"Carved from Secrets" full transcript

RIVER GALLO: I went to the doctor when I was 12. And I remember my doctor asking my mom like, oh, when are you going to tell him? And my mom was like, oh soon soon. And I was just like, what are you guys talking about? Like, tell me what? And they were like, Oh, nothing like we're gonna make an appointment and we're all gonna come back and we're going to tell you and I was just like, Well tell me right now. Like, why? Why are you waiting?

A month later, my parents piled all of us into the car. And my oldest sister and my brother and my dad, my mom, we all drove to my pediatrician. And, my doctor was just like, you were born without testicles. And we're going to have to put you on testosterone for you to go through puberty.  

And then I was like, Oh, that's it. I had a scrotum. And I guess like, I never considered that there was something that was supposed to be in them. It seemed to me not as big of a deal as they made it out to me. Little did I know, all of what would happen after that conversation. Being on testosterone was only the start of it. 

ALLISON BEHRINGER: This is River Gallo. And today we have their story. It’s about being born with a medical condition that took them years to fully understand.

From KCRW, you’re listening to Bodies, I’m Allison Behringer. 

And a heads up, this episode contains suicidal ideation, cursing and a description of medical trauma.

RIVER: From an early age, I guess I sensed that I was like a bit of an outsider. I remember sometimes my mom letting me paint my nails, like clear. And this one time, specifically, like, my brother was like, coming into the room

And then her telling me like, oh, like put that away, like your brother's coming. I thought it was weird that she would make me want to hide it, it's okay to do it in front of you. What does it matter if my brother, my older brother’s seeing it? 

You know, my parents probably had a sense that you know, it wasn't just about my body that I would be different. and maybe there is a fear in that of not knowing how I would be different. 

When I was 13, I started seeing a specialist in in New York, 

At that point, I was so used to so many people touching my body, it became almost like, yeah, a routine thing. 

I remember getting an ultrasound, to get the official confirmation if my testicles were there or not and it was with a technician who then brought in five or six residents to come in and observe.  And They were just like, you know, with the ultrasound probe and like that cold jelly just scouring over and over

And I just remember just being there for like, what felt like an hour, just like them constantly going through like every inch of my groin and my scrotum and just like my genitals just like looking for these like testicles that didn't exist and at one point, I was just like enough! they're not there. Just leave me alone. 

And they stopped and my parents took me back to Jersey and I just remember just crying the whole time on the car ride back and going over the George Washington Bridge and just looking at New York and just like being like, why is this my life? Why do people always have to keep touching my body.

My parents are from El Salvador. They immigrated in the 80s while the Salvadoran Civil War was happening and then moved to New Jersey and started a little Salvadoran restaurant. UM Selling pupusas.  

And, you know, my parents being, you know, undocumented, you know, they, my mother, you know, grew up in, like, a shack with like, dirt floor, and, you know, like, a tin roof.. And so, to them, they were like, you know, we're going to do everything that the doctors tell us because, you know, it's a blessing that we even have children born in hospitals. 

and especially with something that there was literally no answers for, and very little research done on it, my doctors to them became the only source of information they had about my body and how they could help me. 

When I was getting examined by doctors I felt a dissociated dread. I hated it so much. But I thought there was no other option. So it was almost like I would remove my being from myself. And almost all those situations became out of body experiences, where I was just kind of, you know, in this robotic state where I was just doing what people were telling me to do. 

My aunt, my mom's sister in Virginia, started going to a Catholic priestess in the mountains of Virginia, who, on the 13th of every month, had a kind of a gathering.  And she would wear this priest gown that was straight purple, always. And I believe she was a nun that then kind of went rogue.  

We would go into the mountains and pray the rosary. And then we would go back to her home and she would perform these kind of healings.

I guess it was the second or third time that we went to these ceremonies that my mom was like, Okay, now, it's your turn to go into the circle, because hopefully,  this priestess would 

hopefully you know perform some kind of miracle that testicles would eventually suddenly be there. 

I went in the middle. And she started just like praying that would turn into like yelling and just kind of like, you end up kind of going into somewhat of a trance, doing it just by like, you know, that like, repetition over and over again. Of all the Hail Marys. Like I was taken in by something like something like, kind of like, swooped me. 

Going to those ceremonies really taught me that I was so much larger than my body and How miracles are possible....not in the sense of, I suddenly sprouted out balls. But you know, in the sense that I had, I had hope for the first time after those ceremonies that, yeah my body was different, who knows if this woman could heal me or not. But I had power, I had a reason to be here and a reason to be alive, that I wasn't just my body. 

Think when I was younger, I was like, kind of like a hopeless romantic. I remember I fantasized a lot in my mind about wanting a girlfriend. And I was just scared even though like I hadn't had sex yet of like, hypothesizing of what would happen if someone were to notice that I didn't have testicles. 

 There was an ideal male body, even as a teenager, like oh, there were the you know, boys that played football and they were like, seen as hot and knowing that I wasn't like those guys and I was putting on a patch, a testosterone patch. But I was deeply insecure that perhaps it was because I was born without testicals that I was having that body. And like who would be attracted to this body? 

