Pidgeon Pagonis talks us through their journey of discovering they were intersex
DtL: Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your journey so far?
Pidgeon: At an early age, my mum told me, “You were born with cancer in your ovaries, and the doctors had to take them out to save your life. This is why that scar across your abdomen is there. It’s also why you won’t be able to have a period or have babies when you’re older.” I had no reason to believe she might have been lying.
Knowing I couldn’t have kids when I grew up made me really sad. While playing with Barbies and dolls, I often mourned the fact that I wouldn’t ever be able to have a “real” family. I often felt ashamed that I wasn’t like the other women in my life. In 5th grade, a doctor prescribed me Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) medication. Soon after, my body began to show signs that it was entering puberty. I also had a “bladder issue” during that time and underwent a surgery for it—or so I thought.
DtL: When/ how did you discover you were intersex and what impact did that have on you?
Pidgeon: I didn’t learn that I was intersex until I was 18 and finishing my first year of college. Before this, I believed the lie doctors made my parents tell me: I was born with cancerous ovaries that were removed shortly after birth.
My professor had a slide on the projector about an intersex variation called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS). Everything on the slide seemed to match up with my life. Everything, that is, except the bullet point about people born with this variation having XY chromosomes.
“I looked at myself in the mirror, pulled my hair back with the palm of my hand, and studied my features wondering if I was indeed actually a boy”
I was declared female at birth (DFAB), and since I grew up in a society where the sex and gender binary was, and still is, rigid, I struggled to wrap my head around the fact that I—a “woman”— might have XY chromosomes. Yet, my gut told me that AIS must be the reason why I couldn’t get a period or have kids and I did indeed have XY chromosomes. I went back to my dorm with a nervous feeling in my stomach. My mother recently received paper work from my children’s hospital since I was 18, and couldn’t technically be seen by their Pediatric staff any longer. I called my mother and asked her to open up that paper work and tell me if she saw anything about a diagnosis.
“It says, Androgen Insensitivity…,” she confirmed over the phone. My breathing stopped and my mind went blank. To say my world fell apart in that instant would be an understatement. Everything I thought I knew about myself, and the world around me, became jolted. I looked at myself in the mirror, pulled my hair back with the palm of my hand, and studied my features wondering if I was indeed actually a boy.
A few weeks later, I was lucky enough to meet an intersex guest speaker who my professor invited to speak in my class. The intersex speaker, Lynnell Stephani Long, let me know I wasn’t alone, and encouraged me to get my medical records from my children’s hospital which was conveniently located across the street from my university. The first page of my medical records stated that doctors diagnosed me as a male pseudo-hermaphrodite with 46XY chromosomes when I was only 6 months old. After being told my entire life by family and physicians that I was a girl, reading that doctors declared me a male pseudo-hermaphrodite knocked the wind out of me.
“My medical records stated that doctors diagnosed me as a male pseudo-hermaphrodite”
I also learned that I didn’t have cancer in my ovaries as an infant, but that doctor’s talked my parents into letting them remove my internal testes when I was one in a procedure called a Gonadectomy. The reason? They told my parents I was a normal girl, but only partially developed, and so they needed to remove my partially developed ovaries or “gonads” in order to prevent them from turning cancerous later in life.
Yet, that wasn’t even the most egregious thing I read. I also learned that when I was only four years old, surgeons removed my slightly larger than average (then again, what’s average?) clitoris in a procedure called a Clitorectomy. Sound familiar? That’s because Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM) are similar procedures.
Lastly, I discovered another surgery I underwent when I was 11, for an issue with my “bladder”, was in fact a vaginoplasty. It left me with with scar tissue, nerve damage and lots of shame regarding my genitalia.
“Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM) are similar procedures”
DtL: Have you ever experienced bullying? If so, can you tell us what happened and how you handled the situation?
Pidgeon: When I didn’t go through puberty at the same time as the other kids in school, some started to pick on me for being “flat chested”. I was also tormented by some because I was hairier than others, and some took it upon themselves to constantly point out my “moustache” and other hairy features. Lastly, kids would sometimes make fun of me because I was part Mexican saying some really hateful things about Mexican people to me and in front of me. I internalised these messages and began to hate myself. I lost a lot of respect and love for myself. It began a very dark period.
DtL: What advice would you give to those who may be experiencing bullying/prejudice/negativity because of attitudes towards their gender identity?
Pidgeon: Ignore them. Go on tumblr. Focus on your passions. Read affirmations. Link up with other people like you if you can in support groups online or in person. Smile every time a hater hates on you because it means you’re doing something right. You’re amazing. They are hurt people and remembering this can help give you a little bit of understanding into why they are doing the things they are doing. But, you can’t change them, you can only change yourself and how you react, so focus on your healing.
“My physicians performed medically unnecessary, non-consensual, nerve damaging surgeries on me in order to prevent future distress (aka gender dysphoria), and in turn created the exact outcome they claimed they were trying to prevent”
DtL: What is it like to be intersex in 2016 and what needs to change?
Pidgeon: I’m 30 now, and it’s been 10 years or so since I first read those records. I’ve never come to a place of acceptance about what they’ve done to me—and I likely never will—but I have come to accept, and even embrace, that I was born intersex like 1 in 2,000 people out there. While I embrace being intersex, I also mourn what the medical industrial complex did to me to prevent me from ever knowing what it would be like to experience this world, especially intimate
relationships, with the beautiful intersex body I was born with. My physicians performed medically unnecessary, non-consensual, nerve damaging surgeries on me in order to prevent future distress (aka gender dysphoria), and in turn created the exact outcome they claimed they were trying to prevent. This needs to end, like yesterday.
DtL: If you could go back in time, what one thing would you tell your younger self?
Pidgeon: I would give myself the instruction on how build a time machine, travel to year 2016, download and listen to Princess Nokia’s Tomboy track off her EP titled 1992 —which has a verse that says “With My lil titles and my fat belly” and listen on repeat. Also, let yourself know that you’re going to figure it out and come to accept everything—it’s going to be okay one day.
DtL: What has been your proudest moment so far?
Pidgeon: Getting an award from the white house with my dad in the audience.
DtL: Is there anything you would like to add?
Pidgeon: After coming to terms that there is no going back—that there is no magic pill or surgery that could bring my original body back—I set my sights on making sure other intersex kids won’t have to go through what I went through.
Initially, anger was my driving force and I channeled my rage into fuel for my activism. It kept me alive during a time when suicide felt like a constant looming alternative.
A few years after discovering the truth, I was invited to participate as a young intersex activist in a then brand new intersex youth organisation called Inter/Act. My involvement with Inter/Act – which eventually evolved in a job with the organisation as the youth leadership coordinator led to opportunities that afforded me the ability to advocate for my community on a national and international level. In doing that type of advocacy work I was able to come into contact with intersex activists and allies from all across the globe.
“Suicide felt like a constant looming alternative”
Meeting other out intersex individuals was a struggle at first. For the longest time, I only really knew one other intersex person and that was Lynnell (the guest speaker in my class). Eventually, after giving some talks in the city, I was able to meet a few intersex people who have either outed themselves as intersex in the q&a, or came up to me afterwards and disclosed in private that they too were intersex.
Now, it seems like everyone’s intersex—JK. But for real, it’s a lot easier it seems to come across people who identify as intersex, and I think that has a lot to do with all of the work intersex activists and advocates have been doing since the early 90s. Today, you can literally turn on the TV and watch an intersex character on the MTV show Faking It! There just seems to be so much more intersex information out there today, then 10 years ago, thanks largely in part to social media.