‘Every Body’ is a feel-good yet urgent look into the lives of intersex people

Julie Cohen’s latest feature is a traditional documentary bolstered by compassionate storytelling

In 2018, Canadian-American right-wing commentator Steven Crowder took to the streets of Austin, Texas, to debate locals on gender identity for his web series Change My Mind. His presupposition for this episode was that there are only two genders—an outdated belief even some of the most notorious anti-trans figures have since rejected.

Among the people to challenge Crowder was intersex activist and Texas-based political consultant Alicia Roth Weigel. At one point, Weigel posed the following question: if roughly 150 million people around the world were born intersex or, as she described, “somewhere in-between in terms of biological traits,” then wouldn’t it make sense for these people (and possibly others) to identify as something other than male or female?

After deflecting for several minutes, Crowder responded, “We don’t teach biology based on outsiders.”

This apathy and othering is confronted in Every Body, the newest feature-length documentary from Academy Award nominee Julie Cohen. Like any science, biology—which conservative pundits regularly cite as the catch-all argument against gender variance—is a neutral endeavour relying on the consideration of facts we know to be true, even if they come in small statistics. As such, Crowder’s assertion that “outsiders” aren’t significant enough to quantify in studies of gender psychology invalidates the basis of his argument and the good-faith nature with which he pretended to approach the debate. A world view that chooses to ignore entire demographics isn’t based on reverence for empirical evidence, but on conscious prejudice.

Focusing on Weigel and two other intersex activists—actor and filmmaker River Gallo and researcher Sean Saifa Wall—Cohen’s film seeks to destigmatize intersex people and shed light on the private, social and political battles that they face. These include the widespread practice of genital surgeries on non-consenting youth, as well as the onslaught of anti-trans legislation intersex individuals find themselves targeted by (often implicitly). 

Helmed by Cohen—who is best known for co-directing the Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated RBG (2018) with Betsy West—Every Body is another digestible, crowd-pleasing film that acts more as an introduction to its subject matter than a deep dive. This isn’t a knock, necessarily. In the case of urgent and under-discussed topics like this one, such primers can serve as valuable tools for educating viewers and providing humane portrayals of their subjects. Cohen does this quite well and her newest film is a testament to her knack for building trust with her sources, as Weigel, Gallo and Wall appear natural and enthusiastic in front of the camera, offering audiences a glimpse into their lives even beyond their activism.

 

As such, the film is at its most compelling when it zooms in on its three protagonists. The first half marks Weigel, Gallo and Wall’s coming-of-age with traditional story beats, cleverly introducing the subjects one by one, then going back and forth between them to give each narrative equal attention. Their shared trait of being born with sex characteristics that median somewhere between male and female results in more than a few overlapping anecdotes—especially in regard to the suppression of their identities, and undergoing invasive clinical procedures in their youth. 

For instance, Wall has identified as male since childhood, but was raised female after his doctor concluded that he had “dominant” feminine traits, pushing his mother to consent to the surgical removal of Wall’s genitalia. As a result, Wall spent his childhood battling intense gender dysphoria. Similarly, Gallo—who is non-binary, despite doctors concluding that they were born male—describes the shame that came with dating as a young adult and hiding from their partners the fact that they were given testicular implants at a young age. Meanwhile, Weigel recounts overplaying femininity as a teenager to the point of carrying feminine care products in her backpack despite not having a menstruation cycle, because she was afraid of being discovered as intersex by her peers. 

Falling under the expository mode of documentary filmmaking, Cohen’s interviews are intercut with home video footage of the speakers and other archival material. This includes the aforementioned “Change My Mind” clip, as well as a segment of former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson admitting live on air that he doesn’t know what “intersex” means while mocking Facebook’s pronoun options in 2014. If these instances serve as comic relief by zooming in on the flagrant ignorance at the heart of conservative bigotry, Every Body also exposes audiences to some infuriating history. Namely, Cohen introduces the work of New Zealand-American sexologist John Money, who championed the theory that gender identity is purely social (a damaging belief based on sexist stereotypes that we now know to not be true). Unfortunately, his practice of performing medical interventions on intersex infants continues to be the norm, even if his research has been heavily scrutinized by academics since the late 1990s. 