I just thought that I was just like, you know, this anomaly, this weird organ was missing and that I needed to work hard to make up for that.

14, 15 is when I started really smoking and drinking a lot. it was definitely to cope there was a song by Lil Wayne called I feel like dying like only when the drugs are gone then I feel like dying then I feel like dying and in my bedroom there was like it was on the second floor there was like a little like out the window there was like a little landing from like the roof of like an extended room in the floor below. And I climbed out like I definitely if I jumped by probably nothing would have happened like I very well might have just hurt my ankle. But I remember just like being high and just being like, wow, like I am so fucking lonely and no one knows anything about what has happened the last few years. And death doesn't seem so bad.

I went to see a specialist in in New York at Columbia, who [told] me that I needed — NEEDED prosthetic testicles implanted in me

I remember my dad being like, you know, we need to have you speak to psychologists to get your prosthetic testicle surgery approved by the insurance. My dad kind of told me that I needed to say like, like kind of like how I really wanted them. That was actually never a question asked to me if I actually wanted them or not, it was just kind of like, this is what has to happen. 

Thinking about it's actually kind of gross, the fact that like speaking to mental health professionals only brought up so that a cosmetic surgery that I did not consent to was just kind of warped. that those are the priorities to to correct my body. And not like, yeah, psychologically what that would all mean for me. But also, I don't even know if I would have any idea of what I could envision other than what they wanted for me because I just wanted to do whatever they told me to do. 

I think I was scared because it was surgery, of course. I was also strangely looking forward to it because I was like, Oh, good. Like, this is like, this is the final frontier and what's gonna, like completely fix me, the whole idea was like to make me into a normal boy, and that this was the only thing that was missing. I remember having to like, pick out my testicle size, which was at the time, it was super awkward. It was just like, yeah, I guess those are okay. 

Anesthesia hits hard and quick, it's hahaha. There was a nurse that heard my parents speaking in Spanish while they were waiting for me to wake up. 

And so I guess the nurse assumed that only spoke Spanish. like as I was opening my eyes, she asked me in a really bad accent. She was like, tienes dolor?, which means do you have pain, I was still under the effects of the anesthesia. And I just remember, like snapping back at her and I was like, I speak English, you bitch. And then later on, I apologized. I was like, I'm so sorry. Like, I was like, literally, on morphine. And she was like, it's okay. Like, it happens. 

After the surgery, I was in a deep amount of pain. I couldn't really walk. I was just kind of bedridden for like, a week or two. And when I came back, I was using crutches. And I told people that I had pulled a muscle in my groin, on a treadmill at the gym. 

And I guess that really became a language of my personhood, what I thought my identity was carved out of was from secrets. And it became this really toxic way of thinking like, Oh, it's my secrets that make me who I am. And the effect of that was, you know, feeling so accustomed to being ashamed of myself.

Like my sophomore year, I had a boyfriend and secret, and it was the first time I was sexually active. And a big fear of mine was like, oh, will, will someone find out that my body is different when they have sex with me? And I always did keep an excuse in the event that after I had sex, if people would be like, Oh, why do your testicles feel this way? In my mind was like, Oh, I would just tell them like that I had to secure a cancer and that their prosthetic and, but that was my safety net. But I also thought like, I was never going to speak about this to anybody in my life. No one's ever going to know about this until I die. 

I think the saving grace in my life was probably doing theater and doing musicals, which I started in high school.  I think like a lot of queer people who didn't know they were queer yet found themselves in theater. you know, it was probably the first time I felt like really, really myself.

My senior year of high school, I was Cornelius and Hello, Dolly. He had an amazing song. Like, “out there, there's a world outside of Yonkers.” And I just loved that song so much, because it really felt like how I was feeling, especially, you know, he's singing about, like, dreaming about going to New York, and like having the time of his life. 

And at the time, I was applying to go to NYU to theater school. And so it just kind of really resonated with me feeling like, okay, I can finally make it in the city. And I ended up getting in. 

ALLISON: We’ll be right back, after these messages. And we’re back. River is in college, studying theater.

RIVER: I think for a long time, I wanted my parents to have a more expansive view of gender, as I started going to college and realizing myself that there was a whole wide range and world of what gender could be 

The first interaction I had with my dad around gender was like, when I was 18, or 19 I think?. And this was during my raver phase, where I would go to like these raves in Coney Island. And that was the first time I started experimenting, you know, with, like, makeup and stuff and in my gender. And I remember one time, I came back home, like super late and, by super late, I mean, like, the next day. and he saw that I had eye makeup on. And he was like, What are you a girl now, and I just remember being like, no, and then like, just being kind of pissed that like, the way he would being called the girl and just kind of like being accused, because, you know, I have makeup on that I'm a girl. And for a while I was so just like, so mad at him and resented him for that  interaction. 

And I think what drove me so mad and so lonely was that I didn't have anybody that I can relate to with this. I didn't see anything about it on TV. Like, I was just like, Am I crazy? Is this actually happening to me? If, if one's reality isn't reflected back to you, then then how do you know if it's true or not? 

