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”

 

[full-width-figure image=”https://www.ditchthelabel.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/pidgeon_headshot-9.jpg”]

 

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.

[full-width-figure image=”https://www.ditchthelabel.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/680PAGONIA_web.jpg”]

 

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.

 

www.pidgeonismy.name

@pidgejen

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Award-winning playwright, filmmaker and published author Alec Butler was born intersex and now identifies as trans. Here they blog about their experiences.

*Note to Reader: Alec uses pronouns I/we throughout the article

This moment right now is our proudest moment, to be an award winning playwright and filmmaker, a published author, a budding scholar at one of the most prestigious research universities in the world, is a dream I dreamed for myself for years.

We were born with an intersex condition over fifty years ago; there was no closet for someone like us growing up. We were both teased and threatened about whether we were a boy or a girl every day at school; bullied on a regular basis in the locker-lined hallways. The teachers did nothing; my parents worried about whether I would end up dead. Instead of dwelling on a reality where we were not wanted, we found solace in writing and making art, reading stacks of books at the local library, biding our time until we were in a position to leave a community where we were not wanted.

I left home on a quest to find other people like us, aware that there were gods/goddesses like me in myths only according to what we were reading in the encyclopedias at the library. In the Greek myths, Teresias, the doubled sexed seer caught my imagination.

“The teachers did nothing; my parents worried about whether I would end up dead.”

 

In the mid 1980’s I moved to Toronto, Canada where I lived as a butch lesbian for decades, making a name for myself as a playwright in the queer Canadian theatre scene, writing, producing and directing plays about lesbian life in the big city. Getting nominated for a national drama award while at the same time couch surfing with friends because we were homeless. Such is the precarious life of marginalised artists in this society.

In the late 1990’s while performing a monologue by Pussy Boy, a film character I was developing at the “Counting Past Two Festival”, the first literary and film festival featuring the work of trans people in Canada is where I heard the word “intersex” for the first time, struck a deep chord in the core of our being.

I researched the many intersex conditions that exist on the worldwide web.

A memory of my mother telling me about a drug her doctor made her take while she was pregnant with us bubbled to the surface. I realised we were born with the one intersex condition caused by medical intervention in utero, lucky us. I often wondered if we were the result of a medical experiment when I was a kid. Thoughts that inspired many sci-fi short stories in my mind, turns out we were not too far off the mark. Since those young fantasies of being special, or an alien from another planet, I discovered that people like us, people who identify with both genders, or none, have existed since human beings have existed, that we were worshipped as deities, that masses of people performed special rituals in our honour, we had sacred and practical roles in the community, we were wanted and desired.

“I realised we were born with the one intersex condition caused by medical intervention”

 

In North America before colonisation, First Nations recognised people like us as healers and teachers called Two-Spirits. Our mixed race family background is a result of colonisation of Canada; our ancestors are First Nations, French, Irish, as well as African on my mother’s side, my grandmother Nanny, was a descendent of the first 250 slaves brought to Cape Breton, a small island on the east coast of Canada. It was on this island in New France where the first point of contact between European and Indigenous people was established, the island where Fortress Louisburg was built 400 years ago, a huge military complex that controlled the trade routes of the New World. In was from our favourite beach at Kennington Cove that Captain Cook launched his curriculum trip around the globe in the 18th Century.

In the 1960’s a section of Fortress Louisburg was rebuilt as a tourist attraction, my father worked there as a carpenter. We lived a twenty-minute car ride down the road from what was once the epicentre of the colonisation, the main port of resource extraction from North America on behalf of the King of France. Today the colonisation continues unabated, it is still in progress. The colonised mind is the root of the mentality of people that bully; colonisation is the birthplace of feeling entitled to take what does not belong to you without asking.

Over the years, since coming out as trans we have made it our mission to decolonize our mind and our community, but the forces of colonisation have been at this for hundreds of years, destroying not only the land, cultures, food and living resources, the very spirits of the indigenous people they encountered and in the process almost wiped out the many beautiful gender expressions that have existed since the dawn of humanity.

We need to remember as Two-Spirit, gender queer, non-binary people that we are the descendants of these LGBTQI2S ancestors who were almost exterminated but they did not succeed because we are still here, that we exist as flesh, blood, guts and bones, mind and spirit, living lives of purpose and pride, we are not just myths in stories from the past.

If I had a message to give to my past self from what I know now it would be to love myself more, by using my voice more not just bury myself in books, thoughts and dreams about how it could be different, although dreaming is an important stage in decolonizing the mind, it is equally important to speak up and act. It’s now the 21st century, trans people have made unprecedented gains in getting their humans rights recognised but a vicious backlash has ensued in response, black trans woman bare the brunt of the backlash, Trans Day of Remembrance is a mass communal memorial to the hundreds we lose to violence every year. So speaking up, not being a bystander when witnessing abuse is more crucial than ever, not just for trans people but for all people who are bullied.

 

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