuality, and the human body are at the heart of current anti-trans and anti-intersex legislation. Sadly, to perform this advocacy, the film has to revisit some of the most profoundly sadistic events in recent medical history. And while Every Body gives voice and attention to intersexuality and the discrimination intersex people face, it also panders to an uninformed viewership for whom intersexuality is a subject of interest, not lived experience. The intersex activists at the center of the film are consistently tasked with talking to a presumed cisgender audience — a labor that clearly exhausts and energizes them at different turns — giving the documentary a didactic tone and reveals exactly how taboo intersexuality is as a topic. Though Safia Wall, Weigel, and Gallo had an indisputable influence on the shape and content of the film, it is a rolling display of information aimed at those who up until three seconds ago had barely any idea that intersexual people existed. Or worse, as one heckler in the documentary shows, a truth about the human body that is inconvenient for victimized cisgender people. 

The Illustrious John Money

In an interview conducted shortly before the film’s June release, Cohen said she first became aware of conjoined history intersex and transgender medicalization while researching psychologist John Money during her tenure at NBC News Studios. Money, the progenitor of the catastrophe at the heart of the film, a significant figure in its middle section, and a frequent scapegoat for the medical industry’s mistreatment of intersex people, is famous for forcibly transitioning a young boy, David Reimer, in the 1960s. Though Reimer was neither intersex nor transgender — a botched circumcision permanently damaged his penis when he was eight months old — he was subjected to all of the heinous surgeries and hormonal treatments that contemporary transphobes allege are being illegally conducted on trans children. (Meanwhile, those surgeries have been conducted on intersex children without question for decades.) As the film underscores, the reality is that Reimer’s tragedy stems from a cluster of interrelated and outlandish beliefs that wrongly suggest it is medically necessary to operate on gender- and sexually-nonconforming bodies for the sake of making them appear normal. 

Though he established the Johns Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic, which performed the first sexual reassignment surgeries in the United States, Money primarily is remembered as someone who treated queer people as test subjects, mutilating them in the process. When more information about Money’s role in popularizing cisnormative dogma disguised as medicine was made public, intimate details about how treated his patients also came to light—including a report that Money had sexually abused Reimer and his twin, Brian Reimer, forcing the two brothers to perform mock sex on each other, which he photographed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Reimer boys each had troubled lives. Brian, 36, died of an overdose in 2002. Less than a decade after he appeared in a 60 Minutes special, David, 38, committed suicide in 2004. John Money outlived them both, dying in 2007 from complications related to Parkinson’s disease the day before his eighty-fifth birthday.

The Heartfelt Middle

If the Reimers illustrate the damaging effects that the medical establishment can have on those who it deems dysfunctional, it makes sense that Cohen begins the film with three contemporary case studies that attempt to balance the courage, joy, and self-love that intersex people come to discover in themselves with the dubious nature of their obscured medical histories. Interviewing intersex advocates Wall, Weigel, and Gallo, Cohen peeks into the lives of these three adults after they have discovered their intersex status and made it a welcomed fixture in their lives. As this balancing act unfolds, certain patterns appear in the film, though without explicit mention. For example, among the three, only Gallo’s mother appears in the film and offers a candid acknowledgment of what her child experienced — though archival footage of Weigel’s mother advocating for intersex rights at a political assembly in New York is briefly shown. (Wall’s parents passed before the film was made.) More remarkable, and perhaps an indication of how taboo intersex people are considered in medical circles, there are no new interviews with doctors or similar healthcare professionals — a fact that the documentary quickly glosses over. As many intersex people, including myself, have experienced, mentioning intersexuality to a doctor or seeking intersex-related care can often guarantee that you will be pushed between providers in order to make you someone else’s problem.

