Gender identity is an increasingly talked-about subject in our society. It makes some people very uncomfortable. For them, gender is a binary thing. To quote the little boy in Kindergarten Cop, boys have a penis, girls have a vagina. Director Julie Cohen (RBG, Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down) offers an enlightening counterargument with her latest documentary, Every Body, which focuses on the “I” part of the LGBTQIA+ community. The I, incidentally, stands for “intersex.” People in this category have both male and female physical or chromosomal traits.
The movie starts off ironically with a montage of gender reveals where people see pink or blue in creative ways that let them know what sex their baby will (presumably) be. Then we’re introduced to three intersex individuals. Political consultant Alicia Roth Weigel (she/they) was born with XY (i.e. male) chromosomes, a vagina, and testes where ovaries might have been. Graduate student Sean Saifa Wall (he/him) was born with testes and no uterus but, because of other feminine features, raised as a girl at the urging of his mother’s doctors. Actor/filmmaker River Gallo (they/them) was born with a penis, yet no testicles. All three had surgeries forced upon them at a young age to “correct” their gender. Weigel and Wall underwent gonadectomies; Gallo had artificial testicles implanted. None consented to these treatments.
One of the first things you pick up on in Every Body is how likeable all three subjects are. They are intelligent, articulate, fundamentally cool people. For that reason, you become completely absorbed in listening to them explain the struggles they’ve faced being intersex in a world that overwhelmingly doesn’t understand the issue. Weigel doesn’t get a period, yet carried tampons around as a teen so her friends wouldn’t get suspicious. Gallo told a girlfriend they lost their testicles to cancer because they thought she’d reject them if she knew the truth. Wall goes deep into the psychological toll his forced surgery has taken. All three now advocate against such measures.
They additionally oppose the so-called “bathroom bills” that have repeatedly been pushed by conservative lawmakers. This is one of the best points made by the documentary. If, as those lawmakers wish, people must use the bathroom that corresponds with the gender assigned to them at birth, what does that mean for someone like Weigel, who was born with both testes and a vagina? What does it mean for other members of the intersex community? As much as certain groups would love to make gender a binary thing, it quite clearly is not.
To investigate why the medical community has looked at being intersex as a problem in need of fixing, Cohen spends time digging into the work of Dr. John Money, a sex researcher at Johns Hopkins University. He believed that gender identity could be influenced by social conditioning. It was his general theory that intersex children should have surgery to make them as close as possible to one specific gender, then be raised as that gender without letting them know the truth. The tragic story of David Reimer, an intersex child on whom Money essentially experimented, is recounted during this section. Every Body forcefully argues that trying to jam intersex people into a binary structure is not only emotionally dangerous, but also flat-out wrong. They are not freaks of nature, they are human beings who deserve to have their specialness celebrated rather than “repaired.”
Every Body packs a great deal of information and insight into its 92-minute running time. By letting us spend time with Weigel, Wall, and Gallo, we are able to gain a deeper, richer understanding of the challenges of being intersex. Just as much, we come to realize they have every right to be proud of themselves for who they are, how they are. Cohen utilizes a clip of former Fox News host Tucker Carlson scoffing at the term intersex. “Whatever that is,” he derisively says. After watching Every Body, you’ll know exactly what it is. This is one of the most important documentaries of the past few years.
out of four
Every Body is rated R for some language and graphic nude images. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.