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Julie Cohen’s intimate and engaging documentary Everyone is driven by a single question: In a world of binaries, where do intersex people fit in? The answer — maybe we should do away with categories altogether — isn’t very complicated, but creating that reality is going to be a struggle.
It’s smart Cohen, who co-directed RGB AND My name is Pauli Murray, opens her most recent film with a montage of gender reveal parties. The popularity of this practice, in which expectant parents plan an elaborate celebration around the anticipated and subsequently revealed gender of their unborn child, shows how committed society is to the idea of two genders. Videos of couples putting on ornate (and often dangerous) special effects, bursting into tears at the sight of pink confetti or blue fireworks, are haunting. These parts assume that children will play into normative behaviors based on their gender. They are less about the child than about their parents’ hopes and society’s expectations.
Engaging and informative.
Release date: Friday June 30th
Place: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Director: Julia Cohen
1 hour and 32 minutes
The practice is also exclusionary. Approximately 1.7% of the world’s population is born with intersex traits, meaning they have sex characteristics (genitals, gonads, and chromosome patterns) that do not fit into the male/female binary. How do we recognize the reality of these children and celebrate them too?
Everyone chronicles the lives of three intersex people who live as openly and expressively as possible. Cohen’s documentary takes a conventional approach to telling the stories of actor River Gallo, political consultant Alicia Roth Weigel and PhD student Sean Saifa Wall. Through a combination of individual and group interviews, the three intersex activists recount the traumas of their childhoods and their impact on how they deal with life as adults.
Weigel, who uses the pronouns she/they, was born with XY chromosomes, a vagina and testicles instead of ovaries. When she was a child, doctors decided to remove her testicles so they could declare that she was biologically female. Wall, who uses the pronouns he/he, shares a similar story: She was born without a uterus, but the hospital, without consulting her parents, declared him a girl. Wall grew up being told she was a girl even though she felt like a boy. There are echoes of this state control in Gallo’s story as well. The actor, who uses their pronouns, didn’t have testicles as a child. When Gallo was 12, doctors prescribed testosterone, forcing them to go through puberty as a boy.
Medical interventions like these are a common thread for intersex people. While Cohen’s Doctor remains close to his three participants, he also paints a broad outline of the relatively young history of the intersex movement. In footage from the first meeting of the Intersex Society of North America in 1996, a dozen activists sitting in a circle share their stories of coerced surgeries and the mental toll they took on their lives. This meeting was radical because it brought together intersex people to commiserate and build a framework for understanding their identities.
Aware that the mainstream public lacks a fundamental understanding of intersex identities, Everyone cuts his primary interviews and archival footage with expert commentary and historical asides. The film debunks common misconceptions about what it means to be intersex and covers the bitter history of intersex people being treated as “freaks” and mislabeled as “hermaphrodites.” The analysis paints a painful portrait and illuminates the dehumanizing treatment faced by intersex people.
Some of the most heartbreaking parts of the film come when Cohen investigates the medical community’s relationship with intersex people. He contextualizes the participants’ anecdotes, tracing their distressing experiences to John Hopkins professor John Money. He was an advocate of the “optimal model of gender rearing,” which placed a binary on intersex children. The money experiment is underway David Reimer – which has since been discredited – pioneered a cruel and authoritative approach to thinking about gender: instead of giving children the opportunity to figure out which gender identities they felt most comfortable with, doctors – committed to maintaining the binary male/female – they chose for them .
Everyone is primarily an informational documentary, taking a cursory look at many aspects of the intersex awareness conversation to give viewers unfamiliar with the material a fresh perspective. Cohen and his team connect the dots for us as well, which helps us understand how solidarity with intersex people aids in the larger fight for bodily autonomy. Stories from the intersex community confirm that the continued attack on trans rights and gender-affirming care has more to do with moral panic than child protection. The paper points out that often these bills that seek to ban gender-affirming assistance sneak in addendums that make exceptions for intersex people; surgery is fine as long as the state approves.
Another strength of Cohen’s documentary is that he approaches these disturbing stories with a tenderness that keeps him from feeling like an exploitative. The relaxed nature of the interviews with key participants, who are comfortable enough to crack a joke or two, coupled with an energetic score helps Everyone keep an optimistic tone. The film leaves you feeling that, with greater awareness and collective action, the future for the intersex community can be both powerful and bright.