“Oh My Gosh, He Knows He’s Been a Boy” 

In many ways, Cohen’s attempt to create a balanced narrative that shows her subjects in a humanizing light is an impossible task. From the few records that flash across the screen during Saifa Wall’s recounting of their childhood, intimations of a larger sinister conspiracy against intersex children and their families becomes visible. The film stops to focus on a medical record that justifies surgical intervention on Safia Wall’s body because of the supposed harm that their ambiguous genitalia and intersex status would impute to their parents, who were given little time, information, or resources before being forced to make a decision. It is notable here that Saifa Wall and their family are Black, and that Black patients have historically received inconsistent if not poor medical treatment. There are well-documented presumptions which hold, for example, that Black people feel less pain and are unable to make medical decisions on their own, resulting in situations where they are not informed about the consequences of the treatments they receive. Being Black and intersex further compounds this lack of quality care. 

 I am quite literally what many trans men want to become, having had my surgical modifications conducted at birth that make me passable as male to the untrained eye.

Caught between introducing unfamiliar viewers to intersexuality as a strand of human experience and educating them about the eugenics-based medical tactics and discrimination intersex people face from birth, Cohen strikes a decidedly instructional, researched tone — a tactic meant to demonstrate evidence-based, neutral fact-finding but which ultimately gives the documentary a dated sheen (think Ken Burns). In Every Body, the facts are presented like courtroom testimony. Clinical terms appear beside emotional testimonies about lives won and lost as her subjects describe their journey toward knowing themselves. Among the most wounding, emotional moments in the film is when the archive footage shows David Reimer’s mother, Jan Reimer, recounting what she said to herself when David learned the truth about this life: “Oh my gosh, he knows he’s been a boy.” Comparable to The Act of Killing, the 2012 documentary that followed former Indonesian militants retroactively understood they had participated in mass killings while recreating their violent acts for the camera, the footage reveals a profound foolishness about the human body, children, sexual development, and the feelings these topics arouse among people who have deprived of an adequate sexual education. 

That such an organized, collaborative, and violent lie would be sustained by doctors, parents, and a host of other unnamed confidants is one excruciating version of events. That these adults —especially those with advanced medical degrees among them —would assume that the child would never find out, that their body would never remember, is such a wayward and fantastic delusion. To an extent, the foolishness can be forgiven — in the case of the Reimers, it was unwarranted trust in their doctor and his subordinates at John Hopkins that led their children to be maimed. But in terms of the coordinated destruction of children with scientific research as its alibi, the least that could be expected would be more laws, more scrutiny, and more empathetic thinking about gender-nonconforming and sexually diverse people. Either way, the documentary does not provide strong critiques of the medical industry as a whole, let alone the public faith in medicine, setting instead to focus on specific instances where doctors went awry as if this were the exception, not the norm. 

Cohen concludes the film with a curtain call that struck me as an inconsequential, directionless attempt to suggest things will and are getting better. Perhaps she chose this ending because it was one of the few ways that she as a cisgender woman could reach the climactic moment in producing a film and still maintain a safe relationship with terms like producer or director, which each imply a form of authority. To be clear, I don’t think that Cohen would claim to be an expert on intersexuality. But I do think she would commit the classic white, heteronormative sin of assuming that knowing about an issue is activism or contributes to its solution. 

Having stomached the film for fifteen minutes at a time for over the two weeks — in part because it was dry, in part because it was like watching a true crime doc about my own mutilation — I can say without question that Cohen’s conclusive gestures defanged and diluted any meaningful political interventions that could develop out of the film. Showing, for example, Safia Wall’s contribution to an art exhibition about intersexuality in the Netherlands as if this were general as opposed to specific progress (on another continent, moreover) left me suspecting that the film was meant to appease rather than enrage or galvanize. 

