Out of the Celluloid Closet

Every Body Offers a Glimpse Into Intersex Lives

· Updated on October 4, 2023

In the new Focus Features and NBC News Studio Documentary, Every Body is an intimate portrait of the vibrant, marginalized intersex individuals who have often been ignored in heteropatriarchal and queer society. The intersex movement has fought for visibility and autonomy for years, and some of the voices behind the movement are given the spotlight in the hotly-anticipated film.

Directed by Academy Award-nominated and Emmy-winning director Julie Cohen, the film documents the diary entries of three Intersex activists who are leading the conversation and advocating for fundamental human rights, which many intersex individuals are stripped from at too early of an age. As the film notes early on, folks outside of the community remain painfully unaware of the struggles and medical gatekeeping surrounding intersex bodies and identites. 

On a global scale, an infant’s sex is traditionally determined at birth. When an infant is born intersex, their reproductive or sexual anatomy cannot be categorized between the male/female binary based on various conditions. Western medicine’s typical response—forcing parents to “choose” a gender for their child at birth—has led to a complex, painful history of doctors and parents managing gender appearance and gender identity. This often leads to unnecessary procedures and hormone replacement therapy forced on intersex bodies as a form of “correction” to meet a cis-hetero standard.  

Cohen captures the unapologetic lives of the film’s subjects, including actor and screenwriter River Gallo (they/them), Human Rights Commissioner Alicia Roth Weigel (she/they), and researcher and founder of the Intersex Justice Project Sean Saifa Wall (he/him), who are some of the few individuals representing the “I” in LGBTQIA+ community.

For Sean Saifa Wall, the film tells a more nuanced story that, a lot of times, people always aren’t allowed to tell. “When Julie approached me, I think one of the things that stood out is that she did her homework,” Wall told INTO. “One thing I appreciate…is that Julie told a more nuanced story. We live in this world of social media, where everything is in a soundbite. If you’re doing a profile on someone or doing a segment, you have anywhere from two to 10 minutes. There are so many nuances and complexity to everyone’s story, but I think she did a really good job of showing me and River and Alicia in our complexity.”

In Cohen’s film, audiences follow and bear witness to the archives and memories of these three individuals’ lives in a visceral, unflinching way. Viewers learn that before Gallo, Weigel, and Roth grew into the resilient activists they are today, their intersex identitiesI were treated as an unacceptable secret they were forced to keep at the expense of self-realization. 

“I always say that it’s a very new experience for most intersex people, for myself included, to be in a community with other intersex people,” River Gallo told INTO. “Many Intersex people experience doctors saying, “Oh, this is so rare, you’re so special….” And they reaffirm not to talk about it with anybody. So there’s this feeling of secrecy for most of our lives because, literally, our doctors have told us not to talk about it.”

When Gallo came out and started connecting with other Intersex activists, they felt seen. “It’s like you finally have a mirror reflected back at you,” they explained. “And it’s a mirror that you haven’t always seen.” 

For Alicia Roth Weigel, who is now the Human Rights commissioner of Austin, Texas, and is releasing their memoir this fall, it took a while to not only accept themselves but immerse themselves in the intersex community, where they would eventually meet both Gallo, Saifa and others. “It was pretty soon after I came out that I connected with interACT, an intersex organization, and over time built more and more relationships in the community…it definitely took some time because I also went through this whole process where I started out fighting for the cause and knowing that it was injustice and that I wanted to fight that injustice,” Weigel explained.

Because of their work and with the help of other organizers within the intersex community and allies, Austin City Council recently condemned the practice of non-conceptual and medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex children. 

A pivotal and powerful component in the film that Cohen embeds is archival footage of the founding members of the National Intersex Society of North America, which was the very first organization to amplify the struggles and lived lives of Intersex individuals. Cohen’s film is a beautiful display of humanity, camaraderie, and radical empathy: One can imagine that this film might inspire the next generation of Intersex activists as the movement grows. ♦

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