Medical professionals would usually advise parents of intersex children that they were better off raising their offspring as a “boy” or a “girl” to make things easier on the child and their family. Whose ease was really being prioritized, though? Not that of the children, who would then have to spend most of their youth, perhaps their whole lives, acting a part they didn’t wish to play for fear of being ostracized or persecuted. Not that of the parents, who had to constantly reinforce a kind of “cover story” handed to them by others and might decide to stop discussing it altogether, except in doctors’ offices, leaving the kids to grapple with the psychological fallout without allies. The doctors’ advice on gender assignment was usually paired with a recommendation of “corrective” surgery (often foisted on the too-stunned-to-think-clearly parents during recovery from childbirth) to remove any parts that didn’t serve the binary.
Three intersex activists anchor the movie while also serving commentators, guides, and in some scenes, a kind of focus group, looking at archival material and older news stories and reacting. Alicia Roth Weigel is a lobbyist who often participates in high-profile protests and hearings on intersex issues and other issues affecting the wider LBGTQIA community; she also wrote a book of essays on the topic titled “Inverse Cowgirl.” River Gallo is a non-binary and queer actor and filmmaker who is the first openly intersex person to play an intersex character (in the 2019 short film “Ponyboi”). Sean Saifa is, per his description, an intersex man of color; he made headlines by going on the ABC News show “Nightline” and confronting the doctor who performed an unnecessary gonadectomy on him when he was thirteen.
This latter story is, unfortunately, typical. Unnecessary surgery on intersex infants was once common. (The first hospital to publicly apologize for it did so in 2019, four years before the release of this movie.) Gallo was born without testicles and urged to have artificial ones implanted and undergo hormone therapy to appear more stereotypically masculine. Gallo functionally “passed” as a cisgender straight man at his suburban New Jersey high school with everyone except those closest to him, and didn’t begin to thrive until after embracing a more “female” look, speaking openly about being intersex, and pledging to try to play roles that reflected that identification. Weigel, a slim blonde white woman, says that as an activist in her home state, Texas, she was hit on by straight male lobbyists and politicians who had no idea she was also carrying an internalized set of nonfunctioning testes. After several years on dating sites, Weigel got tired of the anxiety of wondering how a partner might react when she finally described her physical reality and started putting “intersex” at the top of her page. That winnowed the applicant pool and made the experience less fraught.