After a virtual panel discussion, Stephen persuaded Emma Thompson to join the Ponyboi project, which is now being developed from a very successful short that showed at the Tribeca Film Festival into a feature, due out in 2022.
River is pleased to have Stephen on board, who is incredibly knowledgable on the intersex history and has spoken about intersex rights at Pride in London. ‘Stephen had just written a book called Mythos, which had a chapter dedicated to intersex people in Roman and Greek mythology, so he’s been a champion for a while,’ says River.
‘I was doing research about my condition to incorporate it in the script for Ponyboi, and that’s when I realised that my condition was part of the larger intersex identity,’ River says.
The condition they are referring to is anorquia. ‘That means my testicles weren’t present at birth. And then, when I was 16, I went through a cosmetic, non-consensual plastic surgery to have testes implanted in me, and then I started testosterone treatment to induce puberty. It wasn’t until I was making the movie that I thought, “I want to speak up about this medical secret I’ve had my whole life.”’
That includes River’s wish to become ‘part of the alphabet’ that started with LGB — lesbian, gay, bisexual — but which has grown a T for trans, a Q for questioning (some think queer), and an I for intersex (there’s also an A for asexual in some versions).
‘There are some intersex people who DON’T want to be part of the alphabet and think this is purely a medical condition,’ says River, explaining there is a range of intersex possibilities and — in a film for dating app Badoo — that ‘intersex is an umbrella term for people born with bodies that don’t fit the typical definitions of what it means to be male or female’.
While River sees some resistance to welcoming intersex people into the alphabet, they respect those who don’t want to be part of it, even if River thinks ‘to deny queerness as part of the intersex identity is dangerous to other people who are intersex. That’s why me and intersex activists like me fight for the inclusion and the visibility… and the alphabet.’
In fact, when River went into quarantine with their parents in New Jersey, they realised what they had gone through growing up. ‘I found this notebook from when I was 16 at high school and it was heartbreaking to see how suicidal I felt,’ says River. ‘How I didn’t feel like I understood what was going on with me and no one else understood. In a different world, doctors could educate intersex people and form connections between them because that loneliness is really what drives a lot of intersex people to depression and suicide.’
Part of River’s campaigning work is to get doctors to leave intersex kids alone until they’re in a position to make their own choices about their bodies. ‘Intersex children are subjected to non-consensual, medically unnecessary surgeries at a very young age,’ says River. ‘That can include the removal of vital organs, that’s not only irreversible but can cause damage to nerves.
‘Essentially, it’s genital mutilation, only it’s medically sanctified. What we intersex activists are saying is that you actually don’t know what the child wants and how they want their body to look. No matter how old someone is, everyone has the right to do what they want with their own body.’
River also wants to be someone intersex kids can look to for inspiration. ‘The reality is that with intersex people, we’re in a pre-Laverne Cox era,’ explains River. ‘Laverne [star of Orange Is The New Black] was the first trans actress that really broke into the zeitgeist and we don’t have that right now. I’ve taken it upon myself to forge ahead and make my career so that I am that person that people recognise as the intersex actor that they know.’
River is also the first intersex hero to head up a Pride campaign for dating app Badoo, whose message is ‘let’s lose the shame in being our authentic selves’, and things are definitely getting better since they came out.
There are still issues: a lot of people seem to think intersex means some sort of resistance to admitting you’re trans, the way people will dismiss bisexuality as ‘bi now, gay later’. But visibility is everything. And how do you judge success in dating, anyway? Quantity, clearly! ‘Well, if it’s a numbers game,’ laughs River, ‘Since coming out, the numbers have shot right up.’
■ badoo.com, ponyboithefilm.com