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Film spotlights much-misunderstood intersex rights movement

Sean Saifa Wall, left, and Alicia Roth Weigel, right, share a laugh during the filming of the documentary "Every Body." | Focus Features via AP

Like some 260,000 Americans, Sean Saifa Wall was born with significant intersex traits. The sex on the birth certificate was checked “ambiguous” and then crossed out.

Wall was instead labeled female on the document and, at the age of 13, after his mother was inaccurately warned of a cancerous threat, his testes were removed. Doctors told his parents to raise him as a girl, though Wall later developed masculine features and now identifies as a man.

“They literally stopped my development—I was starting to develop as male. And they stopped it right there and changed course. It was a hard left,” says Wall. “It was disappointing and almost devastating that what I wanted could never be achieved. I wanted to pass. I wanted to be read as cis.

“I had to tap into something else because it was hard being misgendered all the time and people not seeing me the way I saw myself,” Wall adds. “That’s when I was like: I need to really fight back.”

Wall, co-founder of the Intersex Justice Project, is one of three intersex activists profiled in the new documentary Every Body, by RBG filmmaker Julie Cohen. The film, which Focus Features will release in 250 nationwide theaters on June 30, shines a warm spotlight on a much-misunderstood community, and three of its most dauntless champions.

Sean Saifa Wall, left; River Gallo, center; and Alicia Roth Weigel, right, pose for a portrait to promote the film "Every Body" on June 11, 2023, in New York. | Matt Licari/Invision/AP

An estimated 1.7% of the U.S. population—or about the same number of red-haired people—have some intersex traits, including genitalia, reproductive organs, chromosomes and/or hormone levels that don’t fit typical definitions for males or females. At a time when gender is an increasingly fraught battleground everywhere from state legislatures to youth sports leagues, those born intersex contradict any strictly binary notion of gender.

“At the core, people are afraid of uncertainty. The thing that trans people and intersex people represent is that gray space,” says actor and filmmaker River Gallo, another subject of the film. “It’s been six years since I came out. I’m still trying to grapple with what it means to exist in between.”

Every Body, which recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, seeks to be a galvanizing moment in the intersex rights movement, a small but growing advocacy for a sizable segment of LGBTQIA+ people (the “I” stands for intersex).

Fear of social stigma has often haunted intersex people. But the advocate trio of “Every Body,” gathered for a recent interview in New York, are unashamed, unshakable and forthright about themselves and their experiences—and what they believe needs to change about how intersex children are medically treated.

Alicia Roth Weigel, a political consultant and human rights commissioner for the city of Austin was born with male (XY) chromosomes. As an infant, her gonads were removed, which she considers a castration. Years of hormone treatments followed.

“I’ve found so much freedom in realizing that there are so many roles for all of us in the world,” Weigel says. “None of us have to be defined by—set gender aside, set sex aside—the rigid notions of what anyone thinks you should be. My whole thing is just: There’s no should. Just be.”

The United Nations, in a 2013 report on torture, called for an end to “genital-normalizing surgery, involuntary sterilization, unethical experimentation, medical display, ‘reparative therapies’”—procedures which the U.N. said may violate a person's “right to physical integrity.”

But such surgeries have continued. A stalled bill in California sought to prohibit surgeries until a child is 12, in order to give them time to develop a gender identity and offer consent themselves. At the same time, several states have advanced anti-trans legislation that bans gender-affirming care for those under 18 or older.

“What happened to me shouldn’t happen to anyone,” says the 44-year-old Wall, whose co-stars call the “OG” of the movement. “To me, that was the drive, and it’s still the drive. People ask me, ‘How are you doing all this work after all these years?’ And I’m like, ‘First, I’m a Capricorn.’ But I am determined to fight whoever to stop this. I will not stop until justice is upon us.”

Cohen was first attracted to the subject by the tragic story of David Reimer, a Canadian man who, in an infamous medical experiment overseen by physician Dr. John Money, was raised as a girl for most of his first 14 years of life. Reimer, after speaking out about what happened to him, killed himself in 2004.

For Every Body, Cohen wanted people who were comfortable speaking publicly about their experience. The 33-year-old Weigel, whom Cohen first approached, came out while speaking before the Texas Legislature in 2017 about a then-proposed bill regulating bathroom use for transgender Texans. She has an upcoming book titled Inverse Cowgirl.

Gallo wrote and stars in the the film “Ponyboi,” a film they expect to release later this year or early next. The Los Angeles-based Gallo, who has found Hollywood less liberal than it often presents itself, is accustomed to performing. But it takes courage.

“I still get really scared every time a camera points at me or I get on a stage,” they say. “I would be better suited to a life that’s smaller. But I know that my experience is one that needs to be shouted from the rooftops because it could save people’s lives.”

Cohen, wanting to foster intimacy, filmed interviews with only herself in the room each subject. But while there are anguished and heart-wrenching aspects of the documentary, Every Body is a inspiring and celebratory testimony. It concludes with dancing.

“The center of the whole film is just Saifa, Alicia and River telling their own stories and being their own amazing selves,” says Cohen.

“The intersex rights movement is right in the middle of a lot of national conversations that we’re having right now as some of the country starts to look at gender in a more expansive way,” Cohen says. “But leaving aside the relevance and impact that they might have on trans rights cases and on nonbinary people, intersex people deserve their own lives. They want to be advocated for, too.”

Even among LGBTQ causes, funding for intersex people is a tiny percentage. In national debates over trans rights, they can be forgotten. A bill passed by House Republicans in April that would bar transgender athletes from girls’ and women's sports teams, advocates say, discriminates against intersex kids, too.

Every Body, though, has brought together a dispersed and fledgling movement that's coalesced largely online. At the Tribeca premiere, many intersex people flocked to the screening and even joined the film team on the red carpet.

“Great films have always brought people together and we’re already seeing that happen on this one,” says Peter Kujawski, chair of Focus. The film, he added, “represents the best of what we do.”

For Weigel, Wall and Gallo, the screening was a deeply moving experience and a rare sense of togetherness. Weigel was there with guests, she says, from throughout her life, from elementary school to her professional career in Texas.

“I felt a little bit vulnerable because I said some stuff that most human beings don’t need to share with the world in the way that we often need to expose ourselves,” Weigel says. “But it also felt very like freeing. Kind of like everyone from my world saw me for the first time.”

In one scene, Wall visits a Berlin art exhibit that paid tribute to him and others and featured nude photographs. At the sight of Wall's naked body, the crowd cheered.

“For Saifa, Alicia and River to see themselves as kind of works of art verses something that’s freakish and to be kept closeted and buried, I think, felt like a big moment,” Cohen says.

Wall wants the burst of energy prompted by Every Body to keep growing.

“I hope that this film creates a wave of people going, ‘Wait, maybe I’m intersex?’” Wall says. “Given the number of intersex people in the world, it can’t be a handful of people in different countries holding up so many millions of people. We need more people. Whatever they do, just be out. Be like: ‘I’m intersex, and that’s OK.’”