Pidgeon Pagonis on Intersex Visibility and Education

Get to know intersex activist and writer Pidgeon Pagonis.

IMAGES Shot by Soraya Zaman

For those who don’t already know, can you tell us about who you are and what you do?

Hello, my name is Pidgeon and I live on the Westside of Chicago. I’m currently focused on writing my first book, cultivating my first garden, raising 2 new kittens and 4 new baby chickens—and I’m intersex! Intersex just means that I, like up to 2% of the population, was born with a body whose biological sex traits don’t conform to either male or female stereotypes. Or as I like to say, intersex people are born with bodies that are too cute to be binary. Lately, I like to also say that I’m your local hermaphrodite with attitude, meaning I’m an intersex person who was harmed by surgeries meant to make my body conform to the binary—and I’m upset about it.

 How can we aim to foster a sense of community while in isolation? 

We just gotta use the tools at our disposal and check in on each other. For me that’s meant sending texts, making phone calls, and most importantly–video chats. I actually bought my almost 90-year-old yia-yia her first piece of technology, an iPad, so that I and others in the family, can FaceTime with her. She’s been doing better than I hoped with it, and has been able to answer some of my FaceTime requests—but usually, I have to call her and tell her to go stand by the iPad and “swipe the green thing.” But yeah, just get creative and really do the work of staying in touch with folks. Connecting with our people is just as important as food and water. We’re social creatures and depend on relationships.

What is your earliest memory of the queer community and how did it make you feel?

I have so many. But one that really stands out is one I share in my first film, The Son I Never Had, and it’s about the time I was in college and still straight and cis identified (I had just recently discovered I was intersex, but I hadn’t told anyone yet) and I saw a group of queer students huddled together in the student centre. They all had really cool haircuts and Tegan and Sara t-shirts. I mean, they didn’t have a sign with them that said, we’re queer, and I didn’t even understand what queer exactly was at the time, but something inside of me yearned to be a part of them. They felt like a home I had once known in a past life. It was such a strange and unsettling feeling for me at the time since I had tried so hard before then to be normal and fit-in like the doctors and my family wanted me to. But ya, that was my first real memory of the queer community and it is something that changed my life.

 What does the word queer mean to you?

Queer means home. It’s the first place I felt like I could relax and be me. I always felt like an alien from another planet until I found queer. It also, for me, is rooted in the rejection of whatever society tries to force us to believe is normal. It’s a rejection of the entire concept of normality. Queer is the opposite of fitting in and striving to conform. It’s like a giant campsite in the middle of the woods away from where you can just be you. It’s not about assimilating, it’s about being uniquely you as loudly (or quietly) as you want. It’s one of the closest ways many of us can get to understanding the concept of freedom.

Do you feel it is crucial as visible queer people to set boundaries so you don’t give too much of yourself? 

OMG YES. I set boundaries with social media so I’m not endlessly scrolling and consequently feeling like poop, but also with what I share and how I respond to messages. So often the part of my work which entails being one of a handful of out intersex people in the world elicits some of the saddest and most infuriating messages from parents and intersex people. People often feel like they have no one else who understands them, or their child, and reach out to me with some of the heaviest stories. My heart breaks into millions of pieces every day because I’m intersex and out. But, I’ve learned ways of coping with this, and that includes having a group of people who I have reached out to, and with their permission, I can redirect these people to. So yes, for me, it’s very important to have boundaries because when I’m overwhelmed I’m the type of person to just withdraw and shut down. So I need boundaries in place in order to help that from happening as often as it was.

Surgeons tell our parents that these surgeries will make us normal, when in fact, we were normal to begin with and the only thing abnormal is the unnecessary surgeries and the physical and emotional scars they leave us with.  

Pidgeon Pagonis

 Much of the conversation surrounding gender and sex often leaves out intersex identities, why do you think this is? 

Because for decades, surgeons and their teams of doctors have worked tirelessly to erase our bodies and identities. They’ve used their trifecta of secrecy, surgery and shame to destroy our bodies and our sense of self. Being intersex is like going on a road trip without a map, it’s very hard to find others like you let alone yourself. And that’s all very intentional on the part of the doctors. For so long, we didn’t even know who we were, so it makes sense that non-intersex people don’t know much about us as well. Lately, we have found ourselves though and the surgeons are terrified.

For those who may not know, can you tell us what intersex is and what are of the misconceptions of intersex bodies are? 

Intersex is an umbrella term people born with a range of sex traits that don’t fit either of society’s (outdated) binary definition of male or female. There are over 25 intersex variations that exist in the world, and people with sex traits that would make them considered to be intersex make up roughly 2% of the population – or 150,540,000 people (~the population of Russia!). Most intersex traits in humans don’t have any life-threatening issue associated with them, instead, our physical differences are treated as social emergencies that must be fixed with nerve-damaging cosmetic surgeries. Surgeons tell our parents that these surgeries will make us normal, when in fact, we were normal to begin with and the only thing abnormal is the unnecessary surgeries and the physical and emotional scars they leave us with.  

Can you tell us about a campaign you are part of called #EndIntersexSurgery and why is it important to discuss? 

So glad you asked! I co-created the Intersex Justice Project (IJP) whose central campaign is #EndIntersexSurgery. IJP is an intersex POC led grassroots organization that fights to end surgeries because we believe that intersex babies deserve to grow up to become unscathed intersex adults. So IJP’s #EndIntersexSurgery campaign is focused on raising awareness about the unnecessary surgeries intersex kids and young adults are forced to endure in order to fit in and demanding an end to them. We are by no means advocating an end to ALL intersex surgery; meaning we are not advocating for a ceasing of any surgery that will help an intersex person live (for example, sometimes the urine passageway is blocked and surgery is needed to correct that) but we are demanding an end to all unnecessary surgeries that are purely cosmetic in nature and those in which the intersex person doesn’t have a say in as an adult. IJP is building from the legacy of ISNA who took to the streets under the banner of Hermaphrodites with Attitude and protested these surgeries in the streets outside of medical conferences and hospitals. Our campaign is an extension of this legacy.

If there is one thing you could say to oppressors of queer people, what would you say?

Karma is a bitch.

Are you optimistic about the future for queer people?

Honestly, I’m not very optimistic about the future for anyone—especially queer people. I know we’ll always persist and make beauty from where there seemingly is none, but the rate at which white-supremacist fascists are rising to power all across the globe is super scary and disheartening. I believe that the world as we know it is coming to an end in the next 50-100 years due to corporate greed, capitalism, all the isms & phobias actually, and ultimately global warming. I think, for this reason, we need to understand the preciousness and temporariness of life and cherish every moment of it that we have left. There’s beauty in accepting that nothing is permanent. A sense of freedom comes. Savouring the now, because the future isn’t guaranteed, is a trait that I think is innate to every queer already. Hopefully, I’m wrong.

Watch Pidgeon’s video below and keep up to date with their work on their Instagram

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