‘I was born in a conservative New Jersey town. At an early age I wanted to get the fuck out and go to the city.’
River Gallo’s life story – which the 27-year-old shares over FaceTime from his new home in LA – is both comfortingly familiar and beautifully unique.
Many lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people will relate a such a tale: leaving home to find a place where you can truly be yourself. (In River’s case, New York City for theater school, then LA for a master’s in film and TV production, which he’s about to finish.)
But for most, here’s where the similarity ends. Because as an intersex person of color, River’s life experience – like the artistic voice he recently discovered – is uniquely his own.
‘My parents are from El Salvador,’ he says. ‘They emigrated in the 80s, so my upbringing was very Latino-machismo-Catholic… It was hard to be intersex under those circumstances.’
Born with anorchism (meaning the absence of testicles), River’s parents didn’t inform him of his condition until he was 12. ‘I was angry at the time’ he admits. ‘Now, I’ve gotten to a place where I can forgive them.’
It wasn’t until last year he began to embrace his intersex identity. ‘Literally, the first time I heard about it was an article with the intersex supermodel Hanne Gaby Odiele. I was like “Oh my god! This is an actual thing! People are owning it!”‘
‘You have this double vision eyesight; you see things from both male and female’
River identifies as an ‘intersex, queer man’, using he/him pronouns. He defines his sexuality as such: ‘I’m mostly into men, but I’ve had girlfriends, had sex with girls, it’s cool. I don’t really like the term bisexual – it omits queer people and nonbinary people, makes it men-women. So, I guess I’d say pansexual.’
Realizing his unique perspective on the world (‘you have double vision eyesight; you see things from both male and female’) River decided to make Ponyboi: a 20-minute thesis film inspired by his personal experience about an intersex sex worker searching for love and a way out of his working class neighborhood in New Jersey.
But this isn’t your typical a piece of coursework: British TV icon Stephen Fry and Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson serve as executive producers, for a start.
Here, River recounts coming to terms with himself, and how he unexpectedly lit a creative spark that’s taking him to amazing places …
When did you first recognize your intersex identity?
I was writing this script about when I was 12 and first found out that I have the intersex condition I have. Until last year, I always thought my condition was something separate than my identity. I thought I was a gay, queer man with this weird medical thing I’m never going to talk to anybody about!
When I was 12, I started going through hormone treatment, to go through puberty. Then, when I was 16, I essentially had plastic surgery, to have prosthetic testicles implanted. Looking back, it’s pretty weird. It’s weird to make a 16-year-old get plastic surgery. It’s like: ‘You made a 16-year-old get breast implants’.
So you were made to do that?
Yeah. It was part of the whole protocol. ‘This is what we’re going to do to make you a “normal” man.’
Was that pressure from your parents or doctors?
Doctors. My parents decided not to tell me until I was 12. I’ve realized they were just making the best decision they could. For many parents of intersex people, it’s hard news to take. Especially my parents, being immigrants, only knowing Spanish and being new to the country. They were like: ‘We’ll follow what the doctors say exactly.’
Now in retrospect… You really need to tell intersex children about the truth about their bodies as early as possible. But I guess it’s hard to talk to anybody about your genitals. Being intersex, right at the get-go, you’re talking to people about the most intimate parts of yourself. ‘Hey, I’m different down there, or in my chromosomes or in my genes.’
So it wasn’t until last year I realized: my condition is a part of the umbrella term of being intersex. A switch went off. I was like ‘Wow.’
My identities could finally be integrated. My body, my art, my person. I was like: ‘Now this makes sense; why I’ve never felt completely clicked in when I tell people who I am.’
It’s been a crazy year. I wrote Ponyboi. It’s wild how the universe works. Once I was able to tap into telling a story about the most vulnerable parts of myself, this energy flooded in. Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, all these things happened.
We’ll come back to them! How autobiographical is the film?
It takes place in New Jersey. It never says specifically where, but it’s probably in my hometown. I was never a sex worker, but I have been abused sexually by men.
I think the part where fiction meets reality, in terms of that part, was relating being intersex to being a sex worker. We’re always on display. We’re always examined by doctors. I can’t imagine the amount of times I, or any intersex person, has been touched, examined or photographed. You become objectified.
Has your experience of doctors been more positive or negative?
On the whole, negative. I’ve had great doctors who helped me pull through. But on the whole, it fucked me, in a way. Mostly just the secrecy of it, the non-education of it. Everything I found out about being intersex, about my condition, was through my own Googling when I was in fifth grade. You’re left in the dark. You’re told you’re the only one or that no one else is like this.
