Pidgeon Pagonis on finding out they were intersex aged 19: ‘It was earth-shattering’

Pidgeon Pagonis pictured against an edited background with purple and orange hues.

Pidgeon Pagonis was a 19-year-old university student when they realised, with a sudden and terrifying clarity, that they had been lied to. 

They were sitting in class one day when it dawned on them that the story they had been told about themself – that they had cancer as an infant and that their ovaries had been removed – simply didn’t add up.

That day, Pidgeon raced back to their dorm room and called their mother. After years of secrecy, she finally confessed the truth – that Pidgeon had been born intersex. The surgery Pidgeon had as an infant had nothing to do with cancer. Instead, it was one of a series of procedures designed to rid them of all visible intersex traits. 

“They lied to me,” Pidgeon, now 37, tells PinkNews. “It was earth-shattering. I often say that it felt like the wind was kicked out of me. It felt like the ground below me was no longer there, and it felt like I had no rails to hold onto anymore.

“Everything dissolved. Everything that I thought I knew about the world and myself and my relationships with people, and my future, just completely dissolved.” 

In a state of shock, Pidgeon tracked down their medical records. There, glaring at them on the second page of their file, was a term they had never heard before – “male pseudo-hermaphrodite”.

You may like to watch

“I grew up assigned female at birth. I grew up thinking I was a girl. I went to an all-girls’ high school… I never doubted if I was a girl. I just knew I couldn’t have a period and knew I didn’t have my ovaries anymore, and that I had to keep that a secret.

“So there I am, reading these words, ‘male pseudo-hermaphrodite,’ and I had only understood myself as a woman and as a girl. The only word I really understood was ‘male’, and that to me was like, ‘How am I male? That doesn’t make any sense.’”

They can still remember vividly the horror they felt as it dawned on them that everything they had been told about themself was a lie.

“[I was] like, ‘Oh, I’m a monster. I am this thing that people would crack jokes about’ … I just felt completely ashamed, disgusted and scared – and lied to.” 

Pidgeon Pagonis is still dealing with trauma to this day

In the years since, Pidgeon has come to see that what they were put through as a child was abuse. They write about that, and more, in their memoir Nobody Needs to Know

The name of the book comes from the constant barrage of messages they received as a child to keep their alleged ovarian cancer a secret.

“That forces you to grow up pretty quickly – putting a secret like that on a small child and making them hold that in makes you mature in a way that I don’t think children should have to at such an early age.” 

When Pidgeon first learned about the extent of the lies they had been fed, they felt rage – but these days, they mostly feel sorrow. They are still dealing with the ramifications of those lies, and the trauma they endured runs deep.

“When that type of experience happens and you’re lied to, it messes with your trust and your ability to tell who’s safe and who’s not in your life. It rattles you,” they explain.

“As human beings I believe we need relationships as much as we need water and food. I want to cry right now because I wish what they did to us was as simple as being just located in the time and the space that they did it in – then I could just grieve that and move on.

“But for me, and for so many other intersex people … we are struggling every day just to stay alive. And part of why it’s so hard is because it’s so hard for us to have a loving and safe connection with other people.”

Pagonis has fought to end non-consensual intersex surgeries

Once they had gotten to grips with what had happened to them, Pidgeon turned their attention to making sure no other intersex children would have to go through the traumatising, invasive surgeries they were subjected to. 

“I choose to exist as a vehicle for this message that these surgeries need to end on intersex kids and people, and I’ve done that by repeatedly choosing since I was in my early 20s to tell my story and tell the history of what has been happening to us, and to fight against it.”

attends 'Gender Revolution: A Journey With Katie Couric' New York Premiere at TheTimesCenter on February 2, 2017 in New York City.
Pidgeon Pagonis attends ‘Gender Revolution: A Journey With Katie Couric’ New York Premiere at TheTimesCenter on February 2, 2017 in New York City. (Desiree Navarro/WireImage)

It’s been a long, arduous battle – and it hasn’t been anywhere near as easy as they thought it would be when they first started speaking out. 

“Before I gave my first interview, I always thought, ‘Oh, if I just tell my story it’ll get in the newspaper, everyone in Chicago will say this is horrible, and then it will just end the surgeries’,” they say. “And that didn’t happen. At least not that easily.” 

The hospital that performed surgeries on Pidgeon as a baby eventually apologised and pledged to stop performing similar procedures on infants. Pidgeon was “elated” – but they quickly sank into a depression. 

“I had no more purpose,” they share.

In the end, they realised that the goal couldn’t be just to stop one hospital from performing surgeries on intersex children – it would have to go much further than that.

That’s why they have dedicated much of their adult life to campaigning to make things better for the next generation. Pidgeon says it’s their calling – even though it’s not always easy to keep fighting. 

“It’s really hard to spend so much of your days and time and minutes of this precious life on this precious planet constantly diving deeper and swimming in your trauma and the trauma of so many others like you,” they explain.

But they know they must keep fighting – not just for themself, but for so many others like them.

As far as Pidgeon sees it, the fight to end non-consensual surgeries on intersex children is inherently tied to the fight for trans people’s bodily autonomy. That’s come to the fore more than ever with the ever-increasing raft of bills prohibiting gender-affirming care for minors in the United States.

Some of those bills ban gender-affirming surgeries for young people, yet make a point of stating that surgeries should still be allowed to go ahead on intersex children – a double-standard that Queer Eye star and haircare mogul Jonathan Van Ness has previously spoken out about.

“The real intention of these bills is transphobia. It has nothing to do with protecting trans kids or kids in general, because if they did, they would also be trying to prevent surgeries from happening to intersex children,” Pidgeon says.

“I and other intersex people, we’re not against all surgeries from happening – we are only against non-consensual surgeries from being forced on people. We are still pro anyone, trans and intersex adults and young adults, getting the surgeries that they need and want.

“I saw someone say yesterday on Instagram, a trans person, ‘There is no trans debate – I’m a human being, you’re a human being, I get to exist and you get to exist. Let’s stop framing this as a debate of people’s existence.’ And it’s the same for intersex people. 

“There should be no debate or laws trying to say that this stuff has to be forced on us as kids, because there should be no debate on anyone’s autonomy – especially in a country that prides itself and promotes itself as having freedom, liberty and justice for all.

“If that’s [the case], then why are trans people and intersex people not allowed those three aspects that are supposedly baked into the fabric of our country?” 

Nobody Needs to Know: A Memoir by Pidgeon Pagonis is published by Topple Books & Little A and available to buy now.