When Pidgeon Pagonis was born in a Chicago hospital 37 years ago, her doctors saw something that alarmed them. “I was born looking feminine on the outside,” Pagonis said, “and then it was discovered that inside my body I didn’t completely have the parts that would be considered feminine.”
Pidgeon (whose birth name is Jennifer) looked like a little girl. But instead of ovaries there were internal testicles, and instead of XX chromosomes, Pidgeon had the XY male combination. Pidgeon Pagonis was born intersex.
And she’s not alone. According to statistics cited by the United Nations, 0.05 to 1.7 percent of the world’s population is intersex. “That’s about the number of people in the state of Minnesota combined, or Japan,” Pagonis said.
Intersex is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a person “having external or internal sexual organs that are not clearly male or female.” But Pagonis said no one has ever used that term to refer to their parents. Instead, the doctors followed what has long been medical practice in this country: making Pidgeon look more physically feminine.
And that involved surgeries. At thirteen months old, the testicles were removed, although, according to Pidgeon, that’s not quite how doctors described it to his parents. “They said, ‘Oh, your daughter, she has these things called gonads, which are kind of like underdeveloped ovaries. And so these underdeveloped ovaries will become cancerous if we leave them in there, and so let’s just take some time so that cancer can never happen later in life.'”
There were more surgeries at age four, and then again at age 12, when the preteen was asked to consent to a procedure known as vaginoplasty. The surgery (which Pidgeon called cosmetic) left scar tissue and pain. “My parents believed what those doctors were saying, which was, ‘We’re going to give your child the best life possible. Everything’s going to be OK.’ And that wasn’t the truth.”
There have always been people with intersex traits, but until recently the term used to describe them was “hermaphrodite” (taken from a winged creature in Greek mythology).
Elizabeth Reis, a professor at the City University of New York, wrote “Body in doubt”, a book about the history of intersex in America. She says those with ambiguous sexual characteristics were considered weird and often feared. “In early America, they really considered hermaphrodites to be monstrous and that it had to be something that Satan was involved in,” she said.
As medical science advanced, Reis explained, and anesthesia became available, doctors began using surgery to “fix” what they considered a disorder: “They thought that if people didn’t “were unsure of their own gender, then they might have romantic inclinations towards sex.” “bad” sex. And they really wanted to avoid homosexuality.
Doctors believed it was best to perform surgery early, before a patient knew they were intersex, based on research conducted in the 1950s by psychologist John Money of the University Johns Hopkins. Reis said: “John Money said the best time to deal with this is during infancy. Sex hasn’t been identified yet. So babies are malleable. You can change their genitals, you can later change their give hormones, you can raise them in a simple way.the gender you thought was most suitable.And everything would be fine.
But it didn’t always go well, Reis said: “I know people who found out much later what happened in their family. Secrecy can be devastating in that way, to find out something about so the doctors told his parents, ‘Don’t tell.'”
This secret is a central theme in Pidgeon’s memoir, “No one needs to know.”
At 18, while in college, Pidgeon finally saw his medical records: “I saw the words ‘male’ first. That’s what struck me. “Pseudohermaphrodite male, 46 XY”. I remember looking in the mirror…I pulled my hair back. And I was studying my face. I was like, ‘Am I a boy? I was born a boy and they made me a girl for some reason.’? And I was so confused. I don’t know how to explain this feeling. It’s like, let’s say you have a compass and you’re in the forest. Now this compass is broken and it’s dark and you don’t know what’s going on. any more and you’re completely lost.”
It was also difficult for Pidgeon’s parents, who had consented over the years to surgeries that doctors told them were necessary for their child to have a normal life. “It’s really hard for them,” Pidgeon said. “They have to live thinking they did the right thing, but live with the fact that I grew up thinking it wasn’t the right thing. But I don’t blame them.”
As a surgical resident in 2008, urologist Dr. Ilene Wong once performed the same type of surgery Pagonis had as a baby. She said: “Intersex conditions have, for a long time, been medicalized and made into a disorder by the medical community. »
Wong now believes the medical community has failed intersex patients: “The most horrifying thing about cosmetic surgeries on intersex children is simply that the results are incredibly poor – the complication rates are probably greater than 50%, resulting in scarring. , leading to chronic pain.
Pidgeon now wonders what life would have been like without the surgeries. Because the testicles that supply hormones were removed, Pidgeon was diagnosed with osteoporosis in his mid-20s. “All they’re doing when they ‘fix’ you and ‘make you normal’ is prepare you for an abnormal experience in this life,” Pidgeon said.
Moriarty asked, “Don’t you think those doctors also thought your life might be easier if you fit this image of a woman?”
“Yes. Of course. They probably do,” Pidgeon replied. “But I would love to have a doctor sit here with me today and say, ‘If I cut off your penis to make you what I think is a normal girl because I think your life would be easier, how would you feel?’ about that, sir?
Pidgeon became an activist within the intersex community, determined to end unnecessary surgeries on intersex infants. In 2020, the hospital that performed Pidgeon’s surgeries, Lurie Children’s in Chicago, released a statement that said, in part: “This approach was harmful and wrong…and we apologize and are truly sorry.” »
Pidgeon Pagonis hopes this word, once rarely spoken out loud, will now become part of the conversation: “There are many intersex people who identify as either female or male. But I ? I’m happy to identify as intersex, and the same for my gender. My gender is not binary.
READ AN EXTRACT:
For more information:
- “No One Needs to Know: A Memoir” by Pidgeon Pagonis (Topple Books & Little A), in hardback, paperback, e-book and audio formats, available via Amazon, Barnes & Nobles And Librairie.org
- Pidgeon Pagonis, intersex activist
- “Body in Doubt: An American History of Intersex” (2nd edition) by Elizabeth Reis (Johns Hopkins University Press), in paperback and e-book format, available via Amazon, Barnes & Nobles And Librairie.org
- Elizabeth Reis, professor, City University of New York
- Urologist Dr. Ilene Wong (IW Gregorio)
Story produced by Kay Lim. Publisher: Georges Pozderec.