“Every Body” an Engaging Documentary About What It Means to Be Intersex Opens Thursday, July 14 at Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol
In “Every Body,” an activist named Alicia Roth Weigel sits on her couch, swiping through profiles on a dating app and explaining to the camera — and a public who’ve likely never had the opportunity or occasion to think about such things — how challenging it is to find a match. Weigel was born with both male and female biological traits, which a doctor immediately sought to correct via surgery (Weigel describes the loss of her testes as “castration”) so the child would conform to society’s idea of female. But Weigel is not female; she/they are intersex, and her/their story is one America needs to hear.
Why? Well, for starters, in the past six months, an estimated 560 anti-trans bills have been introduced in 49 states. Trans and intersex are not the same thing, representing two entirely different letters in the catch-all LGBTQIA+ label. Still, acknowledging the existence of intersex individuals — “whatever that is,” a noxious Fox host sneers in one clip — gives the public an entry point for a much-needed conversation about the great many people who don’t fit neatly into the conventional boxes of “male” and “female” (as they might appear on a DMV application or restroom placard).
Statistically speaking, 1.7% of babies are estimated to be intersex. Astonishingly enough, definitive data does not exist, as many doctors attempt to force infants into one category or the other, often through surgery. Does the conversation make some people uncomfortable? Clearly, but as Weigel tells an insensitive conservative pundit, “I’m sorry I don’t have a box of tissues for you.”
To the extent that a frank discussion of all things intersex is long overdue, “Every Body” offers the most accessible and constructive example I’ve seen to date (with Africa-set festival breakout “Who I Am Not” serving as a useful additional-viewing recommendation). After a playful opening montage of over-the-top gender reveal festivities — which just goes to show how invested parents are in their kids’ traditional male/female identities — director Julie Cohen eases into a sit-down interview with three intersex activists.
There’s nothing fancy or particularly sophisticated about her filmmaking. Indie-rock covers of classic songs keep the convo from sounding too stuffy or academic, while talking heads and archival footage (including dated talk of “hermaphrodites”) do the job of contextualizing the subject. The dynamic Cohen creates is a far cry from the Roman arena represented by 20th-century daytime talk shows, wherein aggressive audiences shame guests courageous enough to let themselves be thrown to the lions. By contrast, Cohen fosters an environment where the trio can share and compare their experiences, addressing topics rarely spoken of in public.
There’s blond, Austin, Texas-based Weigel, who went before the state legislature (where they claim to have been hit on by several lawmakers unaware of their true gender identity) to explain why passing laws around bathroom usage is discriminatory and impractical. Weigel is joined by openly intersex actor River Gallo and Intersex Justice Project co-founder Sean Saifa Wall, who were also operated on as children. Today, all three subjects are committed to ending the kind of unnecessary surgeries they experienced. Wall shares notes that accompanied his birth certificate, which recommended operating on his genitalia “to protect the parents’ emotional well-being.” No mention was made of the emotional or psychological effects the procedure might have on the child, who later confronted the surgeon on television.
Bringing illuminating context to their crusade, Cohen (a former “Dateline NBC” producer) introduces a 1999 segment about David Reimer, whose penis was badly damaged during a botched circumcision, and who was subsequently experimented on by Dr. John Money, a sexologist at Johns Hopkins University, who was so committed to his theory that the child could be socialized into believing he was a girl that he suppressed clear evidence to the contrary. Money’s biased and inaccurate findings (as reflected in vintage clips) continue to have an outsize influence on how the medical community treats intersex children.
As it happens, many of the arguments against intersex surgery made in the film align with talking points against infant circumcision — another taboo subject underexamined by the American public. The closing segment of the film leans heavily on Weigel, Gallo and Wall’s advocacy for body autonomy, the message being: Let children decide for themselves when they’re old enough to make up their minds. The politics become more complicated when it comes to transgender issues, where biology doesn’t play so clear a part. Cohen’s movie shows solidarity with the trans community, but stops short of opening that can of worms. Intersex identity is subject enough for one film, and this one covers an astonishing amount of ground in 92 minutes’ time. In the end, it’s for the best that “Every Body” doesn’t set out to be everything to everybody.