By Christianna Silva
River Gallo remembers two very specific pivotal moments in his life that shaped him into the filmmaker and artist he is today: “When I was 12 and first found out that I was different, and then when I was 27 and my identity was kind of reconfirmed to me,” he tells MTV News.
It was at 27 that Gallo was working on his senior thesis, Ponyboi, which depicted what he calls the “loneliness” of his experience growing up. (Even now, he says, “I'm very conscious. I'm wary of when I get too into my isolation where it's just like where I start to feel … that kind of similar trauma.”) While researching for the film, the NYU graduate and USC grad student discovered the term “intersex,” which led to him realizing all the ways doctors had lied to him as a teenager, and made him feel othered.
About 130 million people are intersex, roughly the same number of people who are naturally red-headed. Intersex is an umbrella term that describes a person born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that “doesn't seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male,” according to the Intersex Society of North America.
“I think intersex people are magical,” Gallo says. “I think we have superpowers.”
But, when he was 12, doctors told Gallo a different story and pushed “the false idea that ‘no one is like us,’ — that we are not normal” onto him, as he wrote in an essay for Them in July 2018. It was a tactic that was meant to “[keep] us in cycles of shame and immense loneliness.” Those lies, he notes now, enabled the very people who promised to provide care to perform plastic surgery on him, without his consent.
“Now we're realizing that [our doctors told us] a complete lie,” Gallo told MTV News. “And one of the most damaging lies, too, is for doctors, either intentionally or not, to have isolated us and not made us form a community. I think one of the scariest things about growing up intersex is how damaging that loneliness really is."
Along the way, he also came out as nonbinary, a gender identity that doesn’t adhere to the traditional polarity of male or female. As Gallo describes it: “It just means that you're literally sticking a middle finger to the gender binary.”
Enter Ponyboi, the root of which, Gallo says, “was based on my experience growing up in New Jersey, and growing up intersex in a Latino household. Being genderqueer, being gay, none of that was really accepted traditionally.” The film is the first-ever to star an openly intersex performer in an intersex role and wowed actors Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry, who joined the project as co-producer and executive producer, respectively.
Knowing himself turned Gallo into an activist, and he uses his art to fuel that work. “It really feels like a calling to me. I feel like the most myself now,” he says. “I'm walking in my path because through the film and talking about it, I'm opening people's minds and eyes.”
That’s what GLAAD thought, too, when they awarded him with the 2019 GLAAD Barilla Cultivation/Rising Stars Grant. In a statement to MTV News, Clare Kenny, the director of Youth Engagement at GLAAD said, “River Gallo is not only a talented queer filmmaker but also a young trailblazer whose mission is to create more opportunities for LGBTQ youth to tell their own stories and create change. GLAAD is proud to support his work.”
With the grant, Gallo plans to start a mentoring and shadowing program at his production company, Gaptoof Entertainment, for intersex, transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming students in LA public schools.
“Nothing big,” he says. “Just allowing people to be part of history.”
“I haven't won Grammys, I'm not Beyoncé — yet,” he laughs, adding: “It just makes me feel like I'm on my way and that all the dreams that I had when I was little — that I still have — of winning an Oscar or really being the voice for change and making films that change lives and start conversations, that's all happening. It almost feels like I don't have to doubt anything anymore and I just have to keep doing what I'm doing. Eventually more things like this are going to happen. So it's so incredibly exciting. It's a dream come true.”
“The future is fluid,” Gallo adds. “The future is being whatever the f--k you want to be.”
To learn more about issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community, head to lgbt.mtv.com