Among Money’s subjects was David Reimer, a cis boy who suffered a botched circumcision when he was seven months old, and whose story is included through a Dateline segment. In 1967, at the age of two, Reimer was introduced to Money, whose work with intersex patients had gained him a reputation in the gender and sexual development field. From then on, Reimer was forced to live as a girl and treated under the same medical and social procedures as intersex youth, with Money using him and his twin brother as test subjects for his own research and subjecting the boys to sexual abuse. This went on until 1980, when the boys turned 13. Despite coming out with his story in 1997 in an effort to put an end to the practice of involuntary gender reassignment on children, Reimer committed suicide in 2004 at the age of 38.

The tragedy of Reimer’s story is compelling on its own, but in a documentary about intersex activists it’s given the added weight of also speaking to trans and intersex people’s existence. It’s worth noting how expressive Gallo, Weigel and Wall become in scenes where they are watching and reacting to interview footage of Reimer, with Wall especially voicing sympathy with Reimer’s dysphoria as someone who also had a feminine identity forced on to him at an early age.

The Reimer case makes for a valuable inclusion in this project, and Cohen’s framing of it is key. While the anti-trans movement has since attempted to exploit Reimer’s story to discredit the practice of gender-affirming surgery, Reimer spoke to the importance of letting children have autonomy over their bodies. His existence, like that of Weigel, Gallo, Wall and thousands of trans and intersex people around the world, was marred by adults and institutions making decisions about his body without his consent. 

Like Reimer, who had already developed suicidal depression by the time he was a teenager, trans youth today are 7.6 times more likely to attempt suicide, according to recent reports. Gender-affirming care, unlike the treatments that were forced upon Reimer, Weigel, Gallo and Wall, are known to lower suicidal ideation by 44 percent. If the anti-trans movement was actually based in science rather than prejudice, its pundits would consider these statistics.

With that being said, Every Body is no exception to the clichés that often bog down expository documentaries like it. Given the many interesting discussions present throughout the film, it’s odd that Cohen decides to lead by asking about the representation of intersex individuals in popular media—to which Weigel, Gallo and Wall respond that there isn’t any to speak of. The elision they reference is obviously a problem, given the lack of familiarity most Americans have with intersexuality and the othering that stems from the lack of positive media portrayals. However, this issue is never discussed beyond the obvious, and framing the question around representation rather than visibility—the true topic of this documentary—doesn’t make for the most compelling introduction. 

On more than one occasion, some jarring choices in the film’s soundtrack also act as a distraction during moments of emotional impact—particularly during the first half, where an acoustic cover of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” competes with Weigel’s voice as she provides a sincere account on dating as an intersex person. In another sequence, mournful piano music plays in the background of Wall going over his birth records. Even at their most understated, the testimonials provided by Cohen’s subjects generate pathos on their own, but these conspicuous musical cues do the stories a disservice and risk making the scenes appear emotionally manipulative.

Fortunately, these moments are far and few between and the documentary’s heartwarming and inspirational sequences far outnumber its melancholy ones. In following these three individuals as they thrive in their activism and personal pursuits, the audience is treated to a look into their day-to-day lives as artists, activists and politicians. It’s hard not to love the subjects of Cohen’s film, whether it’s Gallo applying eyeliner in the mirror as they prepare for a gala, or Wall visiting an art exhibition focused on intersex movements at the Schwules Museum in Berlin. This latter scene is especially powerful, with Wall getting emotional as he sees photographs of himself posing nude on the gallery’s walls, fully liberated and visible to the rest of the world. As shown in a scene where Gallo and Weigel come up with silly slogans for an intersex rally they’re leading (“No Testes, Still My Best Me!”), all three of them also have a sense of humour about themselves, lending refreshing levity to a documentary that could easily have carried a much darker tone.

In the end, the necessity for a film like this and its ability to approach its vocational goal with equal education and amusement outweigh any of its formal shortcomings.

As Weigel says early on, “No one even knows what intersex means, and people fear what they don’t know and understand.”

Hopefully, Every Body winds up being a catalyst for change.

Ursula Muñoz-Schaefer

Ursula Muñoz S. (she/her) is a freelance writer and reporter based in Puerto Rico. She speaks English, Spanish and German and has previously written for news outlets in South Florida and West Texas. Her work has been recognized by Florida's Society of Professional Journalists.

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