It was really lonely.
Have you met many other intersex people since last year?
Oh my god, the intersex community, we are a little mafia. There are so many of us all over the place! With social media, we’re finding each other, helping each other.
I’m friends with most of the intersex activists, and Hanne on Instagram and stuff. They’re helping me promote Ponyboi. I’m helping them promote their things. We’re trying to lift each other up. We’ve been silenced and invisible for so long.
Is the intersex community in LA very big?
Um, I know two intersex people here. So…no!
You’ve had a unique experience of life as a queer, intersex person of color. What’s that experience been like?
The first thing that comes to mind is it’s been a highly spiritual experience. I don’t think I’d ever trade being intersex and of colour for anything. My voice feel important right now. That feels like such an asshole thing to say…
It’s important right now that I use it to the highest good of all people that I can. I feel like being intersex means that you have this double vision eyesight. You see things from both male and female. Everything becomes integrated. You’re able to really see humanity for what it is.
I grew up in a predominantly white town and I didn’t really notice my color, especially because I’m kind of white-passing, and my name wasn’t really that Latino-sounding. Now I’m realizing how important it is for people of color to really take great positions in art and leadership, letting the world know that we’ve been oppressed, that some fucked up shit has gone down in the past few decades and beyond, over hundreds of years.
It really feels the tides are energetically turning: re-embracing the feminine, re-embracing others, re-embracing non-white patriarchy. It feels like a spiritual pursuit, a calling almost.
Are your parents supportive?
I didn’t come out to them abut being gay until 2014. The past three years have been developmental. But yeah, my mom’s super-supportive and my dad’s come around as well.
Have you experienced much inter-phobia in your life?
I haven’t really, actually. I’ve been lucky. What I have found, in queer communities, is people pretend to know what intersex, but then really not know.
My friend Hann Lindahl a leader at interACT, the only intersex youth organization in the US, said how a person came up to them and was like ‘Being intersex is my favorite argument in the trans debate.’
Because, biologically, we are the link of like ‘Hey, you can be born not completely male or female.’ but intersex people do not exist to be arguments or to validate anyone else’s identity. We are our own identity with our own issues to fight for. So in a way, sometimes I feel being intersex becomes this novelty. ‘Oh! You’re so rare!’ It’s a subtle thing, but I feel it.
How did Stephen and Emma become involved in Ponyboi?
It all happened because I met a British intersex comedian called Seven Graham back in February. I was about to start my online campaign to fundraise the film with my co-director Sadé Clacken Joseph. We met through mutual friends in the comedy world. They came on board as producer. I was like: ‘We need a lot of money. My university isn’t helping me out at all.’ Seven campaigned the shit out of it!
Another mutual art friend – Ela Xora, also based in the UK – was doing a talk at the Royal College of Arts with Stephen Fry about his new book, talking about intersex deities in ancient Rome and Grease. She invited Seven, and then Seven asked me if I wanted to come virtually, on Skype, so we FaceTimed into London, where we met Stephen virtually.
We met during this conference. He liked what I had to say about Ponyboi, the story. Two weeks later, we had a meeting. He was like ‘Yes, of course, I’ll be your executive producer.’ He sent a letter to all his friends. Emma Thompson wrote back saying she’d love to support in any way she could. That lit this whole energy system.
In laymen’s terms, what is an executive producer? What’s their involvement?
They’ve contributed the most amount of money financially. Which is incredible. Also, Stephen’s reviewed scripts. We’re sending him cuts now. He’s like the top head honcho! We go to him if we’re in trouble and need help. We’re like ‘Daaaad!’
It’s like it’s written in the stars…
Its crazy. This is my thesis film for school! I’ve almost left that idea behind. I’m treating this as a film. But it’s weird turning it in for a grade!
Imagine if the world loves it, but you get bad marks!
Will there be a feature length version?
Yes. I’m toying with a movie-musical, Greece meets The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But I’m like, ‘I don’t know if I have the right music, this is quite a commitment…’ But I love mixing camp with raw, emotionally gritty stuff.
The short film will be edited by August, to submit to festivals for 2019. Our first screenings will be in LA, New York and possibly London.
Any parting messages?
If you want to know more about being intersex, visit interACT. They have clear definitions and information about being intersex. It’s the best way to be an ally, to educate yourself. Tell your friends what it means. The conditions and words, just knowing them, it really helps.
Non-film still photos by Katia Repina