From a young age, River Gallo’s parents had disclosed that they were different from other children.

Born intersex in New Jersey, their parents opted for Gallo to undergo surgery at 16 and administered hormones so that they could live life as a “normal” male.

Gallo spent most of their youth hiding, but one could also argue developing a hunger to explore every fiber of their being. 

This was a time when gayness was still coming into fruition in the media, so the world wasn’t attuned to the intersex identity. Still, Gallo understood visibility could only begin to happen if one brave person took charge of their marginalization. 

While studying theater at NYU, Gallo decided to explore their identity through a 40-minute performance art piece. This endeavor laid the foundation for the release of Ponyboi in 2019, the first short film produced and starring an intersex person. 

Ironically, during the research for the film, which served as Gallo’s USC grad school thesis, they encountered the term that empowered them to vocalize their identity.

Intersex can be applied to a variety of situations in which a person is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the boxes of “female” or “male.”  

Gallo wrote in a personal piece for Them, “I felt a palpable surge of love and pride for my body for the first time.”

The road to self-discovery and identity isn’t linear, often due to a lack of access to education and resources. The doctors who surveyed Gallo during their teenage years focused on masculinization rather than explaining the science. 

The actor continued to use “he” pronouns at the time until “they/them” became a widespread cultural entity with which people could identify. 

It seemed that society could only be ready if given a chance, and Gallo’s 19-minute short film was praised by film festivals worldwide.

They proudly stepped into the shoes of an intersex advocate and felt determined to continue making “confessionary art that celebrates secrets and exorcises shame.”

This past year, the multi-hyphenate actor has enveloped their entire history into one last intersex hurrah: turning Ponyboi into a genre-blending feature-length road movie weaving elements of crime, action, and gritty comedy. The movie launched Gallo into the national press and gave their identity a permanent home in entertainment. 

The film was showcased as an entry at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, and Gallo believes anybody can relate to the protagonist, an intersex sex worker hustling to survive in New Jersey.

Ok, perhaps most folks aren’t working in a strip mall laundromat during the day and doing sex work at night, but many can understand the chains often imposed by being born into an identity labeled “lesser than” and difficult circumstances.

“People do want Ponyboi to be one thing, and perhaps Ponyboi has a curiosity to be a singular thing…” they told Vanity Fair. “That’s not exclusive to queer cinema, it’s a universal story. Being more intimate with uncertainty and the process of ‘becoming’ becomes really cool.”

Gallo told The Daily Beast that movies have the power to create new dialogue and revolutionary discourse in the culture, one that changes hearts and minds.

But anyone following the filmmaker’s career knows that cinema also has the power to usher disenfranchised generations of talent into the limelight, a spotlight only reachable with unabashed self-acceptance.

Ponyboi might be as enthralling as it is educational, but it’s also inspiring a seldom seen group of people to take a leap of faith in themselves.

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