The first time I told a few friends in my friend group and in college and acting school, at a party, like we were drunk and in a bathroom. And I think I just like, told them, and you know, they were all queer to so They're like, Oh, that's cool. And being like, oh, wow, it is. Maybe it isn't that big of a deal. 

I remember the first time that I told someone that I like had sex with I think it was in the like, right after having sex and like we're just like laying. I think he poked at one of my prosthetic testicles and was like, why does this feel like this? And then I was just like, Oh, well, it's because it's prosthetic and then he was like, so cool about it. 

And I guess both those experiences made me realize people actually don't really give a shit. And the thing that I feared the most, and the thing that the doctors in my parents feared the most of like, oh, what's gonna make sex weird or it's gonna changed how people saw me. It didn't at all. 

It wasn't until I went to grad school at USC, that I realized the word intersex existed, I wanted to write a script that incorporates the fact that I wasn't born without testicles. And so I was researching  my condition on the internet and I found that it was part of the intersex umbrella and I was just like, what's intersex and then I, like, went down this whole rabbit hole of like, you know, the, the intersex movement, how here were a group of people that you know, identified  neither male nor female, and high, there was over like 40 different variations I want one can be intersex and I was one of those variations or had one of those variations and my mind was just blown because I just had no idea people were talking about this, I had no idea  that people were being vocal about their bodies, I thought this was something that we all should be ashamed about. 

I started to look at my life and like, wait a minute, all those doctor visits, I wasn't crazy for feeling like shit throughout all of that, because the reality was, my rights were being denied. And the truth about myself was being denied. and I think that's probably the most painful part of all of it is just to deny someone the truth about who they are, is like maybe one of the worst things that another person can do.  and then to almost systematically maintain that lie is just so insidious to me. 

And then I finally was like, Okay, I could do this, like, I could write about being intersex and, and put this in into my short film  for my thesis, which was called Ponyboi. 

BRUCE: What’s the deal with your name, hm? I know your mama didn’t name you Ponyboi

RIVER as PONYBOI: No, my daddy did. 

RIVER: And just kind of conceptualized this story about a intersex sex worker named Ponyboi who, who fantasizes and has these visions of this like, cowboy character, who's like, the love of his life. And then this cowboy kind of appears to him 

BRUCE: I’m Bruce

RIVER as PONYBOI: Like Springsteen?

RIVER: And takes him into this like, magical kind of like portal where he's able to kind of re examine his childhood, being intersex.

DAD: The doctor's gonna help you be a man, don't you want to be a man? 

RIVER: The film kind of ends on this note of like, you know, you don't really know where Ponyboi is going next but but Bruce-- He leaves him this, like, vintage Mustang convertible,

BRUCE: You can have whatever you want. You just have to think you deserve it

RIVER: And then Ponyboi kind of just gets in the car and for the first time. Like, he has agency in his life and is in the driver seat. 

Being intersex for me has really freed me from thinking that there's only one right way to be human. For me being intersex overlaps with being non binary and trans is because I recognize that my sex is intersex like biologically and my gender identity is living and thriving in the in between. You know some days it shifts of how masculine I present or want to present or feel comfortable presenting or how feminine I want to be.

If I don't identify as a man or a woman like why do I need a replica of these organs I don't need that. I never needed that. And I don't like that these silicone things are in me and and I hate them like there's no part of me right now that receives any pleasure from them

These testicles are just a representation of the injustice that I experienced. It's almost like a constant reminder of that violation.

It would be super punk rock to just fucking Yeah, rip them out. Sew back up and then yeah, throw them in, like in like some kind of resin or something. So they're just kind of like, almost like fossils. Yeah. Cool. MoMa, if you're listening, I would be more than happy to be commissioned to get these testicles out of my body and to exhibit them in your space.

ALLISON: Today, River is a working model, actor and filmmaker. Their film Ponyboi premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019. And this year they were selected as a fellow in the  inaugural Sundance Trans Possibilities Intensive. You can learn more about their work on their website, rivergallo.com and instagram, @rivergallo.

For a link to the Bodies podcast facebook group, as well as episode transcripts, and additional resources about intersex conditions... and anorchia, the condition that River has, go to KCRW.com/Bodies.

You can follow Bodies on Twitter and instagram at @bodiespodcast. And you like Bodies, please consider writing us a review on Apple Podcasts — it helps other people find the show.

This episode was produced by Hannah Harris Green and me, Allison Behringer. Story editing by Mira Burt-Wintonick. Additional story editing and advising Cassius Adair. Nisha Venkat is with us as KCRW’s USC Luminary fellow and provided production support. Our team also includes associate producer Kalaisha Totty. Rebecca Mooney is our managing producer. Original score by Dara Hirsch. Mixing by Teeny Lieberson. Special thanks to KalaLea, Sharon Mashihi, Camila Kerwin and Kristen Lepore. Episode art by Neka King. Cover art by Sarah Bachman. Bodies is supported and distributed by KCRW. Thank you to the whole KCRW team. Thanks for listening, see you in two weeks.