Such gestures, caked with the delusional optimism almost exclusively associated with white liberal politics, demonstrate how comfortable white, cisgender people are with assuming that a few hours spent watching a documentary constitutes deep political engagement. If Boomers like Cohen and her colleagues at NBC News Studios can serve as a model, further activation would, it seems, would suggest that if they are somehow touched by intersexuality, they would no longer be normal. In the intersecting industries of documentary film and journalism, remaining untouched by a problem is frequently and mistakenly conflated with objectivity. With Every Body, I’m almost certain an intersex filmmaker was not tapped to direct the film to make it more appealing to a cisgender audience. It seems that intersex people are not neutral or normal enough to tell their own story. 

Ultimately, if we live in a society where schemes like Money’s are celebrated in medical journals for decades at a time before receiving a partial rebuke — as the documentary notes, there are still doctors that adhere to his original perspective about gender and sex — how can we hope to divest from the idea that the medical establishment is a caring and conscientious institution? As one of the lawyers I spoke to upon learning about my intersex status said, it is impossible to hold any single person accountable when they acted in accordance with government statutes and the conduct of their peers. Hippocratic oath be damned: if this is all normal, why would anyone want to be normal?

The Body Remembers

About a week before encountering that stranger at the bar, I attended a trans-centered film screening where I was the only Black person in attendance. I may have been the only intersex person as well.

The self-produced films were beautiful, and I found myself stimulated by the clearly heightened sensitivity toward gender and sexuality’s role in a cinematic language they each shared and demonstrated. Because of this stimulation, I ended up asking a question in response to a series of comments about casting trans actors, especially trans kids: Because all of the films clearly took full advantage of the ambiguity their trans cast members emanated, was it even useful to take a didactic approach to casting trans actors? Why not gender-bend to an extreme degree given its pronounced impact? I offered my experience watching Cohen’s film as an example of what happens when a queer film is shaped around an assuredly heterosexual audience’s understanding as opposed to the intimate experiences that form its subject matter. As I said then, I could only watch Cohen’s film in 10- to 15-minute installments, as hyper-aware as I was about the film satisfying a certain fascination with intersex people that has silently presided over my entire life. (It didn’t help that a mere month before watching the film, I had an encounter with a doctor who interrupted me while I was explaining my intersex condition to ask if I was a hermaphrodite before telling me hermaphrodites “don’t exist anyway.”) 

After the screening ended, one trans man chatted with me about the relationship between the trans movement and the still largely ignored intersex movement. “Intersex people want what trans people have,” he said. I know he meant well with this comment, but it stung in ways that I would never expect him to understand. I am quite literally what many trans men want to become, having had my surgical modifications conducted at birth that make me passable as male to the untrained eye. For that reason, it is indisputable to me that gender-affirming care should be readily accessible to children. Skipping all the warm and fuzzy details about how trans kids deserve the protection that appearing as the sex you identify as entails, it’s hypocritical to conduct allegedly corrective surgeries on intersex children, withhold this information from those surgeries, and then permit crusading about pedophiles mutilating children with gender surgeries. 

Personally, I just want my pussy back. And for cisgender people to stop trying to practice divination using the genitalia of newborns. And for American politicians to develop a backbone. And for intersex people to get the media attention and documentary films about their lives that they deserve. Such wishes are the hallmark of a desire that cannot be fulfilled because it has been deemed impermissible to grant. There is no restitution for intersex people affected by genital surgeries or maligned by Western medicine. Meanwhile, feel-good documentaries meant to explain away sadism are in high supply.♦

Wye Coday is intersex and autistic. She lives between Los Angeles and Chicago, where she is a practicing financial dominatrix. In 2020, Coday was named as a columnist-in-residence at Open Space, SFMOMA’s online writing platform. In 2021, she received an emerging artist grant from the California Arts Council and published 4 INSTRUMENTS, an excerpt from her unpublished novella, with Apogee Graphics. Nightboat Books anthologized another excerpt in WE WANT IT ALL: AN ANTHOLOGY OF RADICAL TRANS POETICS (2021). Dirt published a third installment, RESEARCH, of the novella in 2023. Her writing has also appeared in The Avery Review, Open Space (SFMOMA), X-TRA, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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