The new documentary “Every Body” gets intimate with its subjects, from their birth records to their body parts. The film is about being intersex, an umbrella term for people who were born with anatomic or genetic characteristics that don’t match the typical definition of male or female.
By some estimates, said Julie Cohen, the writer-director of “Every Body,” one in 1,500 people have intersex traits “significant enough that they may receive medical intervention.”
“Part of the point of the film is there are more intersex people out there than you know,” she said in an interview by phone.
But until recently, they were often closeted, told by the medical establishment and family members to keep their conditions secret. That may now be changing.
The film, out Friday, focuses on three intersex activists: Alicia Roth Weigel, a political and business consultant and the author of a forthcoming memoir, “Inverse Cowgirl”; River Gallo, a filmmaker and actor; and Sean Saifa Wall, a public health researcher and a founder of the Intersex Justice Project, which opposes medically unnecessary and invasive surgery for intersex children.
All three had procedures as children, to remove or add testes, surgeries they wish had not been done. On one of their first outings together, at a demonstration for intersex rights, “River was telling their personal bodily story through a bullhorn,” Cohen recalled. “We were all like, whoa, this person is amazing.”
Cohen was an Oscar nominee in 2019 for the hit documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “RBG,” which she directed with her frequent collaborator Betsy West. They have also made films about the legal scholar and activist Pauli Murray, and Gabby Giffords, the former congresswoman.
Cohen was drawn to the subject of intersex activism through the story of David Reimer, who was born a boy but raised as a girl after a botched circumcision. He resisted the gender reassignment, which was falsely claimed as a success by the Johns Hopkins psychologist who oversaw it. Reimer eventually came forward publicly, to prevent others, he said, from going through what he did. (He died by suicide in 2004.) His honesty helped debunk the idea that social conditioning could determine his gender identity.
Depicting the startling reality of many intersex people’s lives offers what Cohen called “a holy crap element.”
“I like a holy crap documentary,” she said. “But I also really like what I think of as hug documentaries, where you kind of want to hug everyone that’s in it.” Her movie, she said, is both: “It’s a holy crap documentary, but it also makes you want to hug the people that have been through what our participants have been through.”
These are excerpts from our conversation.
In light of David Reimer’s death, did you purposely choose people who were already public about being intersex?
Exactly. I didn’t want the interview with me to be their first or even their second experience with this. And I was taken aback — it turned out that I had to ask very few questions before they started talking extremely personally. They tell me that their whole lives — between not only their doctors, but whole groups of residents who come in — they’re just used to talking about their bodies. They feel like that’s something they do on command and that’s part of their activism.
Were there still details that surprised you in their stories?
Seeing Saifa’s neonatal medical records. There are three boxes: male, female and ambiguous. Someone had literally checked ambiguous, crossed it out and then checked female. And then put a note underneath — which Saifa reads aloud in the film — saying basically, just to keep everything easier for everyone, Mom has been told that this baby should be raised as a female. And whatever surgeries are necessary to lock down this baby being female, that’s what we’re going to do.
The film is arriving at a time when anti-trans legislation is surging. How do intersex rights get caught up in that?
The majority of the legislation against gender-affirming care for trans children and teens has what I call the intersex loophole. So actually you can do surgery on infants or children, you can get hormones. Alicia summarizes [those contradictory views] in the movie, saying, you know, “We don’t think trans kids are normal, so you’re going to withhold all care for them. And we don’t think intersex kids are normal, so feel free to enforce whatever treatment you may want.”
What is the connection between this film and your other films?
A lot of it has to do with the power of activism, how people can make changes by taking on fights that seemed so challenging.
Another big connection would be finding joy and humor and the life-affirming side of very difficult situations. RBG was fighting against some really ugly and mean sexism and misogyny through a lot of her early career. And yet she did it with grace and strength and humor, and found love and romance. Same thing with Pauli Murray. Gabby Giffords’s story has so much trauma in it, but she came through with just this exuberant, won’t-be-kept-down life force.
I actually asked Saifa at one point: Can trauma and joy be part of the same story? And he looked at me like it was kind of a stupid question. Like, of course, that’s the human condition. Trauma and joy always coexist.
Do you think that these stories may be more readily accepted now because of a new understanding of the fluidity of gender?
The growing awareness of the existence of people who identify as nonbinary is very relevant to this movement. I think one of the original concerns [was that] every person needs a gender immediately.
But no, you can come up with a best-guess gender and raise the child that way, so that by the time your child starts to express a gender identity — which experts say is happening by 5 or 6 anyway — then you can go in that direction. And you haven’t mistakenly done irreversible, or reversible only with great pain, medical and surgical interventions.
Or maybe you don’t have to do surgery at all. Why is it that important to have reproductive organs fit some textbook idea of what normal is? When we’re all starting to understand that there’s a fair amount of variation in people’s bodies — whether they’re intersex or not.